Moscow-to-Tokyo express: World's longest railway or just a pipe dream?

TOKYO —

“Tokyo Station Track 15, all aboard for Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and Moscow!”

The media is full of speculation that Japan and the Russian Republic may reach accord over territorial issues that have persisted since the end of World War II, and in so doing, enjoy considerably cozier relations than at present.

How cozy? Well Shukan Jitsuwa (Oct 27) reports that if the two countries see eye-to-eye, the world’s longest railway, the 9,297-long Trans-Siberian, might someday be extended by bridge across the 7-kilometer wide Strait of Tartary (also known as the Mamiya Strait) from the Asian mainland to Sakhalin and eventually, via a 42-kilometer-long bridge or undersea tunnel to Wakkanai in Hokkaido.

“The line would eventually terminate in Tokyo,” says a journalist who covers political topics for a nationally circulated newspaper. “The idea is being proposed by Russia, but the lion’s share of the construction costs would be borne by Japan.

“In addition to transporting freight, the line would carry tourists in both directions and would be expected to enhance people-to-people exchanges,” he added.

The rolling stock on the Trans-Siberian has become dilapidated, and estimates for renovations utilizing new high-speed trains reach between 5 to 10 trillion yen. It’s likely the burden for this would fall mostly on Japan as well.

“Russia is not just proposing a railway,” the reporter continued. “They have come up with a concept for an ‘energy bridge’ that would cross the straits to Japan via undersea cable to deliver electric power, as well as a pipeline for liquefied natural gas. So the basis of the plan would be to supply Japan with energy.”

“The former president of Russian Railways, Vladimir Yakunin, a close associate of President Putin, visited Japan last year to attend a conference called ‘The World’s Fastest Railway,’” a source in the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) is quoted as saying. “While here, Yakunin is said to have met secretly with Prime Minister Abe and made the proposal.”

Rather than give in to Japan’s demands for return of the entire Northern Territories, Russia may be mulling return of two island groups, the Habomais and Shikotan. But even a partial recovery of territory may give Abe the backing of his own party to push for the new railway.

Japanese investment in the project is most likely to benefit the economy of the Russian Far East, but hopes of selling the Russians shinkansen technology might promise some economic gain.

“Unfortunately, Putin has already signed a pact with China’s Xi Jinping to purchase high-speed railway equipment from China, so that pretty much puts a damper on our ambitions to sell overseas,” says a source in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Japan was recently outbid by China on a high-speed railway network in Indonesia.

The source at METI also voiced skepticism over Russia’s ability to supply electric power and LNG to Japan from Siberia.

“If Japan were to become more dependent on Russia as an energy source, this might damage its relations with the U.S.,” he said. “And a dispute with Russia could result in its shutting off supplies to Japan, which could be disastrous.”

One strategy the Russians have adopted is that if the Trans-Siberian can be extended to Japan, the time required for transporting freight from Japan to Europe, presently 35 to 40 days, would be reduced to around 25 days.

“Japan previously used Russian railways to ship goods to Europe, but stopped after the dissolution of the Soviet Union,” a source in the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism tells the magazine. “There are always some concerns, in dealing with present-day Russia, over safety and reliability. Considering the costs this project would entail, it involves taking a huge risk.”

Japan Today

  • 3

    Burning Bush

    Please please build a highway to Europe.

    I'll pay any toll fee.

  • 9

    JonathanJo

    As it's going to take another 14 years just to extend the Shinkansen from Hakodate to Sapporo, one wonders how long it would take to reach Wakkanai.

  • 6

    knowitall

    Please please build a highway to Europe.

    There already is one once you take the ferry to Vladivostok from Sakaiminato. Gets boring after a while seeing the same taiga forest trees for days on end, though.

  • 1

    SenseNotSoCommon

    As it's going to take another 14 years just to extend the Shinkansen from Hakodate to Sapporo, one wonders how long it would take to reach Wakkanai.

    But it'll be a source of immense pride to all 5 million citizens and PM Abe, kept in adoring suspended animation since 2012.

  • 3

    Jeff Huffman

    What's the point? How many Russians are pining for Japan via rail and how many Japanese want to relive parts of Dr. Zhivago?

  • 1

    SenseNotSoCommon

    how many Japanese want to relive parts of Dr. Zhivago?

