The Strategic Partnership 1520 is an annual international forum which considers common technical and commercial issues for rail businesses operating on the Russian-gauge network. This year, the twelfth forum was held in the Caucasus mountains at Rosa Khutor which, together with its railway line, had been built for the 2014 Sochi winter Olympics and is now a thriving mountain resort.

Although the forum is primarily concerned with 1520mm-gauge railways, it offered an international perspective well beyond this with speakers from Cuba, France, Germany, India, Iran, Poland and Sweden.

International projects and exports

RZD International, an engineering company within Russian Railways, has recently undertaken significant projects in Iran, Serbia and North Korea. In 2015, it won a contract worth €1.2 billion to electrify the 495km Garmsar to Inche Bourun line in Iran, which will increase its annual freight traffic from 2.5 to 10 million tonnes. In Serbia, it has reconstructed 372km of railway with numerous bridges and tunnels that raised line speeds from, typically, 30km/h to 120km/h.

The company now has prospective projects for large-scale infrastructure repairs in Cuba, the operation of a 1,537km line in Brazil, line speed enhancements in India and new lines in Indonesia (200km) and Vietnam (242km).

With government support, Russian train builders are increasing their exports, although they cannot compete in Northern Europe and North America due to sanctions.

Transmashholding has a plant in Kazakhstan to build locomotives for use there and export to Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan. In 2015, the company won a €45 million competitive tender against Alstom and CAF for refurbishment of 222 Budapest subway cars and, in an €88 million contract, has supplied 27 DMUs to Serbia.

Sinara Transport Machines, a manufacturer based in Ekaterinburg which partners with Siemens in Ural Locomotives, currently has contracts worth €196 million to supply Cuba with 74 four-axle hydraulic locomotives and 80 two-axle rail buses.

Cuba, India and Iran

Presentations at the forum gave an interesting insight on the development of these very different railways. Eduardo Davila, Cuba’s Deputy Minister of Transport, described the problems faced by the country’s aging 4,226km railway network and rolling stock. He advised that, with Russian cooperation, Cuba plans to increase rail traffic between 2016 and 2022, with freight rising from 15 to 22 million tonnes and passengers from 13 to 42 million.

In contrast India’s 66,687km rail network is the world’s fourth largest. Minister of State for Railways Rajen Gohain described plans to extend this by 7,900km by 2030 and to electrify 24,400km by 2021. This includes the construction of two dedicated freight corridors totalling 3,360km and a combination of high-speed lines and speed improvements on what Gohain described as the golden quadrilateral and its diagonals. These are the rail links between Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai.

Over the next five years, India plans an investment of €114 billion on its railways, of which 15 billion will be spent on the redevelopment of 400 stations.

The president of the railways of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saeed Mohammadzadeh, described the development of various international freight corridors through Iran and, in particular, the North-South Corridor which is the sea route from Mumbai to Bandar Abbas and the standard 1520mm gauge railways through Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia to Moscow and Helsinki. 1,915km of this route is through Iran.

This corridor was only recently completed with the opening in March of a railway bridge over the river that forms the border between Iran and Azerbaijan. As a result, containers can now get from Mumbai to Moscow in 22 days – twice as fast as the sea route through the Suez Canal.

Digital Russian Railway

Many presentations featured the challenges and opportunities presented by digital technology. Although these were often similar to those in the UK, there were new ideas and applications specific to Russia. Presentations from Siemens referred to UK practice with mention of unmanned Thameslink trains (something lost in translation) and an illustration of train departure indicators at Euston showing the available space on trains.

Senior Russian Railways vice-president Sergey Kobzev explained the objectives of the company’s digital railway project and how this compared to European and US practice. In Russia, it has three parts: customer applications, traffic requirements (control and infrastructure maintenance) and IT services.

Various speakers stressed the importance of cyber security and the need for open data, especially for customer applications. In his presentation, Michael Peter, CEO of Siemens Mobility Management Business Unit, offered a solution to these apparently conflicting requirements in the form of a “data diode”.

Oleg Valinsky, Russian Railway’s head of traction directorate, described various rolling stock digital innovations, including embedded diagnostic systems, the remote control of shunting locomotives, the use of augmented reality as a maintenance aid, infrastructure monitoring by service trains and driver information ranging from gradient profiles to dynamically reconstructed timetables. Providing drivers with such real-time updates of their train schedule, together with other initiatives, are saving around 450 million kWh each year.

