The Greater Ring of the Moscow Railway: The secret life of a forgotten suburban line

Strelka Magazine traveled to suburban Moscow to find out how the Greater Ring of the Moscow Railway operates.

«Of course this line should be talked about more, more people should know about it. I myself was unaware of this route up until this morning». Nadezhda is travelling in a half-empty train carriage on the Greater Ring of the Moscow Railway. She was visiting some friends living close to Stolbovaya station and is travelling back home to another suburban destination, Kubinka. Nadezhda had been planning to take the lengthy route via Moscow with several interchanges, but at the very last moment, her son reminded her about the Greater Ring. «No one’s even going to check my ticket. Shouldn’t have bought it,» says Nadezhda. Her trip to Kubinka lasted a little over a hour.

THE RING

The Greater Ring of the Moscow Railway, commonly known as the «БМО» (meaning «the Greater Peripheral Moscow Railway» — ed. note) is an enormous 600-km long ring that connects all 11 railway lines radiating from Moscow. Its main purpose is freight transport. Thanks to the Greater Ring, trains carrying cargo can easily circle around an already traffic-locked capital. Most of the stations are located in Moscow Oblast, expect for two short sections of the railroad that go through New Moscow and Vladimirskaya Oblast.

The peripheral railway is divided into several segments and some of them carry passenger trains. They are never packed with people, the passengers consisting mainly of railway employees or dachniki — people either permanently or temporarily living in their summer houses. Due to the limited demand, shorter trains are used on the line 6 carriages on average. The platforms are low, so you have to climb stairs to get onto the train. At the intersections with the radial lines the stations are usually located a bit further off, often on secondary tracks.

All of this adds to the unique atmosphere of the Greater Ring. The small stations that the trains stop at often turn out to be in the middle of a forest. Sometimes it feels as if you’re somewhere deep in the country, even though Moscow is just 30-40 km away. On the radial lines, trains move between big towns, but here on the Ring all you see is trees, fields and small villages. Every so often the train goes through a bigger station only to dive back into the forest. Sometimes the train stops only upon the passenger’s request. «Until Chernetskoe all stops are on demand. If you need to get off, push the button and inform us,» says the voice on the speakers. On some sections of the ring only two people remain on the train: the driver and his assistant.

Charmed by the romantic image of the Greater Ring, some turn exploring it into a hobby. There are two online platforms where fans of «the peripheral» gather: a LiveJournal blog called ru_bmo and a group on the social network «Vkontakte» called «БМО / Большая Московская окружная». Subscribers use them to check the schedule, plan trips together and post pictures of trains and stations taken while travelling on the Ring.

THE PASSENGERS

The peripheral railway almost never goes through towns; it was not conceived as a passenger route. The first section of the ring, located to the southeast of Moscow, was opened in November 1870 by a pair of wealthy factory owners, the Khludov brothers. Using their own funds to create a direct railway link between their manufacturing plant and the Moscow — Ryazan radial route, the Khludovs laid the section between Egoryevsk and Voskresensk. A year later another wealthy family, the Baranovs, built one more section a bit more to the north, between Aleksandrov and Karabanovo. By the end of the 19th century both lines were expanded, and during the First World War and the Civil War they were linked together. This route started to grow in importance during the Second World War: it was used to transport soldiers, machines and weapons. By 1940 the northern half of the ring between Aleksandrov and Zhilev was formed, and the second half of the ring was completed by 1944. The 1960s saw a large scale reconstruction of the Ring: renovation of the platforms, construction of new stations and addition of new tracks on the one-track segments of the railway. The infrastructure here is in a state of constant modernisation: even today there’s construction work being carried out.

The passenger trains were introduced primarily for the workers servicing the railway. So it’s no surprise that people in uniforms often appear: platelayers, carriage inspectors, dustmen, railway security staff. Workers carrying tools and small platelayers’ trolleys. The train driver always waits patiently while goods are being unloaded onto the platform and closes the doors only after the wave of the railway worker’s hand. «The passenger flow is very low, and the people are simple. There are regulars who use the line all the time and are always ready to share some tea and engage in a philosophical discussion. БМО is like a small ant colony, where everyone knows everyone,» I’m told this by Igor, who used to work as a driver’s assistant on the Ring Railway for a couple of years.

Some people who are members of the railway staff nevertheless use it just like any other mode of public transport, to commute between home and work. But they are a minority. Dachniki are much more common here: the Greater Ring allows them to reach their summer houses more easily and quickly without having to go through Moscow, and for some of them it’s the only possible way to reach their distant villages. Some radial trains occasionally turn onto the peripheral line: that way, passengers can hop on in Moscow and travel straight to their destination on the Greater Ring.

