Staunton, April 24 – Since tsarist times, Russian governments have laid railroad tracks 1520 millimeters apart and not the 1485 mm that is the standard gage almost everywhere else, a difference Russian officials see enhancing their national security in the case of invasion but one that adds to the costs moving cargo across Russian borders.
Now in a concession to Beijing, Moscow has agreed to build an international standard gage rail route between the Chinese border and a Russian port, a move that is unprecedented and will be of concern both to those who fear expanded Chinese influence in the Far East and to those who may now conclude that Russia will make similar adjustments elsewhere.
Russian officials have played down the implications of this move, noting that it involves only 100 kilometers of track between the Chinese border and a Russian port, but as Anastasiya Bashkatova, the deputy economics editor of “Nezavisimaya gazeta” notes, “Beijing is not inclined to underrate the importance of this precedent (ng.ru/economics/2016-04-25/1_knr.html).
But even if Russian officials try to play down the significance of this concession, she continues, others will not. The Russian gage tracks have always been viewed in that country as “a question of state security’” and “however close Russia’s economic ties have been with Europe, the European gage never appeared” on Russian territory.”
Vladimir Savchuk, a senior researcher on railroad transport at the Moscow Institute of Problems of Natural Monopoly, said this special agreement with China was appropriate especially since Moscow will be able to add a third rail so that Russian-gage trains can use it as well.
Such a three-rail system, he pointed out, exists in Belarus near the Polish border and in Russian near the Chinese border at Grodekovo.
But Chinese officials are delighted with what they call “Moscow’s initiative” because it “’means the appearance of big chances for Chinese entrepreneurs who want to enter the Russian markets.’” And as Bashkatova points out, “no one is giving any guarantees that in the future China will not begin lobbying for the extension of its railroad network inside Russia.”