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Shmyhal reports complete switch of Ukraine to European railway gauge: Why this is impossible

Photo: "EP"

Photo: "EP"

Ukraine will begin to gradually switch to the European standard in order to connect the Ukrainian railway with the EU, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal announced on May 24. First, there will be a connection of major hubs and large cities, and then a gradual expansion throughout the country, he explained.

The Page has decided to figure out how realistic such plans are. Oleksandr Kava, Deputy Minister of Finance, who oversees the financing of infrastructure projects, gave an express interview to us and explained his opinion.

What the width of railway gauge in the world is

In different countries, the width of the railway gauge is different: from 1,000 to 2,600 mm.

Railways in Ukraine, just like the railroads in other post-Soviet countries, are 1,520 mm wide. The width of the European gauge is 1435 mm.

The European gauge (also called "Standard Gauge" or "Stephenson Gauge") is unofficially considered the world standard in rail transport. Now approximately 60% of all railways in the world use it.

European gauge in Ukraine

The development of the European gauge in Ukraine has long been discussed. In 2018, the then Minister of Infrastructure Volodymyr Omelian said that according to the adopted transport strategy, it is planned to build such railroads from Kyiv to Odess, Lviv, Kharkiv, and Dnipro by 2030.

In February 2021, the Ministry of Infrastructure announced the development of a European format railway network with a train speed of over 250 km/h. Officials announced their intention to build four sections with a total length of 2,000 km. The construction of the first one (896 km long), Kyiv — Lviv — the state border, was promised to begin last year.

At the moment, there are several sections of the European gauge in Ukraine leading from the state border several tens of kilometers inland.

What the situation with the gauge in other post-Soviet countries is

The 1,520 mm gauge continues to dominate in all countries that emerged after the USSR collapse, even in the Baltic countries that have long become the EU members. In Finland, this gauge has remained in place since the time of the Russian Empire.

To improve transportation with the EU, the Baltics is implementing the Rail Baltica project.

Lithuanian Minister of Transport Eligijus Masiulis called the switch from the Russian-Soviet gauge to the European one a "project of state interest", which will encourage new traffic flows to the country. In total, it is planned to lay 335 km of tracks. The cost of the Lithuanian section of Rail Baltica is approximately 580 million euros.

At the moment, the railway network of Lithuania consists of 1,910 km of tracks, including 120 km with the European gauge.

The other day it was reported that Lithuania was in dialogue with the European Commission on the need for funding from the EU for laying the European gauge to the Klaipeda seaport.

"Now it is not only an economic issue, but also a matter of military mobility and security," Deputy Transport Minister Loreta Maskaliovienė said. Through the port of Klaipeda, equipment periodically arrives for the NATO units’ drills or rotation.

Lithuania is trying to get the 250 km section from Kaunas to Klaipeda included in the Rail Baltica project. The railroad line being laid within its framework will connect Tallinn, Riga, Kaunas (with a branch to Vilnius), Warsaw, and Berlin. The cost of the project, which is scheduled for completion in 2026, is estimated at 5.8 billion euros. The main part of the funds — about 85% — is European funding.

In 2014-2016, the first stage of Rail Baltica was built parallel to the existing lines from the border with Poland to Kaunas.

Interview with Oleksandr Kava

In general, how do you assess the idea of switching to the European gauge, its relevance and timeliness?

— It is an unrealistic task to switch the entire network of Ukrainian railways to the European gauge. This is very expensive, since it will be necessary not only to alter the tracks, but also to completely replace the rolling stock. At the same time, it is quite realistic and expedient to develop cross-border corridors with the European gauge, as well as to use the existing infrastructure of the 1,435 mm gauge, which has not been used for a long time, to build new sections of the European gauge to large cities in the regions bordering the EU. Definitely, it is necessary to move in this direction.

Last year, a project was being drafted for laying a European gauge in the section from the Vadul Siret station on the Romanian border to Chernivtsi. This would enable launching passenger trains from Romania to the regional center of Bukovyna, as well as creating a freight hub in Chernivtsi for reloading goods from cars of one gauge to cars of another.

In the shortest possible time, it is necessary to revive the infrastructure of the European gauge, which already exists, but is almost not used. For example, we now have the deepest penetration of the European gauge from the Yahodyn station on the Polish border to Kovel, with a length of about 80 km. At the Kovel station itself, there are specialized freight fleets of the European gauge, which have not been used for almost 30 years.

In Zakarpattia, there are large sections of the European gauge from Chop to Mukachevo and to Diakovo. Last year, project documentation was prepared for restoring the section of the European gauge from Chop to Uzhhorod and creating a freight and passenger hub in the regional center. As soon as the government allocates money, the work can be completed in six months.

It is also possible to restore the combined gauge section from Mostyska-1 station to Rodatychi station and build a new section of the European gauge to Lviv with a length of only 36 km. This will make it possible to make passenger and cargo hubs in this regional center.

To adapt the rolling stock to the new gauge, is it enough to replace the bogies?

– This is not always enough. Our freight wagons with replaced bogies can only be operated almost unhindered in Romania and Bulgaria. They will not pass in other directions due to a significant difference in overall parameters and permissible axle load: for example, our grain wagons have a width of 3,224 mm, while the maximum allowable one in many European countries is 3150 mm, and the axle load of our wagons is up to 23.5 tons with the maximum allowable 18–20 tons in many neighboring countries. Therefore, in Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland, basically only European wagons can be used.

Previously, there was a corridor along which the wagons of our dimensions could move from Yahodyn to Berlin, but first in Germany, and then in Poland, the railways refused to maintain these dimensions.

But even in Romania, trains with our wagons on European bogies need to use the so-called buffer waggons, since we have different train braking systems and automatic coupling.

At least roughly, how much money is needed for such a transformation?

— If we talk about the entire network, then the costs are at least $100 billion. This is a huge investment, since it will be necessary to replace not only the entire track infrastructure, including all switches and feeder lines, but also the entire rolling stock.

What are the advantages of a wide gauge?

— The main advantage is that the wide gauge standard is more efficient for cargo transportation, since it enables using higher-capacity wagons. In addition, our SA-3 automatic coupling allows one to form heavier trains: our train weight can reach 12,000 tons, and in Europe the train weight cannot exceed 2,000–2,500 tons due to the use of an archaic screw coupler.

In passenger traffic, the advantage of a wide gauge is also in dimensions. If in Europe the width of a passenger car cannot exceed 2,800 mm, then in our country it is 3,500 mm, which makes it possible to carry more passengers in a car of the same length.

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Reference. The operational length of the main sections of the railway track in Ukraine is 22,300 km.

As of May 2020, Ukrzaliznytsia's assets included: 57,700 freight cars, 3,883 passenger cars, 720 main-line diesel locomotives, 1,256 shunting diesel locomotives, 1,720 main-line electric locomotives, 1,693 sections of electric trains and diesel trains.

There are several thousand more different freight cars in the fleet of private companies.

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