Rail transport in Russia

"Russian railways" directs here, for the Russian rail company, see Russian Railways
The most important railway lines of Russia

The Russian railways are ranked second longest globally, behind the railways of the United States. The volume of freight hauled is third behind the United States and China. In overall density of operations (freight ton-kilometers + passenger-kilometers)/length of track), Russia is second only to China. Rail transport in Russia has been described as one of the economic wonders of the 19th, 20th, and 21st century.[1]


Geographically, Russia is a much larger country than both the United States or China, therefore its rail density (rail tracking/country area) is lower than that of these of the two (much lower in the case of the United States). Since Russia's population density is also much lower than China and the U.S. (excluding Alaska), the Russian railways carry freight and passengers over very long distances, often through vast, nearly empty spaces. Their average length of haul is ranked second in the world, behind only the United States and tied with Canada. Coal and coke make up almost one-third of the freight traffic and have average hauls of around 1500 kilometers, while ferrous metals make up another 10 percent of freight traffic and travel an average of over 1900 kilometers. Many remote shippers and customers have access either to only very poor alternative shipping options by road or water, and to those alternative options for only part of the year.

Like most railways Rossiiskie Zheleznyie Dorogi carries both freight and passengers, it is one of the most freight-dominant railways in the world, behind only Canada, the United States, and Estonia in the ratio of freight ton-kilometers to passenger-kilometers. However per head of population intercity passenger travel is far greater than the United States (which has the lowest long distance passenger train usages in developed world). Measured by the share of freight carried, RZD is second to none among the world's largest railways in its importance to its country's economy.


Russia's railways are divided into seventeen regional railways, from the October Railway serving the St. Petersburg region to the Far Eastern Railway serving Vladivostok, with the free-standing Kaliningrad and Sakhalin Railways on either end. The regional railways were closely coordinated by the Ministry of the Means of Communication until 2003, and the Joint Stock Company Russian Railways, Rossiiskie Zheleznyie Dorogi or RZD, since then – including the pooling and redistribution of revenues. This has been crucial to two long-standing policies of cross-subsidization: to passenger operations from freight revenues, and to coal shipments from other freight.

Brief history

The Russian railways were a collection of mostly privately owned and operated companies during most of the 19th century, though many had been constructed with heavy government involvement and financing. The tsarist government began mobilizing and nationalizing the rail system as World War I approached, and the new communist government finished the nationalization process. With the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the Russian Federation was left with three-fifths of the railway track of the Union as well as nine-tenths of the highway mileage – though only two-fifths of the port capacity.

In this century, substantial changes in the Russian railways have been discussed and implemented in the context of two government reform documents: Decree No. 384 of 18 May 2001 of the Government of the Russian Federation, "A Program for Structural Reform of Railway Transport", and Order No. 877 of 17 June 2008 of the Government of the Russian Federation, "The Strategy for Railway Development in the Russian Federation to 2030". The former focused on restructuring the railways from government-owned monopoly to private competitive sector; the latter focused on ambitious plans for equipment modernization and network expansion.


Russian Railways accounts for 2.5%[2] of Russia's GDP and employs 800,000 people.[3] The percentage of passenger traffic that goes by rail is unknown, since no statistics are available for private transportation such as private automobiles. In 2007, about 1.3 billion passengers[4] and 1.3 billion tons of freight[5] went via Russian Railways. In 2007 the company owned 19,700 goods and passenger locomotives, 24,200 passenger cars (carriages) (2007) and 526,900 freight cars (goods wagons) (2007).[6] A further 270,000 freight cars in Russia are privately owned.

In 2009 Russia had 128,000 kilometers of common-carrier railway line, of which about half is electrified and carries most of the traffic, over 40% was double track or better.[7][8]

In 2013 railways carried nearly 90% of Russia's freight, excluding pipelines.[9][10]

Industrial railways

Besides the common-carrier railways that are well covered by government statistics there are many industrial railways (such as mining or lumbering railways) whose statistics are covered separately, and which in 1981 had a total length almost equal to the length of the common carrier railways.[11][12] Currently (2008) they are only about half the length of the common-carrier system.[13] In 1980, about two-thirds of their freight flowed to and from the common-carrier railroads while the remaining third was internal transport only on an industrial railways.[14] (For example, a lumber company uses its private industrial railways to transport logs from a forest to its sawmill.) About 4% of the industrial railway traffic was on track jointly "owned" by two companies.

Narrow gauge railways

In 1981, there was 33.4 thousand kilometers of narrow gauge.

Railway infrastructure

Russian railways were modernized mostly during the Soviet period and achieved world class status.


The SA3 coupler[15] (Soviet Automatic coupler, model 3) used in Russia is more advanced than the Janney coupler used in the United States. Advantages of the Russian SA3 include: 1. It is always ready to couple, unlike the Janney coupler which requires that at least one of the couplers has its knuckle open.[16] 2. It has greater gathering range.

While the Russians may have the best designed coupler in the world,[17] there were problems with it breaking due to making it with lower quality steel, low quality of maintenance/repairs/rebuilding, and coupling cars at speeds higher than allowed by the rules.[18] The quality of steel was improved but other problems remained.