    Imagine this playing on a loop:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWh3aAodUJk

    (check it out for the gigantic bass balalaika)

  • 0

    kurisupisu

    Being a neighbor of Japan and full of natural resources, why wouldn't a closer relationship with Russia be advantageous? And imagine high speed trains completing the run to Moscow in a couple of days!

    Wow!

  • 1

    Pukey2

    but the lion’s share of the construction costs would be borne by Japan.

    Why am I not surprised? Other countries have seen how Abe splashes money all over the world, and they think, more more more.

  • 0

    Wakarimasen

    When they give us back our Hoppo Ryodo........

  • 0

    Aly Rustom

    The media is full of speculation that Japan and the Russian Republic may reach accord over territorial issues that have persisted since the end of World War II, and in so doing, enjoy considerably cozier relations than at present.

    If that's true then good, but I personally think they should start with South Korea. Its closer, the culture is similar, and there is a lot more intermarriage with koreans than with russians..

    Having said that, any bridges built between any two nations in the name of peace and mutual cooperation is good.

  • 3

    Akula

    Parts of this article are completely inaccurate as a proposed link would go nowhere near Khabarovsk or Vladivostok and would connect to the Baikal Amur Mainline, not the Trans-Siberian.

    The BAM passes through some very sparsely populated areas until it joins the Trans-Siberian west of Lake Baikal.

    I can definitely see the potential from a freight point of view but tourism might be a harder sell.

  • 1

    Thunderbird

  • 3

    dcog9065

    What a farcical proposal. If you have a quick look at a map you'll notice that this railway line will take quite a while to join the Trans-Siberian. And I doubt spending $100b for a freight line will reap any rewards for about 100 years. Like that aid said as well, relying on Russian energy is a catastrophic risk and should only make up 20% max of total consumption at any given time. Relaxing visa restrictions on Russia is also risky unless we want to be flooded by Russian illegals

  • -1

    kohakuebisu

    In a "predicting from trends" future, rather than simple "crystal ball" one, Russia looks like it will relatively benefit from climate change, becoming an energy and food superpower. Canada too.

    So a freight and power/gas link to Russia could be very beneficial. Cities have grown very quickly in China, so if Russia does become more prosperous, they could sprout and grow in eastern Russia too, making even passenger travel viable. China has huge cities no-one had heard of thirty years ago.

    I'm not saying "build this now!", especially with Japan already so heavily in hock, but the idea of a tunnel is not as crazy as it may sound. I just wish they would shut up about the Shinkansen because super expensive passenger only trains on dedicated lines with no level crossings over huge distances between small or non-existent cities are bat droppings crazy and simply amount to straw-clutching by people who don't understand Japan, the Japanese economy, or rail transport.

  • -1

    Alex Einz

    only 120 h to berlin https://www.google.co.jp/maps/dir/Khabarovsk,+Khabarovsk+Krai,+Russia/Berlin,+Germany/@48.3243568,39.7992493,3z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m14!4m13!1m5!1m1!1s0x5efae9bc5b77255d:0xd9dcd2723b651256!2m2!1d135.0662599!2d48.5027313!1m5!1m1!1s0x47a84e373f035901:0x42120465b5e3b70!2m2!1d13.404954!2d52.5200066!3e0

  • -1

    Yoshitsune

    While I would love to see a bullet train across Siberia with a branch all the way to Tokyo, the Tartary Strait is only 7km wide at its narrowest point but the existing line terminates at Vanino - at which point it's more like 70km wide. So it requires either a 70km bridge or tunnel, or an entirely new line; the costs involved make this unlikely to be feasible.

    I also feel Japan should be cautious about becoming too dependant on Russian energy - Russia has shown it is quite happy to use (withholding of) its gas as an economic threat.

    a proposed link would go nowhere near Khabarovsk or Vladivostok and would connect to the Baikal Amur Mainline, not the Trans-Siberian

    There is an existing branch line connecting Khabarovsk to the BAM, so presumably that's what is being referred to

  • 0

    NCIS Reruns

    This is not really so surprising, since the original Shinkansen, whose construction began in 1941, was supposed to go to Seoul and Pyongyang before terminating in Beijing. Railroads still have their supporters, apparently. But I've heard that sections of the Trans-Siberian may be endangered due to melting of permafrost atop which the rails were laid, as a result of global warming. If that happens, in a few decades the Russian Arctic might turn into a swampy mess.

