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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

City Chases Hares in Transport Revamp

City Hall is declaring war on sportsmen, economists and indigents — the three categories of ticket-dodgers in local parlance referred to collectively and coyly as zaitsy, or hares.

And these bunnies are costing the capital a bundle.

In an ambitious overhaul of Moscow's sprawling above-ground transportation system that could save the city tens of millions of dollars a year, City Hall is vowing to put turnstiles in every tram, trolley and bus in the city.

Even more ambitiously, once that system proves itself, the city plans to turn over operational control of the entire transportation network to private companies that will be chosen via open tender.

The logic is simple: make passengers board a tram, train or bus through a single, electronic sentry and the number of "hares" goes down — and revenues go up.

And once revenues go up, operating public transport becomes attractive to private specialist firms that have the experience to actually turn a profit on the service.

Preliminary data are already in, and they are promising.

On Feb. 3, five buses in Zelenograd began operating with the new turnstiles, which use the same paper smart cards used in the metro. And much to the pleasant surprise of City Hall's transportation committee, which is overseeing the project, the results were dramatic.

Average revenue collection per bus per day rose 600 percent to 1,500 rubles ($52). The average revenue last year for the same route and the same kind of bus — without a turnstile — was a meager 248 rubles.

"In the first week we got stunning results that we couldn't even have [hoped for!]" said Nikolai Nazarov, the committee's pointman on the project, in an interview Tuesday.

"The first project lays the groundwork for, and is targeted at the second," Nazarov said, referring to turning over the system to private operators.

The city is sticking with a tried and true firm to run the project. Moscow-based Smart Technologies Group, which manufactures the turnstiles, created a subsidiary, Solarus, especially for the deal.

Smart Technologies Group has an annual turnover of $20 million and was the company chosen by the city to install passenger gates in the metro system beginning in 1997, a move that the company claims increased underground revenues by $3 million a month.

In an interview Tuesday, Mikhail Mouratov, Solarus' deputy general director, wouldn't say what the total cost of the project is expected to be, but he did say that his company has already attracted $300 million in credits to carry it out. He wouldn't elaborate.

Mouratov said Solarus would recoup its money by taking a commission on ticket sales, which means the city government has no financial risk.

There are already roughly 85 commercial transport companies operating in Moscow alongside state-funded operator Mosgortrans.

But while commercial carries run more than 5,800 mini-buses and buses over 932 routes and transport 1 million passengers a day, Mosgortrans carriers more than 10 million a day on 3,500 buses, trams and trolleys over 611 routes.

With passenger volume growing and old vehicles constantly needing to be replaced, Mosgortrans estimates that Moscow needs to add 650 new buses a year to keep up, but the government only provides about 250.

Reuters quoted Mosgortrans vice president Pyotr Ivanov last week as saying that the repair and replacement problem "is dangerous."

The transportation committee's Nazarov said this problem could easily be remedied by attracting commercial transport companies.

As it stands now, running the system is a financial nightmare for Mosgortrans, which lost 1.36 billion rubles ($47.6 million) last year and is expected to lose 1.8 billion this year.

The reasons are simple. Aside from the inherent inefficiencies in running such a large and complex system, prices are subsidized, with the actual cost of carrying each passenger estimated to be 8 rubles, vs. the ticket price of 3 rubles.

Another problem is so-called "privileged passengers" — citizens who fall into one or more of 57 legal social categories that award them the right to travel free.

According to federal statistics, more than 75 percent of all the passengers who use Moscow public transport are privileged passengers.

The Zelenograd experiment, however, puts that figure at no more than 35 percent. Of that number, 50 percent are pensioners, 10 percent invalids, 7 percent Defense Ministry employees and 5 percent Interior Ministry employees.

It also showed that the low collection rate was due much more to fare-dodging than previously thought. A recent State Statistics Committee survey concluded that no more than 5 percent of all passengers are those who should pay but don't, while the Zelenograd experiment found that the real figure is closer to 30 percent.

"Without installing that system how, I wonder, would we know that?" said Nazarov.

The major reason for the surge in freeloading is overcrowding. It's easy to see why so many passengers can escape the fare collector when the average train, trolley and bus operated by Mosgortrans is overfilled to 170 percent of official capacity.

But while turnstiles almost certainly will help reduce crowding and increase revenues, it isn't the answer to all Mosgortrans' problems. In fact, it has already created one: delays.

Lyudmila Baklagina, a 40-year-old accountant, said while waiting in line to board a turnstile bus that the new machines have already caused her headaches. Once all buses are equipped with turnstiles, she said, "they will be standing no less than 20 minutes at each bus stop."

Sergei Gorbunov, a 24-year-old bus driver, said "hares" would not be deterred.

"What, are they going to put a policeman next to every turnstile?" he said.