Bumpy ride for the bullet

Moscow and St Petersburg could be linked by high-speed train, but rivalries run deep, reports Phil Reeves
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The Independent Online
In the foyer of his shabby office in St Petersburg, Igor Kiselyev shows off his favourite exhibit. Clad in the red, white and blue livery of the national flag, it is a model of the main weapon in the battle to revolutionise transport in Russia; a super-sleek bullet train. His dream is that Russia's rail travellers will no longer have to rattle across the 392 miles that divide Moscow from St Petersburg, cooped up in stuffy carriages or Soviet-style wooden compartments for an entire night.

If all goes to plan, he explains, within a decade they will be able to whizz between Russia's two largest cities in a mere 147 minutes, reaching speeds of 180mph. A new economic corridor will be forged between Moscow and Scandinavia with technology to rival that of the Japanese. And all this, courtesy of a large helping hand from the British.

Despite determined opposition, plans to build a high-speed link between the old Russian capital and its modern rival are inching forward, tightening the bond between two cities that have little love for one another.

The locomotive, known as the Sokol, is already built. Mr Kiselyev, who represents the state-owned VSM company (named after the Russian initials for high speed railway) says that the first test carriages will be ready within weeks. A Spanish company has been signed up to design the first section of the track, from St Petersburg to Novgorod.

The British role is in a vast terminal complex at the St Petersburg end of the line, being built by Taylor Woodrow in partnership with Sweden's Skanska. Last month the first piles were hammered in on the site, and next month, assuming there are no final hitches, Britain's Export Credit Guarantee Department will announce that it will underwrite a $200m (pounds 124m) loan for the project.

If the bullet train is introduced - and there are more hurdles yet - it will be a milestone even by the standards of a country that, under Stalin, used an army of forced labour to create a vast transport network to meet the demands of the communist empire. The existing Moscow- St Petersburg line, opened in 1851 by Tsar Nicholas I, a rail enthusiast, was Russia's first passenger railway. Up to 30,000 people a day still travel on the line between the cities, a journey that took just under 22 hours in the last century. The Tsar ordered that the line should be dead straight, but there is a small bump, widely believed to have been caused by his majesty's fingernail, which got in the way when he was drawing the route on a map.

Bumps galore await Mr Kiselyev and his colleagues: although the bullet train has the support of Russia's Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, it has long had plenty of opponents, including Moscow's Economic Ministry. A plethora of environmental groups have tried, so far in vain, to have it quashed by the courts. Critics say it is far too costly - estimates vary wildly from $3.5bn (pounds 2.17bn) to $13bn (pounds 8bn) - and unnecessary; trains will be able to travel at up to 120mph when the existing track is upgraded. Fears abound about the environmental impact of the high-speed line, which would run through Valdai National Park, a wildlife haven with bears, deer and wild boar. Nor is it clear that VSM will manage to raise the $1.5bn (pounds 930m) in foreign investment that it claims to need.

None of this will bother the British government, or the companies building the terminal. Bullet train or not, the complex will go ahead on a piece of prime turf in a city whose canals, bridges and palaces have earned it the title "Venice of the North". Designed by a British-Russian partnership involving the London-based HOK, the complex will include a three-star, 368-room hotel, business centre, six-floor car park and a shopping arcade that Mr Kiselyev claims will rival GUM, Moscow's arcade of boutiques on Red Square. No longer will St Petersburg's Moskovski station (which, but for the colour, is identical to the station in Moscow at the other end) resemble most Russian big city terminals, which are generally squalid haunts for drunks, petty thieves, and long lines of elderly women hawking food.

But the terminal also has its critics, among them Alexei Kovalyov. A leading member of the city's cultural commission, he wrote to John Major last year to complain. He alleges the whole project is just a ruse to acquire a desirable plot of city centre land. "The city will not get a penny out of this, as the land is rent-free under the laws by which it was acquired," he said. "They will never raise the money for the railway. The terminal will just be a hotel and shopping centre."

Mr Kiselyev, of VSM, brushes off such criticisms with the weariness of an inventor at a sceptics' conference. "Henry Ford's neighbours used to complain about his motor car, didn't they?" he said. "These critics are just using the project for their own political interest."

The relationship between the cities at each end of the line has long been tarnished by suspicion and jealousy. St Petersburg, the capital for some two centuries, has never accepted its demotion to Russia's second city by the Bolsheviks in 1918. If anything, the collapse of the Soviet Union has sharpened the chip on its shoulder. Moscow, which sucks in two out of every three foreign investment dollars, has, at least, in its centre, shed its coat of tedious greyness, replacing it with the brighter hues of Western consumerism; banks, boutiques, restaurants, casinos and bars. But St Petersburg remains in the same gloom that has engulfed most of the rest of Russia. It has stumbled along, bitterly blaming Moscow's legislators for shackling its growth. In particular, it accuses Moscow of strangling its port, burying it beneath a pile of laws which are all designed to ensure that the capital maintains its grip over its provincial cousin. This month, St Petersburg watched with haughty contempt as the capital threw a three-day party, ostensibly to celebrate its 850th anniversary, but also to trumpet its rebirth as an international commercial centre.

"The overwhelming majority of the nation's wealth, whether it is brought into Russia or within Russia, ends up in Moscow," said an editorial in the St Petersburg Times." Given such a state of affairs, Moscow's economic miracle becomes much more explicable, and contemptible. The Russian capital's growth is obviously parasitic and exclusionary." Moscow, the paper complained, "is a cold heart that does little to spread warmth through Russia's sclerotic arteries to the provinces, which are in such desperate need of new life and light."

One of those arteries could now be cleared by the bullet train, but whether St Petersburg will be pleased is another issue. Peter the Great, who founded the city as a window on Europe, hated Moscow, and the citizens of his capital still feel the same way.