  • 0

    Yoshitsune

    NCIS

    The Trans-Siberian doesn't run over permafrost, and it isn't anywhere near the Arctic. Not sure where you've heard that but it doesn't sound accurate.

  • 1

    Reckless

    How about a bridge from Honshu to Hokkaido first. Tried to drive up there this summer and realized the only way is with very very expensive and booked solid ferry.

  • 0

    Akula

    @yoshitsune Yes there is a branch line from Khabarovsk to the BAM but the actual tunnel/bridge from Mainland Russia to Sakhalin would be further north of the BAM requiring further railroad construction to connect it to Selikhino which is not far from Komsomolsk.

    Admittedly you could head from there southwards to Khabarovsk or Vladivostok, and there are tourists who probably would but it's a bit roundabout.

    For me personally it would give me a few more travel options and it would really open up Sakhalin, a place I'd love to visit at some point.

    Rail projects in Russia seem to have gone well behind schedule in recent years or scrapped altogether. The line to Tuva, the completion of the AYaM to Yakutsk (no bridge or tunnel across the Lena) and the non-starting of the Magadan extension of the AYaM spring to mind. I suspect the falling in oil prices may have something to do with this.

    My point here is that if Russia commits to a Sakhalin bridge etc., will it actually get built?

  • -2

    theeastisred

    Great idea, get it built. And Shimonoseki - Pusan, Okinawa-Taiwan etc. Road, rail, electric power, whatever works.

  • -8

    tinawatanabe

    Japan is happy as an island country and has no desire to be connected by bridge or tunnel with any other country.

  • 3

    Yumster100

    Nope, the costs overrun will completely outweigh the benefits. Not worth it.

  • 0

    Yoshitsune

    Japan is happy as an island country and has no desire to be connected by bridge or tunnel with any other country.

    If that's how you feel, why even have it connected by air? An island doesn't cease to be an island if you build a bridge or tunnel to it.

  • -2

    Pukey2

    tina:

    Japan is happy as an island country and has no desire to be connected by bridge or tunnel with any other country.

    Any country that hates Japan would agree with you!

  • -6

    tinawatanabe

    An island doesn't cease to be an island if you build a bridge or tunnel to it.

    It does. It connects with others.

    Any country that hates Japan would agree with you!

    South Korea is desperate to connect with Japan by an underwater tunnel.

  • 3

    choiwaruoyaji

    It does. It connects with others.

    This seems like an elementary school child's way of thinking.

  • 0

    Yoshitsune

    It does. It connects with others

    By that logic, Britain, Singapore, Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Kyushu are not islands, which is clearly nonsense.

    Building a bridge or tunnel does not make an island case to be an island, and a tunnel between Japan and Russia would not make Japan cease to be an island nation.

    I'm sorry it's not 1870 any more. Must be hard to deal with.

  • -1

    Jeff Huffman

    NCIS RerunsNOV. 30, 2016 - 01:37PM JST This is not really so surprising, since the original Shinkansen, whose construction began in 1941, was supposed to go to Seoul and Pyongyang before terminating in Beijing.

    Wow! They were dreamers, weren't they? The hubris to propose such a thing is, one can assume, the same sort of hubris that led to the attack of Pearl Harbor. A thousand year Reich in Germany and a train tunnel under the Sea of Japan.

  • 0

    turbotsat

    They may want to look at demand, first.

    It's interesting (and cool) to travel the Tran-Siberian but is there going to be enough traffic to support multi-billion-monetary-unit projects?

    Looking at the timetable, there's two weekly trains Moscow to Beijing, leaving Tuesday and Saturday (also two weekly trains leaving Beijing for Moscow).

    And here's one daily train from Moscow to Vladivostok, plus one train that leaves on odd dates only. (There are other trains that don't go all the way to Beijing or Vladivostok).

    Duration is approx. 7 days each way. Going over to Sakhalin and south to Sapporo is going to add more time.

    Maybe around 300 people per train, if packed. A 747 depending on configuration can carry approx. 450-550 passengers per flight.

