Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bureaucrat Express

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

People say there are only two real cities in Russia: Moscow and St. Petersburg. Some folks hold the even more radical opinion that Russia can be divided into two parts: Moscow-St. Petersburg and Everything Else. Between these two parts lies a deep rift, if not a cultural chasm.

If you look closer, however, you see that while there is no rift or chasm between Russia's two major metropolises, there is certainly no decent transportation connecting them, either.

Of course, there is a railway line with more than a dozen trains a day, and there are several flights that take about as long as it takes to fly from Moscow to Helsinki. There is a highway that hardly merits the name, even if we judge it by the European standards of 30 years ago.

But suddenly, an enthusiastic news report appeared on state television last week. The report showed a new luxury express train that has started running between the two cities. The train, the report exclaimed, was unique. It concluded with the words, "There is nothing resembling this train anywhere else in the world." I have to admit, turns of phrase like this have started to worry me recently, when it seems that more and more emphasis is being placed on Russia's uniqueness and how it does not resemble the West. Why hasn't anyone else come up with something like this train or whatever else is supposedly unique to Russia? Maybe it's because these things are not unique at all, but not economically or technologically viable.

Let's take this much-touted train, for instance, and examine it as if it were a basic business case from Macroeconomics 101.

Here are the givens. The train is made up of standard train cars based on what Pullman thought up long, long ago. Inside, there are two-room compartments with private bathrooms, foldout double beds and wireless Internet access, as well as television sets. The compartment can only be opened using a key card. The price of a compartment like this runs from around $250 to $450 one way. The journey takes the same amount of time as on other express trains.

The first question that begs to be asked is what consumers are being targeted, taking into account that the price of a one-way ticket exceeds the average per capita income in both cities.

From an economic standpoint, the cost of a ticket on what is essentially a form of mass transit should not be equal to the monthly income of potential passengers. By comparison, a ticket on a French TGV train running from Paris to Nantes costs about 50 euros. Fifty euros is a mere fraction of the average Parisian's monthly income. Furthermore, the train takes two hours, 15 minutes. At this speed, it would take only three hours and change to travel from Moscow to St. Petersburg. But the new train takes eight hours.

Perhaps this train is designed exclusively for businesspeople, for the kind of folks who need Internet access. But why would they need the web in the dead of night? What passengers would be so pressed for time that they would spend the entire night sending out a barrage of e-mails? In today's business world, when people are pressed for time, they take a plane, not a luxury train -- and pay a lot less, by the way.

There is one more detail unique to this Moscow-St. Petersburg train: the key card. This detail tells us that the route is on the dangerous side, to put it mildly. In other words, money and other things get stolen from compartments. How can this fact be reconciled with the high ticket price?

As a result, we end up with a strange combination of cutting-edge technology -- the Internet and key cards -- and early 20th-century technology. This sounds like something from a Jules Verne novel. The combination might work well in a book, but economically, it's a complete oxymoron.

We could pursue this business case further, but it is already clear who this train is for. It's designed for bureaucrats, the real captains of industry in the Russian economy. It is perfect for the Putin-era recruits from St. Petersburg who have migrated en masse to Moscow and often head home to visit family in St. Petersburg on the weekend.

These people have a unique position in the new economic system, and they couldn't care less about things like efficient time management. It's easy to manage financial flows while riding in a two-room compartment and surfing the Internet all night. Their tickets are bought using government money. The price is irrelevant, as are the usual formulas calculating the relationship between price, supply and demand. Economic efficiency doesn't matter, either.

It turns out there really is a chasm between Moscow and St. Petersburg. And it rides the rails.

Georgy Bovt is editor of Profil.