Train Through Divided Country

Did you know that Russia has its own high-speed railway? A recent tweet pointed this out:

Le TGV russe, symbole d'un pays à deux vitesses #sapsan
Marie Simon

It links to this article in the French newsmagazine L’Express, with an accompanying photo-montage. So it’s true: the special train service is called the “Sapsan” (Сапсан), Russian for “peregrine falcon,” and has operated since last December on the classic Moscow-to-St. Petersburg route (and only there, so far; that particular route has been in service since 1851). Its Siemens-built trains, with top speeds of 250 km/hour, link Russia’s two premier cities in only three hours, forty minutes.

There are some notable things about the Sapsan, quite apart from its limited route. (It’s relatively new, after all.) As the reader realizes from the photo there at the top of the article, it operates on ordinary tracks, unlike some high-speed services in Europe (e.g. in France, the Netherlands) which use custom-built tracks which can be fenced off. Quite apart from technical considerations, in Russia such security measures are probably called for, given that country’s infamous plague of alcoholism; as things stand, the Sapsan amounts to yet another executioner (more deadly-efficient than other trains, due to its extraordinary speed) of the many drunks who wander onto the rails at the wrong time every year (almost 3,000 in 2009).

But the L’Express piece’s author, Axel Gyldén, takes his point further than that, as we can see in his very title, which translates to “The Russian TGV [high-speed train], symbol of a two-speed country.” In his view, the Sapsan amounts to yet another element of luxury in a country where the rich-poor divide is already rather obscene. That Moscow-to-St. Pete trip (or the other way) costs the equivalent of €90, he reports (double that for first-class – actually quite reasonable prices in European terms), in contrast to the €0.30 equivalent paid by commuters to take the older, standard train from, say, the village of Chuprianovka (Чуприановка) to work in Tver, the near-by regional capital. Except that that new Sapsan trains have taken up usage of the common tracks so much that Tver-Chuprianovka service now runs only once per morning, afternoon, and evening.

Back on the Sapsan, bags with the Vuitton label predominate in its luggage-racks, Gyldén claims, as the rich use it to travel down to Moscow to patronize the luxury stores there. Meanwhile, outside the train’s climate-controlled windows lies the “Real Russia” of the poor, as exemplified by that village of Chuprianovka where the combination of all the trains passing through it and its one level-crossing available across the tracks means that the place is effectively cut in half by railroad barriers for seven hours a day, an intervals of up to ninety minutes at a time!

No wonder there have been twenty incidents of sabotage against Sapsan trains already. It has become a high-profile problem, engaging the full energies of the town’s mayor, who finally managed to get a meeting with political higher-ups to convince them of the obvious, if costly, solution: either a bridge or underpass at the railway crossing so traffic can always flow unimpeded. He got the promise of a bridge – to be built in three years’ time.

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