According to the Central Suburban Passenger Company, which maintains the Moscow Railway, 652.2 thousand people used the Greater Ring in 2016, just 0.1% of the overall annual passenger flow. «The passenger flow is so low that on certain segments of the route the trains are used almost exclusively by the railway staff,» the company’s press office informed us.

FINANCE AND EFFICIENCY

The ticket fares on the Greater Ring are the same as on the radial lines. A ride to the closest station will cost you 20.5 rubles. But the majority of stations are not equipped with ticket offices or self-service machines, not to mention turnstiles. Ticket inspectors work only on certain segments of the route, so it’s unusual for passengers to pay the fare.

The Central Suburban Passenger Company press office declined to provide any information concerning the profits from the Greater Ring traffic, but it is fairly obvious that the numbers are very modest here.

The director of the Institute for Transport Economics and Transport Policy Studies at the Higher School of Economics, Konstantin Trofimenko, does not find the situation unusual: «After all, business is not their only concern, the Central Suburban Passenger Company performs a social function as well. Dachniki as well as the elderly rely on the Greater Ring, because for many of them it’s the only way to reach their villages, which are often not serviced by buses. The trains, even if they come once a day, prove to be very useful in their case».

Urban transport expert and Mobility in Chain consultant Ilya Petushkov also points to the importance of the Greater Ring for smaller groups of people, sometimes even one single person. «We must understand that commuter transport has two different functions: one is to service the passenger traffic, the other to provide good coverage. In the second case, you keep the route for a particular reason, for example because there’s a distant village inhabited by three retired women. And they are just as important as the average Muscovite; they also need to get out of their village somehow. Of course three grandmas are never going to create a sufficient passenger flow, but that’s not the point. Passenger traffic cannot serve as a valid indicator for efficiency assessment here».

PERSPECTIVES

After passenger traffic was introduced on the Moscow Ring Railway, the subscribers of the online communities started to discuss the possibility of the Greater Ring becoming its suburban analogue.

Until recently a trip around the peripheral ring took around 19 hours with 4 interchanges, one of them 5 hours long. After the December changes to the timetable, this ride will take more than 24 hours of your time. Meanwhile, introducing a commuter train that would circle around the whole ring is not possible. The full length of the Greater Ring is around 600 km. «The distance limit for suburban trains is 200 km, according to federal law. Moreover, due to the heavy freight traffic, circuit passenger trains would face delays resulting in the total length of the trip exceeding 12 hours» says the Central Suburban Passenger Company press office. They believe there’s no demand for such long rides.

Both Petushkov and Trofimenkov agree that the Greater Ring could never become the new Moscow Ring Railway. The former argues that БМО is already efficient enough in its task of providing links to some of the most hard to reach parts of Moscow Oblast, which are underserved by other modes of public transportation. The other factor, he argues, is that the Greater Ring trains pass through several bigger towns without stopping, while a high density of urbanisation is one of the most important factors in the efficient functioning of passenger traffic.

Trofimenko believes that the Greater Ring is located too far from Moscow, and the urbanization of the surrounding areas will not happen very quickly, not even in the distant future. Therefore, it is simply not suited to function in the same way as the Moscow Ring Railway. Furthermore, the freight traffic here is about to increase. The Central Ring Motorway will be laid nearby, and the huge logistics hubs located there will require railway lines to service them.

In addition, the peripheral ring will also receive the freight traffic that had to make way for the passenger trains on the Moscow Ring Railway. Trofimenko’s colleague at the Institute for Transport Economics and Transport Policy Studies, senior researcher Pavel Zuzin, argues that the Moscow Ring Railway cannot be considered a part of the city’s freight logistics system anymore. Some parts of the ring still allow the movement of cargo, but all the freight yards are ready for closure and relocation to the Greater Ring Road. In the General Scheme for the Development of the Moscow Rail Network (released in 2008 and updated in 2014), the Greater Ring also features as a freight traffic-carrying route. In addition to this, Zuzin reminded us about the high-speed tramway network project that includes a line located much closer to Moscow, which is aimed at connecting all the big towns and airports of the Moscow region.

In the past few years, the Central Suburban Passenger Company had to cut down the already small number of commuter trains circling the Greater Ring. The company says this is linked both to the low passenger traffic and the increase in freight transportation on the lines. Rumours that commuter trains will be permanently taken off the Greater Ring frequently crop up on the net. But the Central Suburban Passenger Company press office assured Strelka Magazine that there are no plans for complete discontinuation of commuter traffic on the peripheral ring of Moscow Railway.

Text: Kirill Golovkin
Translation: Alexandra Tumarkina
Photos: Gleb Leonov/Strelka Institute

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