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Flashy Sapsan Doesn?€™t Count as Modernization

On April 11, the new high-speed Sapsan train that runs between Moscow and St. Petersburg was stopped for several hours. A foreign object was hung fr om the overhead cable that delivers electricity to the train. When a rod connecting the train to the cable ran up against the object, the cable broke loose at high speed and shattered the train’s windshield. Fortunately, the train’s engineers and passengers were not injured, but a large section of track lost electricity, bringing the Sapsan and other trains to a standstill. Passengers, who had paid fr om 2,200 rubles to 6,700 rubles ($75-$230) for a ticket, sat in their seats in complete darkness for hours until the problem was corrected.

In the short span of time since the Sapsan began operations on Dec. 18, it has been attacked or vandalized 14 times — in most cases by local residents who live along the train’s route. Russian Railways ignored their interests when it bought the expensive German train and pompously proclaimed the start of “an epoch of high-speed rail traffic in Russia.”

The Sapsan train reflects how the modernization program announced by President Dmitry Medvedev is little more than a sham.

The Sapsan is a run-of-the mill high-speed train that you would find in any European city, but in Russia it travels at a far slower speed. In Europe, these trains run at 300 kilometers per hour, but in Russia the Sapsan travels much slower because no special railway was built for the train. In Europe, these high-speed railways don’t usually pass through towns, roads or pedestrian crossings. The railways are bordered by fencing or walls for security purposes and to prevent the trains from bothering the areas along the route. The situation with the Sapsan is completely the opposite. It uses the old Russian railways that were laid during tsarist and Soviet times and pass through hundreds of cities and villages. These railways are built on a roadbed that is not designed for high-speed trains, and the Sapsan must share the tracks with rickety, old commuter and oil-tanker trains.

Anyone who has traveled on the same type of train in Europe can attest to the fact that the Sapsan is not your typical European high-speed train. It rattles, squeaks and shakes much like a Russian-made passenger train. Much worse, though, the Sapsan can be a lethal instrument. According to Interior Ministry data, the train has caused the deaths of at least three people during its four months of operation, and many more have been injured. There are two reasons for these casualties. First, many crossings lack proper overpasses or underpasses, and, second, the train passes through hundreds of population centers, including Tver, a city of about 400,000. The Transportation Ministry has acknowledged that special, separate railways should be constructed for the safe use of Sapsan trains.

As usual, government officials did not properly evaluate all of the consequences of the new train beforehand — not only from the standpoint of traffic and personal safety along its route, but also from a social and an economic standpoint. Although the Sapsan serves the needs of the business and political elite living in Moscow and St. Petersburg, it greatly complicates the lives of tens of thousands of ordinary residents in the Leningrad, Novgorod, Moscow and Tver regions.

It has also caused problems for residents in Moscow and St. Petersburg proper. Since the number of passenger railway slots is lim ited along the Moscow-St. Petersburg route, popular “budget trains” were canceled to make way for the Sapsan. Dozens of convenient trains that had been used by both commuters and by children going to and from school were also eliminated. These trains had provided vital means of transportation wh ere paved roads either don’t exist or are in bad condition. The situation will only become worse this summer as dacha season begins and countless residents of both capitals encounter major transportation difficulties trying to reach their summer homes.

Typical of the authorities’ decision-making style, they did not conduct a single public hearing with the local population prior to launching the Sapsan. In fact, only recently Tver Governor Dmitry Melanin promised to deal with the problems local residents face in connection with the high-speed train. In the meantime, locals pelt the Sapsan trains with rocks and even shoot at them with rifles.

Russian Railways purchased eight high-speed trains from Munich-based Siemens. The price: 276 million euros ($374 million), plus 354 million euros ($479 million) for maintaining the trains over the next 30 years. The rails on which it rides were supplied by the Japanese. That contract did absolutely nothing to boost the modernization of Russian-made trains, locomotives or rails. Right next to the Sapsan, the same dirty and rusty commuter trains with coal-fired furnaces continue to run. But for some reason, Russian Railways could not find any money to modernize those trains.? 

That is how Kremlin-style modernization looks: Brand-new, shiny and expensive foreign-made “gadgets” are purchased for the wealthy to play with, while the opinions, interests and even the lives of ordinary Russians are neglected. As the country continues to deteriorate, the authorities throw up new Potemkin villages that are only a cheap imitation of progress. Importing the trappings of modernization while doing nothing to actually develop the country is the only way that the Kremlin understands modernization.

And the problems will get only worse. New high-speed trains will soon be introduced to run between St. Petersburg and Helsinki and between Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod. Now is the time for those residents to prepare for the next round of Kremlin modernization. They will soon have to find alternate routes to their work, schools and dachas.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.

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