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Russia backs international rail links

Sochi, in Russia, will host the 2014 Winter Olympics and the Russian Grand Prix.

No less dramatic was the recent Seventh International Rail Business Forum. Hosted by Russian Railways the forum on the Black Sea coast, attracted 1400 delegates from 30 countries. Speakers included representatives of Russian Railways, Siemens AG, Deutsche Bahn AG and the European Union.

Vladimir Yakunin, president of RZD, Russian Railways, met journalists and impressed them with his almost fluent English. Better communications between people and railways is essential to the international railway business.

Yakunin stressed the importance of clear communications coming out with the joke about the Moscow waiter asking a late night diner, ‘You finish?’ ‘Och no,’ came the waspish reply. ‘I’m frae Scotland.’ Russia is keen to develop international rail links and build new, faster lines.

The forum was attended by representatives of the European Union who, over the course of the discussions, reaffirmed their interest in tackling the problems faced by the international railway community.

Brian Simpson, MEP, Chairman of the European Parliament’s Transport Committee was concerned that standards and nationalist thinking was stifling cross border rail co-operation. Simpson pointed out this was not a problem for Civil Aviation, yet railways still suffer from barriers.

International agreements

More cheerful progress was made with the signing of a portfolio of international agreements. RZD, Kazakhstan and Belarusian Railways signed an agreement on through tariffs. Mongolian and Azerbaijan Railways agreed a passenger traffic memorandum with RZD. RZD agreed a new deal with Siemens on servicing passenger rolling stock. RZD and Transmashholding signed off a contract to deliver freight locomotives with German MTU diesel engines.

Yakunin stressed Russia’s commitment to international rail freight corridors. He wants to build a Russian gauge railway to Vienna. The 400km Russian gauge line would run through Slovakia to Vienna. The line should benefit 32 countries, generate 24 million tonnes of freight per annum and cost around £5 billion.

At the forum Yakunin’s advisor, Mikhail Goncharov, announced that RZD expect to start a feasibility study this year. This will  enable design work to be finalised by 2016. Construction could start in 2020 and be complete by 2024.

Austrian Railways chief, Christian Kern, is in favour of this line but felt its concept was not yet proven. Russia’s railway gauge – the width between the rails – is 1520 mm, much wider than the 1435 Stephenson’s gauge in use throughout Europe. However, Russian gauge is used throughout the former Soviet Union, Finland and the Baltic States and Mongolia. Total track length is 226,830 kilometres.

New rail corridor

Looking east Russia plans further development of international rail links with China. With China’s increased production in its western regions, a new rail corridor through Kazakhstan will complement the Trans Siberian Railway.

Although rail could never carry the volumes of container ships, it is competitive for time sensitive cargos. Yakunin believes railways can be the basis for industrial collaboration between Asia, Russia and Europe.

The Seventh International Rail Business Forum ‘1520 Strategic Partnership’ is the first step in addressing the need for a unified railway law in international transport cooperation. Delegates at Sochi were keen to discuss the role that railways will play in globalisation in the coming years.

Political Will

Yakunin sees political will as crucial to the development of better rail links. In Europe the state owns rail infrastructure and political commitment is needed to remove customs and standards barriers.

Yakunin is proud that despite national differences the railway community has achieved a measure of consensus agreeing that rail transport offers huge benefits. The problem, says Yakunin, is that, ‘We do not have instruments to collaborate as currently there are only political interfaces.’

However he believes that where there is a will there’s a way and he is optimistic about the future of cross border railway collaboration.

Away from the spotlight Vladimir Yakunin talked of his job and its responsibilities. First he must ensure he protects the interests of the company among the myriad demands of state agencies and businesses. Secondly RZD must honour agreements worth £2 billion per annum to protect its workers and pensioners.

Thirdly, he explained, management must own decisions taken. Before any decision is reached there is widespread discussion with the managers concerned to ensure the proposed course of action is feasible and has a financial case.

Importantly once the decision is taken, it has to be fulfilled. Any deviation from it is not acceptable. Anyone who does not agree must either obey or leave the company. He feels that because of this people sometimes confuse the person he is with the president’s function.

Reputedly close to Vladimir Putin Yakunin remains quite a private man. ‘Who I am as a person is only for my friends and members of the family,’ he said. Although Yakunin is reluctant to talk about himself personally, his humour and insight is evident to those who met him.

He has headed Russian Railways since 2005. Yakunin has a clear vision of international rail development for the mutual benefit of all. He has also led the board of trustees of the St. Andrew’s Foundation, a powerful patriotic organisation created in 1992.

Like the railway he leads Yakunin’s influence and place among the Russian leadership is immense. Seen in this light his pro-rail, open trading message carries a significance that reaches well beyond Sochi.

Writes David Shirres

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