High-Speed Sapsan Has Locals Up in Arms

Poezdsapsan.ruThe Sapsan train is capable of traveling at up to 250 kilometers per hour.

Traveling by train between Moscow and St. Petersburg can be perilous.

The Nevsky Express, which travels along that route, was the target of two terrorist bombings in 2007 and 2009. But after the launch of the new high-speed Sapsan train, travelers are finding that they have become targets of a different group: disgruntled locals.

The Sapsan train, which had its maiden trip in December, has provoked the outrage of those who live near the railway, many of whom are venting their anger by pelting the passing train with rocks and ice. Locals say the new train causes huge inconveniences for them, and they point to two fatal accidents in which the train has already been involved.

A man was killed in December when he was struck while sitting on the edge of a train platform in the Tver region, and in February, a woman died when she was hit while trying to cross the train tracks at the Obukhovo station in St. Petersburg.

The police are currently investigating nine cases of vandalism against the train, which zips along the track at a snappy 250 kilometers per hour, a source with the police in the Northwest Federal District told RIA-Novosti earlier this month.

One of the vandals caught throwing ice at Sapsan was detained in January and identified as Mikhail Samartsev, 35, from the village of Leontyevo in the Tver region. Samartsev, who has a criminal record, said his motive for attacking the high-speed train was anger, precipitated by an incident in which he was knocked off his feet by a blast of air as the train passed.

Locals are also angry because Russian Railways, the country's state-owned railway monopoly and the operator of Sapsan, did not consult them before canceling a number of commuter and long-distance trains, causing massive inconveniences for many in the region.

Russian Railways, known as RZD, played down the complaints, saying the company had done its best to accommodate all parties.

"There have been minor cancellations, and we did our utmost to keep the trains of different price segments operational," a spokeswoman said, asking not to be named in line with company policy.

"Besides, Sapsan isn't the only cause of schedule changes. Trains are canceled because of railway repairs and other reasons. Sapsan is only eliciting such an interest among the public because it is a new, high-profile project."

Four round trips for commuter trains on short routes between Moscow and St. Petersburg have ceased running as of Dec. 18, according to data provided by RZD, while 81 or 82 round trips, depending on the day of the week, are still active daily.

Three long-distance trains were canceled, including the inexpensive and popular Yunost train, long used by students because of the 350 ruble ($11.80) ticket price. An economy-class ticket on the Sapsan is currently available for 2,408 to 3,596 rubles, depending on the time of the departure.

"The train schedule is changing every day, and many people find it difficult to travel to Moscow, where they work, and back," said Anton Stamplevsky, head of the local Yabloko party.

"Until recently, people had to walk a long distance to get to the Zalineiny district [of the city of Tver] just in order to cross the railway because of the new barriers installed to avoid accidents. The situation has improved, however — people are now allowed to cross through the terminal without paying for the ticket."

"The number of commuter trains was reduced and the schedule was altered in a very inconvenient way," said Lyudmila Vorobyova, first secretary of the Communist Party's Tver regional committee.

Things could get worse with the start of the dacha season in May, she said.

But for many, it's not just the inconvenience caused by the new train, but a matter of principle. Local residents are furious that the government chose to buy an imported product, rather than support local industry, Stamplevsky said.

In 2006, RZD acquired eight Velaro high-speed trains for 276 million euros ($368 million) from Germany's Siemens and signed a 30-year, 354-million-euro contract to maintain them. In addition, the company is considering building a new Moscow-St. Petersburg route, for which it may acquire 20 high-speed trains from France's AGV, RZD's senior vice president Valentin Gapanovich said last month.

"We have several train maintenance enterprises in the region, including the major ones located in Tver and Torzhok, which have been out of work, and workers there don't get paid," Stamplevsky said, adding that vandalism was often the only option for many who want to draw attention to regional problems.

"I think these 'Robin Hoods' who hurl stuff at trains are people who are stuck in these small villages across the region, being unemployed for years without any hope of earning a decent living," he said.

Local residents commute to Moscow and back in tightly packed commuter trains, and they see the comparatively luxurious Sapsan as the cause of their problems, Vorobyova said.

"Most people in the Tver region cannot afford to travel on the Sapsan, and therefore it is perceived as a bourgeois means of transport, which causes the hate," she said.

Travelers aren't at any particular risk from the projectile rocks and ice, but if residents decide to start firing guns at the train, such an attack could be deadly, Dmitry Pegov, RZD's head of high-speed transport, told Izvestia earlier this month.

The vandalism comes after two major terrorist bombings of the Nevsky Express train, which travels along the Moscow-St. Petersburg route: one in August 2007, in which 30 people were injured, and another in November 2009, in which 28 people were killed and 90 were injured.

In December, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin allocated 1 billion rubles in subsidies to improve security on the route. The Transportation Ministry suggested setting up security posts every 20 kilometers of the route, in addition to the existing CCTV monitoring system.

The RZD spokeswoman would not comment on the new security measures, saying the plans were confidential.

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