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Commuter trains another headache for Russian authorities, millions of customers

February 19, 2015, 17:43 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila
© Alexander Ryumin/TASS

MOSCOW, February 19. /TASS/. The Russian authorities are trying to do something about the urgent problem of commuter and local trains, which carry millions of passengers between rural areas and cities every single day. Transportation costs and ticket prices are climbing. Most passengers already find ticket prices unaffordable. In the meantime, the termination of commuter services would be fraught with a surge in social tensions. In the current economic situation the sole way of addressing the problem would be at the expense of federal budget, and not by raising ticket prices, experts say.

According to the daily Kommersant, ten percent of 5,700 commuter trains have been canceled toward the end of 2014. And starting from January 1, 2015 more than 300 commuter trains in 39 regions of Russia were canceled.

In some regions commuter trains were suspended altogether. Local residents rose in revolt to block roads, streets and rail tracks — commuter trains is their sole means of getting to work to earn a living.

On February 4 the issue surfaced at Vladimir Putin’s meeting with the Cabinet. The president cracked down on Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, the curator of the transport industry, with strong criticism. "Are you in your right mind? That’s not a serious approach. The matter concerns many thousands of people," he said to demand the commuter train services should be restored without delay.

It took one week to take action on Putin’s order — in relation to only those services which were canceled in January, though. However, the question of extra financing to compensate for growing losses from commuter services remains unsettled and ticket prices keep rising.

On February 18 Putin criticized Dvorkovich and also Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov again. "A situation in which, say, in the republic of Mari El the average tariff was 22 rubles just recently but has now surged to 89 rubles, or from 22 rubles to 90 in Transbaikalia is unacceptable," Putin said, adding that trains should not be running empty.

"The problem cannot be addressed by raising suburban train ticket prices," said the director of the Institute of Transport Economics and Politics at the Higher School of Economics, Mikhail Blinkin. "If we raise prices by 20%, we shall lose more than 20% of passengers. Some will stop using commuter trains or devise no end of ways to travel ticketless."

Incomes can compensate for the costs only there where large passenger flows are, the analyst said mentioning the Moscow and St. Petersburg Regions as an example. "Only there a significant share of passengers is prepared to agree with higher prices."

"From the purely free market economy point of view there is one way out — doing away with commuter trains altogether. But for an overwhelming majority of regions the commuter and local trains are a vital transport link. Without them life in many places will look very much like on an isolated island. Inter-city busses can provide an alternative only in some cases. Besides, the commuter train is a means of transportation used primarily by low-income, very vulnerable segment of the population."

Blinkin believes it would be very wrong to saddle the regions with the task of compensating for the soaring costs, because they are just unable to cope with it. But it would be equally wrong to force the train operators bear the social function.

"We will be unable to find a way out without federal support. No solution other than greater financing from the federal budget can be found anywhere," he said, adding that public transport subsidies is a widely spread reality even in the rich countries.


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