Once valued by freight shippers as a cheaper option to the sea route between Asia and Europe before losing customers in the turmoil after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Trans-Siberian Railway, Russia’s main artery traversing the Eurasian continent, is getting a refit.

Improvements are rapidly being made to allow trains to travel faster and carry more freight in a bid to revive the line’s leading logistical role in connecting Asia, which has emerged as a driving force of the world economy, and Europe.

The renewed attention toward the railway, which is the world’s longest at about 9,300 kilometers, also comes as the coronavirus pandemic causes a sharp decline in air cargo capacity and amid congestion at sea freight terminals and soaring costs for shipments between Asia and Europe.

In late May, construction was underway in Andrianovskaya, southwest of Irkutsk, one of the major cities in eastern Siberia, to shave mountainsides in order to straighten the curve of the railway line.

Dump trucks came and went, raising dust as they crossed unpaved roads, and about 60 workers had set up camps nearby. The work is part of a project to increase the average speed of the trains from 60 km per hour to 80 km per hour.

“Improving speed is indispensable for service expansion. But we also need to reduce the risk of derailments, which tend to happen as trains get faster and longer,” said Sergei Fursov, an engineer for the eastern Siberian branch of Russian Railways.

The series of improvements will see the number of freight carriages increased by 20%, reaching a maximum length of 1 km. Railway operators are also working to resolve long-standing problems such as train delays and cargo damage.

Construction work is underway on the Baikal-Amur Mainline's Baikalsky tunnel in the mountains near Severobaykalsk in the Russian Republic of Buryatia on May 26. | KYODO
Construction work is underway on the Baikal-Amur Mainline’s Baikalsky tunnel in the mountains near Severobaykalsk in the Russian Republic of Buryatia on May 26. | KYODO

The total freight transport capacity of the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Baikal-Amur Mainline, which traverses eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East north of and running parallel to the TSR, was 144 million tons in 2020, marking a 50% increase from 2012.

During the pandemic, the number of passenger flights connecting Asia and Europe dropped significantly, which resulted in precipitous declines in air cargo capacity. As sea freight charges have also risen, transportation capacity connecting east and west has been under strain.

With the timetable of the Trans-Siberian Railway suffering from overcrowding, high expectations have been placed on work to completely remodel the Baikal-Amur Mainline as a bypass to expand freight capacity. With a view to exporting coal, oil, and timber along the line to Asia, construction work will proceed toward complete double-tracking by the end of 2024.

The Baikalsky tunnel, the second-longest railway tunnel in Russia with a total length of under 7 km, has been constructed in the mountains two hours from Severobaykalsk in Buryatia. The double-tracking work has reached the final stages there.

Vladimir Goncharov, deputy director in the department of construction preparation, said the expansion is aimed at supporting exports of resources especially to countries in Asia.

“We will support the expansion of resource exports to China, Japan and South Korea. It will also be useful for the development of areas along the railway line.”

Among companies in Asian countries looking to benefit from the service expansions are two Japanese logistic firms. Hankyu Hanshin Express Co. and Toyo Trans Inc. have begun regular freight services with ships departing from Toyama New Port in Toyama Prefecture and docking at Vladivostok, the largest Russian port on the Pacific Ocean and one of the line’s terminuses.

The two firms ostensibly operate separate services but use the same shipping freight and train line. The cargo is transshipped to the railway in Vladivostok, bonded until arrival in Poland and transported throughout Europe.

A photo taken on May 28 shows a passenger train running on the Baikal-Amur Mainline on the shores of Lake Baikal in Severobaykalsk, Russia. | KYODO
A photo taken on May 28 shows a passenger train running on the Baikal-Amur Mainline on the shores of Lake Baikal in Severobaykalsk, Russia. | KYODO

Since the first shipment left port on Feb. 2, the freights have continued, more or less, at a pace of once every two weeks.

A spokesperson for Hankyu Hanshin said there has been steady customer demand and many inquiries.

Isao Takahashi, president of Toyo Trans, said disruption affecting international transportation during the pandemic has resulted in keen interest in the railway.

“Containers are piling up at major European ports and ships are waiting offshore. There had also been a standstill in maritime routes due to the grounding accident that occurred in the Suez Canal,” Takahashi said. “As efforts intensify for decarbonization, we are marketing new international logistic routes.”

Aside from making improvements to the Trans-Siberian Railway, efforts are also underway to protect the environment from potential hazards that could result from boosting its capacity.

There is a section where the railroad tracks meet Lake Baikal, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site dubbed “The Pearl of Siberia.” European customers are closely watching to ensure the cherished natural resource is protected.

In 2019, an emergency response team base was set up along the Baikal Amur Mainline. Regular training will be conducted on ships and recovery vehicles to minimize the impact of freight trains derailing and oil reaching the lake. An official in charge estimates that recovery can be conducted within four hours.

The Russian government also plans to tighten its regulations. Vyacheslav Zdor, director for the center for environmental protection, said, “It is our responsibility to mitigate the environmental impact while developing the railway.”

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