When the Soviet Union's existence ended in 1991, its largest constituent Russia was forced into a reassessment of its future. The world's biggest country now has fittingly big ambitions for its railways, and not just as a domestic resource. However, the challenges are large and complex. From the Baltic to the Pacific and from the Arctic to the Black Sea, the rail network's coverage and the means to sustain and improve it are vast.
Wars and the Cold War meant that historically railways had as much a strategic as an economic rationale, yet at times resources were scarce. The Commonwealth of Independent States maintained association of many former Soviet territories, although the earlier years' planned economy meant that some manufacturing specialisations fell outside the reconstituted Russia (as with electric multiple units in Latvia). Moreover, authorities needed realignment on a national rather than collective basis.
The largest system in the world with well over 80,000km (50,000 miles) of track, it is all controlled by Russian Railways (Rossiyskie Zheleznye Dorogi/RZD). This 100% government-owned monopoly which is easing more towards autonomous control claims to handle 83% of the country's freight (when excluding pipe-line movements), which due to a very high share of bulk commodity movements amounts to around 40% by value. It also accounts for 5% of Russian electricity use.
Distance and climatic extremes have limited reliance upon road transport, although those distances and industry deregulation has encouraged airline growth. RZD's passenger market share is 40%, approximating to 1.3 billion passenger journeys, these vital to the economy and with considerable subsidy. The more intensive rail concentration lies in Europe, which also contains most high-volume suburban systems.
Now Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin said in May 2008 that "without infrastructure, Russia has no future", a reference wider than railways, yet illustrating the power base for investment.
Earlier in 2008 RZD indicated that preliminary works on the North Siberian Railway ('SevSib') would start before the year's end for a 2015 opening. RZD envisages 60 million tonnes of freight and seven million passengers being carried annually by 2025.
Presented as a joint state and private investor scheme with upper cost estimates approaching $21bn, it awaits funding confirmation. The 2,000km SevSib system has particular relevance to power projects in the Tomsk region.
Here as elsewhere, it is the revenue from the sale of Russia's plentiful natural resources, notably fuels, coupled with increasing the ability to exploit them, that is powering rail investment.
INTERNATIONAL CONNECTIONS AND INFLUENCE
Re-admitted in 2006 after 57 years as a full International Union of Railways member, Russia's rail interests are increasingly looking beyond national boundaries. In spite of an $800m construction project cancellation in Saudi Arabia within a few months of its January 2008 announcement, RZD has emerged as a force in international rail planning and construction.
It is contracted to build a 500km line in Libya, and after years of negotiation seems set to participate in the restoration of the line linking Russia and North Korea. Part of its broadening of international activities, RZD's interest in Deutsche Bahn shares emerging from the 2008 privatisation met a mixed reception, with potential Russian state ownership of part of Germany's identity carrying an emotional as well as a business aspect.
In early 2008 RZD took over operating the railways of former Soviet republic Armenia under a 30-year agreement. With a reported commitment of $230m during the first five years for essential infrastructure restoration and rolling stock improvements, the network will eventually facilitate through freight services to neighbouring Azerbaijan and Turkey.
A much longer-term project may see Russia linked, albeit with a gauge change, via a new line through Mongolia to China, another project with direct reference to moving bulk materials.
The potential of Eurasian rail traffic as a competitor to marine shipments was demonstrated in January 2008 with the 15-day/9,780km (6,110 mile) transit of a Beijing-Hamburg container train, much over RZD's Trans-Siberian Railway.
FROM THE ARCTIC TO THE GULF
A notable project, and one currently in the shadow of international tension, is that to create the first continuous rail route from the Arctic to the Persian Gulf. On 8 May 2008 the Iranian FARS News Agency reported that Russia, Turkmenistan and Iran were co-operating to construct a 900km (560 mile) line.
The line will pass through Turkmenistan, oil producer and holder of the world’s fifth largest reserve of natural gas, en route from Uzen in Kazakhstan to Gorgan in Iran. With Indian involvement with the Iranian infrastructure project announced in April 2008, shipments between the ports of Mumbai and Bandar Abbas in Iran would effectively extend this intermodal service to the Asian sub-continent.
An initial five million tonnes of freight is expected to be carried from an opening set for late 2011, this anticipated to more than double. For Turkmenistan, oil producer and holder of the world's fifth-largest reserve of natural gas, the line offers more options for distributing its asset to world markets.
It equally offers access to energy sources for the countries connected by the line, also for other goods.
In 2007 Russia and Iran agreed to work together on rail infrastructure, with RZD initially involved in electrification of the 50km (31 miles) between Tabriz and Azarshahr in Iran. This should preface electrifying the 800km (500 miles) east from Tehran to Mashhad. Projects for new lines and further electrification may follow.
STOCK EXPANSION AND RENEWAL
With infrastructure expansion and improvement under way, rolling stock is also the subject of change. Manufactured in Germany and to be covered by a 30-year maintenance agreement as part of the €600m contract, the first four of eight ICE3-based Siemens Velaro RUS are due to enter service from 2009 on the Moscow-St Petersburg line.
Indicative of Russia's drive for modern rail services, St Petersburg is set to link via Finnish high-speed lines to Helsinki by 2011. Using Alstom Pendolino stock and including 415km (260 miles) of new track, the project cost of €2.2m is being funded by RZD and the Russian Investment Fund.
More relevant to mainstream activities, in May 2008 RZD announced a need for 11,675 locomotives between 2008 and 2015, with another a further 11,722 needed 2016–2030. By 2007 over 70% of electric locos and 84% of diesels were still in service beyond what would be regarded as the normal operational life.
Extending from initial links in the 1990s and an order of traction equipment for the EP10 dual-voltage locomotives, the country's biggest rolling stock company Transmashholding and Bombardier Transportation (as Bombardier Transportation Transmashholding AG) are creating a new joint venture based in Russia.
Announced in May 2008, a new plant will produce RZD's next generation of electric freight locos using asynchronous propulsion technology.
Key to growth and survival in the past, Russia shows few doubts about the importance of its railways for the future. With the development of international freight corridors, unlocking its power reserves, creating business opportunities on other national networks and planning for stock modernisation on an epic scale, Russian rail is advancing on many fronts.