With each modern train generating, typically, a terabyte of data each year, effective data mining is essential. One such solution is the Siemens Railigent platform, which offers a smart monitoring, data analysis and forecasting service for asset management. In February, a data processing and analysis centre using Railigent was opened at Podmoskovnaya depot in Moscow, with the intention of improving train and infrastructure reliability and gradually moving to condition-based maintenance.

The new Silk Road

China and Russia have signed agreements on a “belt and road initiative” for economic development along enhanced transport corridors, from East to West, through Russia and Central Asian countries. A key part of this initiative is the development of railway corridors to attract containers currently carried on ships.

First vice-president of Russian Railways, Alexander Misharin, advised that the company’s priorities for this are electronic consignment notes, unified train lengths, improved logistics and infrastructure improvements at border crossings. China shares these priorities, as increasing container transit traffic was part of its development plan.

In 2016, rail transit routes carry containers equivalent to 155,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) from China to Europe, with half this traffic carried in the reverse direction. This is twice the number of containers carried in 2014. 68 per cent of this traffic is via Kazakhstan with the remaining 32 per cent travelling over the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Currently, container trains travel 700km per day. The intention is to raise this to 1,000km by 2020 and 1,700km by 2030.

Misharin commented that, with increasing trade and China’s promotion of overland container traffic, it was possible that a million TEU could be carried by 2020. A significant factor is the growth of e-commerce from the Asia-Pacific region, which is currently worth a total of €930 million with the main players being China (€674 million), Japan (€101 million), South Korea (€57 million) and India (€22 million). The respective rate of growth for these countries is 33, 7, 11 and 130 per cent. India’s rapid rate of growth is an indication of the need for its ambitious railway expansion programme

To respond to this growing e-trade, fast transits are required. The proposed 7,761km high-speed rail line between Moscow and Beijing, which is expected to be operational by 2030, will deliver these, giving a 33-hour journey time between the two cities. Misharin also suggested that Russian Railways will require 300km/h cargo trains carrying 600 tons of goods. These will have wide doorways through which aircraft style containers can be loaded.

Currently, rail carries less than one per cent of the container traffic between Asia and Europe. Misharin considers that there is the potential for Russian land corridors to carry 25 per cent of high-value goods traffic.

High speed to Kazan

In 2013, Vladimir Putin announced the plan to build a 762km high-speed line between Moscow and Kazan, which will be part of the high-speed line to Beijing. The €268 million design contract for this line was let to a Chinese consortium in 2015. Currently, design of the 230km section between Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod is finished, with the remaining designs 42 per cent complete.

The line will have a bespoke ballastless track system and will require 211 overbridges and 113 underbridges – a total of 150km will be over man-made structures. The line’s estimated cost is 16 billion euros and 373,000 workers will be needed to build the line which will require 4.4 million cubic metres of reinforced concrete and 354,000 tonnes of steel. 85 per cent of raw materials, supplies and equipment for the line will come from Russia.

The line is designed for 360km/h operation and will reduce the Moscow to Kazan journey from its current 14 hours 7 minutes to 3 hours 30 minutes. Misharin advised that, with 20 per cent of Russia’s population living in territory adjacent to the new line, it had been estimated its cumulative benefit to the Russia economy by 2030 will be €280 million and increase regional product growth by 60 to 75 per cent.

He announced that, by 2030, Russia plans to have extended the Kazan high-speed line to Ekaterinburg and to have constructed further high-speed lines to St Petersburg and Sochi. However, he did not announce any date for the start of construction for the high-speed line to Kazan. Whilst the line is in an advanced stage of development, it would seem that arrangements for its funding have still to be finalised.

Making the pie bigger

In his closing speech, Oleg Belozerov, president of Russian Railways, noted how the forum had focused on digital technologies, human resources and logistics. He felt that cooperation was the only way to deliver global projects as the intention should be “to make the pie bigger” rather than seek individual advantage. He encouraged the development of complex railway projects abroad that could make a significant contribution to each country’s national economy.

He felt that, with 20 agreements being signed and an attendance of over 1,090 participants and 107 speakers from 337 companies in 24 countries, the forum had been a great success.

There were also 145 journalists present. This one was particularly impressed by the way Russian Railways has adopted new technologies and its development of transport corridors. With its vast size, few economies can be so dependent on their railways as is Russia. For the future, Russia is set to be at the centre of a new Silk Road, which will be an engine of growth for the Eurasian economy.


This article was written by David Shirres.