Russians call the new high-speed service from Moscow to St. Petersburg "white death" because it has already killed seven people due to allegedly lax security
Ljudmila Bogdanova says her son, Aljosha, always swore that he would be famous one day.
In a tragic irony, he was right. People in his village, and even Moscow and St. Petersburg, recognize his name as one of the seven people to have been killed by Russia's new high-speed train since it began running in December. Among the train's other victims have been a woman whose high heels got caught in the train tracks and a man who tried to save her.
Since 15-year-old Aljosha's death in April, Bogdanova says the weight of strangers' sympathy has become too much. She says she goes shopping around Krasny Bor, the village where she and her husband live about 20 kilometers southeast of St. Petersburg, "like a spy, in a roundabout way, so nobody will see me. I'm so tired of condolences."
Bogdanova and her husband are asking for 1 million euros in a lawsuit against Russian Railways, which operates the train, called Sapsan. "I don't need the money. I just want Russian Railways to take some safety measures," Bogdanova says.
Several hundred kilometers away in Moscow, others are organizing to protest Sapsan's operation, which is given priority over the aging, crowded commuter trains that ply the route each day between Moscow and St. Petersburg. "Thousands of people sit in the commuter trains for hours, waiting for the Sapsan to pass. The timetable gets changed every day. People are late for work [and] losing their jobs," says Alesja Lonskaya, an anti-Sapsan organizer. So far Lonskaya's group has held meetings and presented petitions to Moscow City Hall, Russian Railways and, because the state-owned Russian Railways sets all of the country's train timetables, the Federal Antimonopoly Committee.
The Sapsan made its first run, from St. Petersburg to Moscow, on 17 December. In January vandals pelted it with rocks. Oxana Shulga, a spokeswoman for the transport police, said March alone saw nine attacks on the train.
After Aljosha Bogdanov's death, the attacks began to happen practically every day, with three reported on the day after the tragedy. People have broken the train's windows, thrown stones and tomatoes at it, and put boulders on the tracks. Two men from St. Petersburg shot at the train, according to Russian Railways. They were arrested and fined about 80,000 rubles ($2,570).
By 10 June, there had been about 40 attacks on the train, according to Russian Railways president Vladimir Yakunin.
"Everybody in our village hates this train. We call it White Death," Bogdanova says.
The Sapsan travels at up to 250 kilometers per hour, and drivers are under instructions not to make unscheduled stops. Russian Railways spokeswoman Yulia Mineeva says the no-stopping rule is necessary in order to avoid delays. The fastest service between the two cities takes just under four hours.
The Sapsan passes at least 10 times a day through the station where Aljosha Bogdanov was killed, without slowing down. It did not stop after it hit him.
Nor did a Sapsan train that hit and killed a woman on 24 June. According to media reports, the incident came to light only after someone noticed damage to and blood on the train's nose cone when it reached Moscow.
On a web forum for railway workers, drivers have noted some of the Sapsan's peculiarities. Among them are a strong air current ahead of the rapidly approaching train and a lack of any noise to warn of its approach.
If Bogdanov had been near the tracks when an ordinary commuter train was approaching, he might have lived. Grigory Fedorchuk, a taxi driver from Krasny Bor, witnessed the tragedy and will testify in the lawsuit. He said the boy was thrown by the air current and crushed against a pillar. There was an official investigation into Bogdanov's death, but no charges were brought against the train driver.
He might also have lived if Russia had a dedicated line for the high-speed train, as is done in some countries. But in 2004 the Transport Ministry calculated that a single kilometer of new track would cost about 150 million rubles ($5 million).
To save money, Russian Railways opted to adapt the existing lines for the new train, spending 15.4 billion rubles ($500 million) to rebuild 800 kilometers of track from Moscow to St. Petersburg and an additional 9.5 billion rubles on the line from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod.
On 30 July two of the eight Sapsans that run from St. Petersburg to Moscow will continue on to Nizhny Novgorod, cutting the total journey time from 16 to eight hours. In December the railway intends to start high-speed service from St. Petersburg to Helsinki and then, later, to run lines to Omsk, Sochi, Novosibirsk, Kursk, and Kyiv.
So far, the railway has erected a barrier along 331 kilometers of the route between Nizhny Novgorod and Moscow. Other measures are still under discussion, according to Mineeva, the company's spokeswoman, but one regulator has said pedestrian overpasses will be built to replace level crossings. "There is such a plan, of course, but no one can tell when these overpasses will appear. Everything depends on financing from the federal budget," Mineeva says.
In addition to a barrier, there was another safety measure in place at the Popovka station, where Aljosha Bogdanov was killed. The station has signal lights at two designated crossing points to let pedestrians know when it is safe to cross the tracks. But Bogdanova says at least 20 witnesses will testify that on that April day the lights were not working.
Alexander Pasko, deputy administrator at the Federal Transport Supervision Service, which oversees the Transport Ministry, has criticized the Sapsan-related safety measures as inadequate. His agency is working on regulations that would require the train to slow to 180 kilometers per hour while passing through villages and that would require overpasses instead of pedestrian crossings.
Under the current circumstances, he noted, not only are pedestrians in danger from the train, but the train is put at risk of crashing or derailing by animals that could wander into its path.
"No crossing the rails anymore. It's too dangerous. If a person goes under the wheels of train it is a tragedy for one family, but if the train collided with a cow, it would be a catastrophe, and a tragedy for many families."
But two months after Aljosha Bogdanov's funeral, nothing had changed at the Popovka station. Even the extra guards promised by Russian Railways had not materialized.