Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Russia Needs Domestic Air Routes More than New Railways, Inozemtsev Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 11 – To link the country together in the 21st century, the Russian Federation should be promoting the development of domestic air routes instead of building new rail lines, according to Vladislav Inozemtsev. But unfortunately and reflecting Moscow’s conservatism and corruption, it is doing just the opposite.

            In today’s “Vedomosti,” Inozemtsev, who heads the Moscow Center for Research on Post-Industrial Society, argues that Moscow is making a major mistake in continuing to spend money on railways and especially high-speed links rather than choosing to invest in the development of air links (vedomosti.ru/opinion/news/12987471/vozduh_protiv_relsa?full#cut).

            Indeed, he writes “for half the price of a hypothetic rapid railway between Moscow and Kazan, it would be possible to make all of Russia much more united and without quotation marks” by building more airports and allowing for more regular flights not just between regional centers and the capital but among those centers.

            For Russian railways to recoup the cost of a high speed train between Moscow and Kazan alone, he points out, would take 89 years if all the fares were spent entirely on retiring the amount the Russian government plans to spend and up to 50 years if, as would certainly be the case, some of that money would be spent on the operation of that line.

            Russia is “a great railroad power,” Inozemtsev says, occupying third place (behind only the United States and China) in terms of the length of its tracks. But because of its enormous side, Russia has one of the least dense rail networks in the world, one that is an order of magnitude less dense that that found in Germany, Italy and France.

            The “golden age” of railroads occurred in the 1950s, when trains carried approximately 40 to 60 percent of the goods in Europe and the United States. But now this figure has fallen to 38 percent in the US, to 17.5 percent in Canada and to 8.2 percent in 15 countries of the European Union.

            That decline in traffic has been paralleled by a decline in the length of the rail networks.  In the US, rail lines fell from 409,000 km to 225,000; in India, from 114,000 to 64,000; and in Britain from 34,000 to 16,000. Moreover, in large countries like Russia, the fashion of high speed rail appears to have passed. China is the only exception to this pattern.

            In contrast, air traffic has boomed, especially in large countries with dispersed populations.  Canada has more than 752 airports with regular flights and another 1700 to service private planes. In Brazil, these figures are 718 and 3545; in Indonesia, 683and more than 2400; and in the US, 15,000 airports with concrete runways alone.

            In the Russian Federation, on the other hand, the number of airports is now 257, down from 1302 in 1992, despite the enormous distances within the country and the absence of roads and rail lines in many places. As a result, only 39 percent of Russia’s air passengers are flying on domestic routes.

            The Russian government, Inozemtsev says, does not appear capable of developing the air sector but “nonetheless defends it from competition,” in ways that prevent private interests and especially foreign investors from getting involved.  Given that the latter would find it relatively easy to pay for new airports in Russia. That is a tragedy.

            “In any case,” he writes, “for six to eight billion US dollars, the eastern regions of the country could be covered by a network of completely contemporary airports especially if they were constructed by private investors rather than government corporations,” much less than the cost of a high speed train between Moscow and Kazan.

According to Inozemtsev, the explanation for Moscow’s failure to do so lies in the following reality: “the aviation branch is too contemporary for our ‘statified’ country, which lives by the rules of hands on management,” values “not flexibility but stability,” and “not the result but the sum of money spent.”

           And that is related to another problem: the intertwined interests of those who control the railways now and the powers that be.  As Saltykov-Shchedrin noted: “In all countries, railroads serve for transportation; but with us, they are more important as a source of theft.”  According to Inozemtsev, that still “explains a lot.”

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