    That's considering passenger traffic only, maybe freight traffic would make it worth it.

    http://www.transsib.com/trans-siberian-train-tickets-prices/trans-siberian-timetable.html

  • 0

    Yoshitsune

    Stat,

    Those are the direct Moscow - vostok and moscow - beijing trains, but those make up a tiny portion of the total number of trains running on the line. Most trains are doing Moscow - Omsk, Yekaterinburg - Irkutsk, Vostok - Perm, etc. You get a lot more than 300 people per train - more like 3000 - and passengers embark and disembark at every station, meaning each train is transporting a 5-figure number of people per run; so i think you've underestimated the carrying capacity of the Trans-Siberian line by several orders of magnitude.

    That said, I agree that the Russia - Japan link doesn't sound feasible; the population along the route is surely too light to justify the massive costs involved, and the great time involved for the journey won't make it an attractive alternative to flying (except for tourists) from Moscow to Tokyo.

  • 0

    turbotsat

    Yoshitsune

    You are right, capacity would be a lot higher, I wasn't discussing capacity, but demand ... and for the potential Japan to Moscow route, not shorter trips. I think if there was high demand more people would be taking the ferry to Vladivostok and boarding the train there now, and there'd be more than a 1.5 trains leaving per day.

    Apparently enthusiasm is high, though ... maybe they'll make a go of it.

    Do you have a source for the '3000 passengers'? Apparently when Russia added double-decker trains to carry visitors from Moscow to Sochi for the Olympics they 'almost doubled' their capacity to 850, and that was for a much shorter route where most of the cars were not sleepers. And 3rd-class dorm bunk cars on Trans-Siberian are only carrying 54 persons each, 2nd and 1st class would be less.

    http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2014/02/19/sochi--train-olympics-double-decker/5603677/

    ... The new double-deckers, part of the state-owned RZD rail fleet, carry up to 850 passengers per train, almost twice as many as conventional wagons. ...

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-3822871/New-Trans-Siberian-rail-link-mean-passengers-travel-6-000-miles-London-TOKYO.html

    New Trans-Siberian rail link would mean passengers could travel 6,000 miles from London to TOKYO - 5 October 2016

    (more details and a map of the possible route)

  • 0

    Yoshitsune

    Sorry,I shot that 3,000 off the top of my head without estimating it properly, it's too high; more like 1,000. The trains are composed of 20-plus wagons, mostly kupe and platskartny (2nd & 3rd class with 40-50 berths), both of which I've used and witnessed the way that one berth will carry many passengers over the course of the journey (very few people go end to end, other than tourists). The total number of passengers transported by one of these trains in one end-to-end run is in the thousands, likely over ten thousand.

    there'd be more than a 1.5 trains leaving per day

    There are a lot more! They just don't go all the way to Moscow. The vast majority of passengers ride the train between intermediate points, not end-to-end; that's the demand they mostly serve.

    But I really don't think there's enough demand on the intermediate points in the Baikal-Amur-Sakhalin region for this proposed new line to justify the enormous cost, and no-one other than overland tourists is going to do Tokyo-Moscow by train. I reckon this proposal is highly unlikely to happen, but I certainly look forward to riding it if it ever does.

  • -2

    Cogito Ergo Sum

    Would you know it ? This railway thing to Russia isn't new. During Japan's heydays, It was supposed to be built through Nemuro ( Bekkai/ Betsukai) Township, as Japan had the initial intentions to invade Russia, needless to say, it never materialized. I say good luck to the 2-island-back dream,just bear in mind that Russian Defense minister Shoygu (Name sounds Japanese,doesn't it?) has placed Missiles RIGHT THERE !! Indeed a Velvet handshake hiding an iron fist.

  • 0

    boweevil

    Sounds good... if the International Association for Ultra-Nationalists garner enough political will to screw in a light bulb together it should be a real hit.

  • 1

    1glenn

    Would there be enough passenger volume to justify the construction and maintenance costs? My first impression is that there would not.

  • 0

    Akula

    @1glenn Passenger demand is likely to be low, although I'm sure there would be a number of services available.

    Big potential is around freight.

  • 0

    turbotsat

    Akula: Big potential is around freight.

    I forgot about freight, I take back anything I said about likelihood.

  • 0

    Akula

    The thing is that anything from Japan (or South Korea for that matter) going to Europe needs to be shipped via a rather circuitous route. Rail on the other hand could be a lot faster and potentially cheaper if this was built.

    South Korea is likely as well to be at some point connected to the Trans-Siberian as and when NK decides to join the international community.

  • 0

    Reckless

    Japanese and Russians are like oil and water, don't need no bridge.

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