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In the postsoviet decade Russian railways remained highly centralised, evaded the upheavals of mass privatisation, and remained the backbone of a demoralised economy. Preserving much of Soviet practice, the Railways Ministry mounted a skilled rearguard action that achieved a gradual and considered adaptation to the market economy rather than the pell-mell, western-orientated, liberalisation that afflicted other branches of the economy. This book describes that rearguard action, and goes on to show how railway managers are coping with the new conditions.



Restructuring the Old Railway


1. The Soviet Legacy

Anybody looking for a promising microcosm to represent Soviet Railways on the threshold of partition could have found it on the Helsinki-Leningrad night train, where the car attendants had visible holes in their socks as they went about their unoffcial business of supplying teenage girls to male passengers.1 Here, on the one hand, was time-expired equipment giving usable but ineffcient service, and on the other a dawning realisation that there was money to be made in user-friendly auxilliary services.
J. N. Westwood

2. New Frontiers

The dissolution of the USSR at the end of 1991 entailed the dissolution of Soviet Railways, too. In Russia, Soviet Railways became simply Russian Federal Railways, which in due course claimed to carry a quarter of the world’s railway freight while possessing only 7 percent of the world’s railway mileage.
J. N. Westwood

3. Privatisation

I.L. Paristyi, the outspoken head of the Moscow Railway, thought the Moscow public toilets provided a useful lesson in privatisation. They had been taken over from the city council by a cooperative which promised that, in exchange for the concession, toilets would be better looked-after and new ones would be built. In the end the entrepreneurs made a lot of money but the Muscovites simply discovered that public toilets had become pay-toilets while there were no improvements and no additions.1
J. N. Westwood

4. The Zaitsev Interregnum

The new Railway Minister, Russia’s 39th, was already a well-known figure, having made his mark as head of the October Railway. He became minister on 22 August 1996 and was ‘transferred to other duties’ in 1997. By the standards of previous incumbents, this was a very short period of office, although in 1999 another minister, Starostenko, would have an even briefer shelf life.
J. N. Westwood

5. Rethinking Restructuring

Nikolai Emel’yanovich Aksenenko was born in Siberia in 1949, the thirteenth and final child of his parents, who were both old enough to remember tsarist times: Some of his mother’s family had supported the Reds and died; some of his father’s family had opposed the Reds and died. He later reminisced that this difference caused absolutely no tension in the family. At school, his favourite subject was history and his favourite authors were Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. But later he was impressed by Bunin and Berdyaev, authors who tended to be absent from Soviet libraries. The philosophical works of Berdyaev, with their analyses of personal freedom, must have been quite exciting for a bright young man living at that time and place. In 1999, Aksenenko declared that Berdyaev was a good guide to the current situation of Russia, showing that destabilisation was the danger and that the Russian character, with its hankerings for one extreme or the other, had to be watched. No doubt his readings helped form his personality, which was or became ascetic and rational. He was a non-smoker and non-drinker, avoided meat, got out of bed at 6.00 am and thought it was unkind to keep pets in apartments - but if other people thought differently, good luck to them. He did not have all that many friends, he said, but he knew he had lots of enemies. Or rather, there were lots of people for whom he was the enemy. He dealt with such people and then moved on, not worrying overmuch.1
J. N. Westwood

Operating the New Railway


6. Freight in the Market Economy

Reflecting trends in the Russian economy, railway traffic declined drastically up to 1998, when it was 40 per cent of the 1990 figure (Table 6.1)
J. N. Westwood

7. Passenger Service in the Market Economy

Passenger traffic declined in the 1990s (Table 7.1), though not as consistently as freight. The salient facts, apart from the traffic trend, were a growing deficit and a general deterioration, although with improvements in some premium trains. Passenger service losses were cross-subsidised by freight profits, a situation which was arousing some public disquiet (’Why should starving Kuzbas miners subsidise Moscow office workers?’). The Railway Ministry’s hope was to cut costs and to replace cross-subsidisation by compensatory payments from local governments that benefited from the existence of commuter services. Meanwhile, rolling stock was ageing and the trickle of new trains was not enough to replace the overage and hence high-cost trains inherited from Soviet Railways.
J. N. Westwood

8. The High-Speed Railway

In November 1990 about 500 guests assembled for a 3day conference on high-speed railways at the Pulkovo hotel complex at Leningrad. This was the second such conference; the first had been a year earlier and merely set out a few inviting concepts, whereas this second meeting was to hear proposals and discuss plans. Photographs taken of the crowd of participants show many a glinting eye, mostly belonging, in all probability, to foreign salesmen and local politicians. The importance, if not the glamour, of the occasion was confirmed by a greeting from the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Republic, B. Yeltsin. High-speed transport, he said, was ‘the inevitable road for the development of civilisation, an indicator of the quality of life of a nation’. Other countries had built high-speed railways as national endeavours, and so would Russia, which would bring the great potentials of a market economy to bear on the task.1
J. N. Westwood

9. Money Problems

In a market economy, the railways’ profit and loss statements can mean more than they did in Soviet times. To the extent that inputs are acquired and output sold at realistic prices, net operating revenues show whether the railways are prospering or foundering. However, railway finances have many complexities, and a bare figure usually needs to be accompanied by explanation and interpretation. In the 1990s, inflation was another complicating factor. On the whole, therefore, in studying the railways’ performance during this period, physical units such as tonnes, kilometres and hours are more likely than roubles to present a clear picture. But for the railway administration, rouble figures have been very necessary both as a performance indicator and as part of a case for financial help in the form of compensation for loss-making services and of tariff adjustments.
J. N. Westwood

10. Crime and Violence

This chapter unavoidably deals in cases more than in statistics, because the former are abundantly published whereas the latter tend to be patchy, subject to changing definitions, and in many cases impossible to obtain anyway. Accident figures are not quite so unsatisfactory, but are not perfect either. Newspaper reports do give a good qualitative picture as well as a cross-section of the various types of misbehaviour and the people who tended to perpetrate them.
J. N. Westwood

11. The New Century

At the beginning of the new century it seemed that the ‘concepts’ of railway restructuring adopted in 1998 would hold fast. Incorporating the views of railway managers as expressed through the Railways Ministry, the somewhat vague intentions and vague timescale for a move towards meaningful privatisation were difficult to oppose except on the grounds of vagueness itself. For the time being (which also in this context means the foreseeable future), the spirit of Soviet Railways would live on. In 2001, the railway newspaper Gudok and the monthly Zheleznodorozhnyi transport still included the Soviet Railways’ hammer-and-sickle crest on their mastheads, and this was something more than nostalgia. It was a statement, maybe a challenge, sometimes a provocation, but its essential message was, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’
J. N. Westwood


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