Monday, October 22, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Trans-Siberian’s Freight Capacity Must Expand Dramatically if Russia is to Play a Major Role in Asia-Europe Shipping, Analyst Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 22 – The existing infrastructure of the Trans-Siberian railway is not capable of supporting President Vladimir Putin’s plan to make Russia a major transshipment route between Asia and Europe, according to a Russian analyst. On the one hand, the Trans-Siberian is not large enough; and on the other, it is currently being used to capacity.

            At present, Dmitry Verkhoturov writes in today’s “Novoye Vostochnoye Obozreniye,” the only advantage Russia has is geography. Moreover, existing Moscow proposals about increasing transit by only 12 million tons by 2020 are simply “laughable” in comparison with the “colossal” trade flows between Asia and Europe (

            Making the Trans-Siberian a major carrier of container traffic have been under discussion “for more than a decade,” the analyst says, but they have gone nowhere both because of references to “bureaucratic difficulties” and the silent opposition of Russian shipping companies who aren’t interested in a new competitor to their sea routes.

            But the real “serious difficulties” involved in the development of a Russian rail transit route are connected with something else, Verkhoturov says, pointing to “the not very high carrying capacity of Russian railroads and [their] inability” to ensure the delivery of goods they carry in a timely fashion.

            The entire carrying capacity of the Trans-Siberian, he continues, is about 120 million tons a year, “or about 13 percent of the total of container goods trade between Europe and Asia.” That might be fine, but “the Trans-Siberian hardly stands empty.” Russian Far Eastern producers would like to send 100 million tons, but the Trans-Siberian can meet only 52 million of that.

            Indeed, Russian officials say, “today the Trans-Siberian is one of the most heavily trafficked lines in the world. It carrying capacity is practically exhausted.”
            Some observers believe that this means that Russia must build “a new railroad,” but that is not the case, Verkhoturov continues. What is needed is to develop and create a railroad “transportation system” that would “at a minimum,” carry a billion tons a year or still better 1.5 billion tons.

            If Russia did so, then and only then, the analyst writes, could one speak “seriously” about Moscow’s control of 40 to 50 percent of the container traffic between Europe and Asia as well as other goods and materials not packed in containers.

            Such figures may appear from the realm of fantasy, Verkhoturov says, because they mean that Russia will need to increase the carrying capacity of the Trans-Siberian “five or six or even ten to twelve times.”

            President Putin “is searching for ambition projects in the Far East,” Verkhoturov says. “Such a road is an ambitious one and throws into the shadows all known transport schemes.” No one had done something like this, a project that would combine new technologies and cost “hundreds of billions if not trillions” of dollars of “foreign capital.”

            Because of these and other obstacles, it seems unlikely that Moscow will expand the Trans-Siberian railway’s carrying capacity by anything like that amount over the next decade or two. More likely, Moscow has announced plans to construct 30 more icebreakers by 2030 so that the Northern Sea Route can carry more freight (

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