Track gauge

The majority of Russia's rail network uses the 1,520mm Russian gauge, which includes all metro systems and the majority of tram networks in the country.

The Sakhalin Railway, on Sakhalin Island now uses 1,067mm Cape gauge. Tracks on island are now undergoing conversion to Russian gauge, however.

A section from the Poland–Russia border to Kaliningrad, uses the 1,435mm Standard gauge. Unlike the Sakhalin Railway, which carries freight and passengers, the standard-gauge line in Kaliningrad carries only freight at this time.

Kaliningrad's tram network also uses metre-gauge tracks at 1,000mm, as does Stavropol krai's Pyatigorsk network.

Railway universities

Command and control system

Since 2010 the company had started an overhaul of its computer systems. The overhaul will centralize the management of data into new computing hubs, restructure the collection of information on the railway's field operations, and integrate new automation software to help the railway strategise how to deploy its assets. The geriatric machines that the new mainframes will replace include Soviet-built clones of IBM's Cold War–era computers, called ES EVM (the transliterated Russian acronym for "unified system of electronic computing machines").[19]

Foreign activities

The RZD operates the Armenian Railway until 2038. During this period, at least 570 million euro will be invested, 90% going into infrastructure.[20]

Joint ventures have been formed to build and operate a port in Rasŏn in North Korea, and rail links connecting that port to the Russian rail network at the North Korean-Russian border Khasan-Tumangang.[21]

Trans-Eurasia Logistics is a joint venture with RZD that operates container freight trains between Germany and China via Russia

Voltage of electrification systems not necessarily compatible.

See also


  1. Intro adapted from Russell Pittman, "Blame the Switchman? Russian Railways Restructuring After Ten Years," working paper, Antitrust Division, U.S. Department of Justice, 2011. Blame the Switchman? Russian Railways Restructuring After Ten Years
  2. Lenta.RU News "РЖД попросила правительство заняться спасением железных дорог" (Russian) (RZD asks government to rescue the railway)
  3. "The gauge of history".
  4. Table 2.28. ПЕРЕВОЗКИ ПАССАЖИРОВ И ПАССАЖИРООБОРОТ ЖЕЛЕЗНОДОРОЖНОГО ТРАНСПОРТА ОБЩЕГО ПОЛЬЗОВАНИЯ; TRANSPORTATION OF PASSENGERS AND PASSENGER TURNOVER OF PUBLIС RAILWAY TRANSPORT Основные показатели транспортной деятельности в России - 2008 г. Copyright © Федеральная служба государственной статистики
  5. Table 2.25. ПЕРЕВОЗКИ ГРУЗОВ И ГРУЗООБОРОТ ЖЕЛЕЗНОДОРОЖНОГО ТРАНСПОРТА ОБЩЕГО ПОЛЬЗОВАНИЯ TRANSPORTATION OF CARGO AND FREIGHT TURNOVER OF PUBLIC RAILWAY TRANSPORT Основные показатели транспортной деятельности в России - 2008 г. Copyright © Федеральная служба государственной статистики
  6. Table 2.24. НАЛИЧИЕ ПОДВИЖНОГО СОСТАВА ЖЕЛЕЗНОДОРОЖНОГО ТРАНСПОРТА ОБЩЕГО ПОЛЬЗОВАНИЯ; PUBLIC RAILWAY ROLLING STOCK AND ITS USE Основные показатели транспортной деятельности в России - 2008 г. Copyright © Федеральная служба государственной статистики
  8. Freight by electric railroad 2008 (Russian)
  9. Chris Lo (1 May 2013). "Russian railways: connecting a growing economy". railway-technology.com. Retrieved 16 September 2014.
  10. Courtney Weaver (17 June 2013). "Russian rail freight proves a worthy investment". Financial Times. Retrieved 16 September 2014.
  11. Плакс, p.5 (Russian)
  12. Рeзер p. 5 (Russian)
  13. Industrial Railroad Statistics (Russian)
  14. Рeзер pp. 25-6 (Russian)
  15. филиппов 1981 pp. 18–14. Филиппов 1991 пп. 152-4 (Russian); See also Шадур 1980, Chapt. X: Ударно-тяговые приборы (couplers and draft gears) (Russian)
  16. George R. Cockle (editor) "Car and locomotive cyclopedia of american practices" (3rd edition), Simmons-Boardman Pub. Corp., New York, 1974. p. S8-1 (Section 8: Couplers). Note that the SA3 is a Willison type coupler.
  17. Шадур p. 12 (Russian)
  18. Костина, Н.А. +, "Предупреждение разрывов поездов" (Preventing trains from breaking in two) ЖТ 10-1988 pp. 41-2 (and another article from ЖТ -date unknown)
  19. IEEE Spectrum's special report: Winners & Losers VII: IBM overhauls Russian Railways' software infrastructure, p. 123 By Sandria Upson, Jan. 2010. Full text :
  20. Eurailpress: RZD gewinnt Ausschreibung in Armenien
  21. "Railway Gazette: Rajin port accord". Retrieved 2010-10-30.

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