Murphy's Law: Rickety Russian Railroads Revealed


October 9, 2015: Russians are frequently reminded that its armed forces are not nearly as effective as the government would like them to be. The most embarrassing cases tend to show up on the Internet, often in spite of government censorship efforts. But some problems are openly discussed in the state run media. Such is the case with the sorry state of Russian railroads. Before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 the railroads, and not a large road network, was the primary means of cross country travel. The rails and the rivers (plus canals as needed) where what held the country together. Starting in the 1990s more roads were built. People wanted cars and the government found it could not build new roads and maintain the rail system at the same time. For over a century well maintained railroads had been a Russian government priority.

Since the late 19th century the railroad system was seen as an essential component of the Russian military. In 1991 there were several hundred thousand troops whose primary job was ensuring that the railroads were ready to handle wartime needs. The railroad troops, and nearly a million other support personnel (military and civilian) were available to keep the railroads going despite any wartime attacks or peacetime natural disasters. All that was very expensive and by the late 1990s most of it was gone. The railroad troops no longer belong to the military and most (about 90 percent) are no longer available at all. Military logistics experts do not believe this is a major problem in peacetime. For one thing the railroads no longer have to be able to move over 200 combat divisions in wartime. There are only a few dozen combat brigades available now. What is a problem is repairing railroad system damage. There are barely enough maintenance personnel available to keep the system operational in peacetime. In wartime a few well-placed bombs, or terrorist attacks, would halt rail traffic in some areas for weeks, or longer.

Military logistics experts are calling for some action, even if it is only planning on how to quickly shift military personnel and gear normally moved by rail to boats (via rivers and canals) or trucks. There is some urgency to these public discussions because the Russian government has been accusing NATO and the United States of secretly attacking Russia and planning all sorts of bad things meant to harm Russia. This makes no sense in the West, but it is widely accepted as fact inside Russia. So pundits getting on the mass media there are insisting that efforts to deal with wartime damage to the railroads is something that must be taken seriously inside Russia.

Meanwhile the state controlled media has been running stories about the use of railroads in the growing number of military exercises. In 2013 there were breathless reports about how the railroad troops (long a part of the armed forces) were proud of their ability to move 15,000 troops through Siberia at the rate of 1,000 kilometers a day (versus the peacetime standard of 600 kilometers). Old timers could remember when these stories referred to moving several hundred thousand troops at a time. Those days are gone forever as is the ability of the military to literally take over the railroads in a national emergency. Now they have to request service like any other customer.

Meanwhile the most exciting thing that happens to the railroad troops is occasional new equipment. For example in 2010 Russia returned two of its armored trains to active service. Russia made extensive (and widely publicized) the use of armored trains during its civil war in the early 1920s and then in World War II. Armored trains had been used before that, but not with the ingenuity and on the scale that the Russians demonstrated. The trains saw service again during the early 1970s, when there was a low level border war with China. When the Cold War ended, the armored training again showed up in the Caucasus. There local separatists were attacking trains and blowing up rail lines.

It's not just the armor on the engines and cars that matter, but what the train carries. The current armored trains have anti-aircraft weapons (for use against ground targets), elaborate communications and electronic warfare equipment, railway repair troops and flatcars carrying tanks and other armored vehicles. The basic idea is that the armored train is basically a moving anti-terrorist unit. If terrorists are encountered, the armored vehicles are unloaded and go after them. UAV are also carried on armored trains to provide air reconnaissance.

Russia has had railroad troops for 150 years. This paramilitary force was mainly there to provide security and emergency repairs. In most other countries, these services are provided by civilians. But Russia have always considered the railroads as a critical strategic asset, and the paramilitary were there to make sure the railways were protected, well maintained, and quickly repaired if damaged. There are currently 100,000 Russian railway troops, and a formidable opponent for any terrorist groups trying to cripple the railways. But intelligence analysts inside and outside Russia have studied the situation in detail and concluded that 100,000 railway troops are not for a railroad network as extensive as the Russian one.





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