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ECONOMY-RUSSIA: Moscow Dreams of Big Bucks in Transcontinental Routes

Sergei Blagov

MOSCOW, Jan 31 2001 (IPS) - Russia has long dreamt of being the bridge that brings the continents closer and earn some much-needed money in the meantime, but it remains to be seen if these bold visions are technically possible and economically viable.

On Feb. 1, Russia officially opens its skies for cross-polar commercial flights on a regular basis, said Sergei Feskutov, deputy head of international relations for Russian State Civil Aviation Service (SCAS).

After a test programme of more than two years, there is a growing demand for cross-polar routes, he told IPS.

The new cross-polar routes are supposed to provide an alternative to currently operated routes crossing the Pacific Ocean. The new routes are to cut several hours off flying times for high-traffic routes between East Asia and North America, as well as to save airlines tens of thousands of dollars per flight in fuel and other costs.

The first test flight from Krasnoyarsk, Siberia to Toronto was undertaken in July 1998. Since then, some 200 flights have been flown, mostly by the American airlines Northwest Airlines and United Airlines, as well as Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific.

The trans-polar routes can potentially service up to 30 pairs of cities, including New York-Hong Kong, Atlanta-Seoul, Los Angeles-Bangkok and Vancouver-New Dehli, cutting from three to five hours off each route.

The SCAS, part of Russia’s transportation ministry, estimates that regular trans-polar routes may earn Russia up to 300 million U.S. dollars in navigation fees over the next 10 years, compared to current annual earnings of nearly 150 million dollars.

Moreover, for Russia opening its skies for cross-polar flights also constitutes a departure from a legacy of the Cold War era — embodied in the tragic death of 269 people who were killed in 1983 when Korean Airlines Flight 007 was downed by a Soviet jet fighter in the skies over the Sakhalin island in the Russian Far East.

Russia has some more traditional transcontinental link projects in mind. “In the 21st century Russia is to become a major player on the transcontinental transportation market,” Sergei Frank, Russia’s minister of transportation, has told IPS.

The Northern Sea Route (NSR) has been widely seen as a potential new trade link between Europe and Northern Asia, though it poses unique challenges due to extremely harsh climate conditions.

The NSR stretches nearly 6,000 km across the Russian maritime Arctic from the Barents Sea in west to the Bering Strait in east. In 1987, the former Soviet Union came up with the so-called Murmansk Initiatives, which officially declared the country’s readiness to open the NSR for international shipping.

The NSR is still operational, and Russia is funneling up to 1 million tonnes of freight a year through the route. However, current figures are showing a sizable loss of freight — a decade ago the annual level of operation of the NSR showed six million tonnes of cargo.

Russia’s other ambitious plans – to further develop the legendary Trans-Siberian Railroad – remains an equally bold vision, because the country’s railway sector is short of investment.

Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway, which runs from Moscow to Vladivostok in the Russian Far East for almost 10,000 km over one third of the globe, takes seven days or more to travel.

Russian officials hope that Trans-Siberian Railway, the longest continuous rail line on earth, could become a major transport link between Western Europe and Eastern Asia, but plans for a transcontinental railway are yet to materialise.

Railways Minister Nikolai Aksyonenko has conceded that the route is yet to prove its economic viability in terms of the volume of transcontinental freight.

But despite unsuccessful attempts to revive Trans-Siberian Railway, Russian officials nevertheless have big ideas for the future.

The state-run Centre for Regional Transport Projects is mulling a 50 billion U.S.dollar building project to build a tunnel under the 40-kilometer Bering Strait, connecting Chukotka to Alaska.

Yet this project to link Siberia and North America would require the building of a 3,000-km railroad to connect Chukotka with the Russian railway system. Likewise, it would need a one- thousand mile long railway route to be built in Alaska in order to connect the would-be tunnel to the U.S. railway system.

Sceptics argue that the tunnel would require huge expenses, as it needs to be built in what is probably the world’s most remote and forbidding terrain. They add that decades of funneling freight between East Asia and North America would be needed to justify the investment.

Nonetheless, the Russian Centre for Regional Transport Projects also wants a 20 billion U.S. dollar scheme to build a 40- kilometer bridge from Sakhalin island to Japan’s island of Hokkaido. Both projects are seen as a part of the same vision — the establishment of an intercontinental railway system.

The Russian Railways Ministry has mutely supported the project. In December, Aksyoneko said that by the end of 2001 his ministry is to start construction of the tunnel under the Tatarsky Strait between the Russian mainland and Sakhalin.

The Russian Railways Ministry has been lobbying to resume the construction of a tunnel between the Russian mainland and Sakhalin, a project begun half a century ago.

The construction of an undersea railway tunnel on Russia’s east coast was launched by order of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1950. The project envisaged the construction of a 13-km long and 70-meter deep undersea tunnel — it was known as “project No 6” and was carried out mainly by some 8,000 prisoners of gulag or labour camps.

In the wake of Stalin’s death in 1953, the project was halted as economically non-viable. Now critics still argue that the cash- strapped Russian government can hardly afford a tunnel which is expected to take nine years and some 2 billion U.S. dollars to build and given the lack of clarity about the tunnel’s economic viability.

Nonetheless, on Jan.30 Konstantin Pulikovsky, Russian president’s official representative in the country’s Far East, announced in Khabarovsk that initial groundwork to prepare for the contruction of the Tatarsky tunnel had already commenced.

Over the decades the relevance of transcontinental freight and passenger services remains a matter of debate in Russia.

Right now, the Russian transportation sector is not earning enough to finance its day-to-day activities and desperately needs investment in new infrastructure — but many of its plans of transcontinental links still look like a distant dream.

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