On December 17th 2009 the Sapsan (Russian for Peregrine Falcon) high-speed train made its maiden voyage from Moscow to St. Petersburg in 3 hours and 45 minutes.
Nothing has ground America’s collective gears worse than losing to the “Ruskies” for the majority of the past century, so this development could provide the spark needed to ratchet up speed rail development in the United States as a matter of national pride.
When Sputnik slung Yuri Gagarin into orbit, the United States launched into the space race with the Apollo missions. America prides itself on its tech capabilities, which makes it even more puzzling why the high speed rail resistance has held out for so long and why we are behind the Russians in this regard.
The Sapsan is the latest and greatest of Russian rail, and adds to the heritage the zheleznya doroga (meaning railway, or literally “iron road”).
One of the most impressive feats of its day was the Trans-Siberian Railway that linked Russia’s European and Asian parts. Approved by Tsar Alexander the Second in 1889, the project was a record expenditure meant to unify a large country with a little in the way of rail (a large country with no rail, sounds awfully familiar). With a blistering speed of 15 mph, the Russian Empire could move populations to its mainly empty eastern frontier, along with troops and munitions to establish itself as an Asian power as well as a European one.
The Japanese severely dented those ambitions with a resounding victory in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5. Nevertheless, the eastern regions became more developed thanks to the rail link with European Russia, and Vladivostok (literally meaning “Ruler of the East”) became one of Russia’s major cities.
For those who have never been to that part of the world, one becomes overwhelmed by the vastness of Russia and Central Asia. Flat steppe extends as far as the eye can see in any direction, well over the horizon line. In the wintertime it is a virtual white out, a blank slate of snow and ice that goes on for hundreds of kilometers. The Sapsan and the high-speed rail lines that will follow have the potential to do something that could bring a great benefit to the Russian Federation: shrink it.
Getting around the former Soviet Union is a time-consuming experience, so most people do not travel far unless they absolutely must. Were travel times to be cut, a much more mobile society would emerge and the citizens of the world’s biggest country would want to get out and see more of their own land. More travel options would lower prices, giving more of an incentive to go a bit further a field for vacation than the dacha homes.
There is a big social dividend in the shrinking of a country. It obviously brings people together. There is so much to explore in Russia for both its own citizens and foreigners, and the prospect of fluid Western European style transportation is very exciting indeed. Now, to get rid of those visa requirements…
photo: Inside Russia
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