Logistics: The Trans-Siberian Lifeline

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September 3, 2021: In central Russia, the July 23rd collapse of a short (25 meter/76 foot) railroad bridge across a small river east of Lake Baikal turned out to be a major embarrassment. The bridge was destroyed by a flood. This halted train traffic on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The army put up a temporary floating bridge in a few days but this expedient could only handle a fraction of the daily traffic. A proper replacement bridge took several weeks to complete and restore the rail line to full capacity. Meanwhile the federal government fired two senior railroad executives. The railroads are state-owned and the staffed is a paramilitary organization that works closely with the military to plan for major military rail movements and dealing with major damage due to natural disasters or hostile forces (terrorists or other countries).

The 6,300-kilometer-long Trans-Siberian Railroad connects the Pacific coast to Western Russia and Europe. Completed in 1905, it has been upgraded and expanded ever since and is currently capable of getting cargo to Europe in less than a third of the time a cargo ship would require and at much less cost. The Trans-Siberian line never replaced maritime shipping to the Pacific coast but did provide a safer and faster way to get from economic and population centers in the west to the Pacific coast and many otherwise isolated communities in between.

The Trans-Siberian Railroad alone cannot support the population and economy of the Russian Far, a region that includes part of Siberia as well as the large Pacific Ocean coastline and the port of Vladivostok. The Russian Far East is huge, at 6.9 million square kilometers with a population of 8.3 million. The Far East region contains 40 percent of Russian territory and less than six percent of the population. It contains many naval and ballistic missile bases as well as ports that provide the cheapest way to get goods from the rest of Russia to the Far East. In some parts of central Russia, like the Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia, with ten percent of Russia’s land area and only two percent of the population, the easiest, and often only, way in or out is the Trans-Siberian railroad. Russia never built a transcontinental highway system

Russia has been expanding the Trans-Siberian railroad’s ability to carry cargo containers and provide a faster and cheaper alternative to container ships. Currently the Trans-Siberian can carry as many containers a year as a dozen large container ships, which take over three times longer to reach Europe. The Trans-Siberian also moves a lot of petroleum and raw materials. Passenger service is a minor portion of the traffic.

The Trans-Siberian line depends on over 500 bridges and tunnels. The latest disruption is hardly the first but it brought attention to the need for more effort in maintaining and upgrading all of these potential chokepoints. Before most of the construction budget went towards building new spur lines and expanding the capacity of the mainline. This railroad is a more than viable alternative to container ships and airfreight, it is the only way to regularly to transport most of the tonnages to and from many inland communities that would not be economically viable without the railroad.

 


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