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Sakhalin Bridge through the eyes of the Sakhalin ex-Minister of Transport

He does not yet exist and it is not known when he will appear, but his history is already the envy of other objects. Sakhalin Bridge - history of the issue.

Vladimir Degtyarev has worked as an assistant to the Sakhalin governor Igor Farkhutdinov since 2001, from 2003 to 2015. - Minister of Transport of the Sakhalin Region. For almost 12 years he was engaged in the project of building a Sakhalin bridge across the Nevelskoy Strait. He believes that the result of the work is still there - the project has been implemented by 1/3, since after all it was possible to carry out a very significant component of it - the rewiring of the old Japanese narrow-gauge railway to the Russian standard. The other 2/3 - the bridge and sections of the railway on both sides of the strait are still waiting in the wings. But, as life shows, they are not discounted. EastRussia asked Vladimir Degtyarev to recall how the process of approvals and decision-making on the Sakhalin-mainland bridge was going on.

Sakhalin Bridge through the eyes of the Sakhalin ex-Minister of Transport
Photo: Sakhalin Regional Duma

- Vladimir Dmitrievich, since when did you become involved in the construction of the Sakhalin-mainland crossing?

- Since 2001, I worked as an assistant to the Sakhalin governor Igor Farkhutdinov. Even then, the topic of building a bridge from Sakhalin to the mainland was actively discussed. The head of the region began to raise this issue since the late 90s. Analytical reports were written, the regional administration contacted the Government of the Russian Federation, raised the history of the issue.

- What was the role of Igor Farkhutdinov?

- Igor Farkhutdinov was actively involved in the development of the region, and he wanted the bridge to be there. I remember then when I came across documents on a new cosmodrome in the Far East, in which Sakhalin was assessed as a more preferable place for its location than the Amur Region. Indeed, in the case of missile launches from Cape Krillon in the south of Sakhalin, the first stage of the missiles would be separated somewhere far in the Pacific Ocean. And the only thing that stopped the developers was the absence of a railway crossing through the Tatar Strait. After all, a lot of bulky cargo for the cosmodrome must be transported by rail.

- Was the Japanese standard railroad track considered an obstacle to the project?

- Certainly. This was a serious problem. The entire rolling stock on Sakhalin was then unique. These were old Japanese cars and diesel locomotives or Russian cars put on a narrow-gauge standard wheeled bogie. And there was an understanding that when all this morally and physically finally gets old, then it will not be easy to replace all this economy, because all production capacities in the country are quite naturally sharpened to the Russian standard and the Russian railway track. It is also important to understand that the maintenance of the narrow gauge railway was done almost by hand! Because all the equipment that allows you to inspect and repair the railway infrastructure as quickly as possible, it is all designed for the broad gauge of the Russian standard. And we have a narrow-gauge railway, inherited from the Japanese. Because of this, the cost of a kilometer was more expensive on Sakhalin than on the mainland of Russia and pretty decent. 

Photo: Sergey Krasnoukhov

Because it was impossible to apply the standard equipment that was on the entire railway network. On the mainland, everything was worked out, went on a knurled one, various devices, scrapers and so on were used, everything was according to the standard and everything was clear. And here on Sakhalin everything was done practically by hand. Because of this, the Sakhalin road was unprofitable. It hung on the network of all Russian railways all the time, because it was exclusive.

- What arguments did you have to prove that Sakhalin needed a bridge or a tunnel?

- The most important thing is cargo traffic. There is a traffic flow, investments will be justified. In Soviet times, this was more or less normal. At that time, up to 14 million tons of cargo a year were transported on the Sakhalin-mainland sea ferry crossing! This is why there were 10 ferries on the line. After all, all the pulp and paper mills and coal mines worked. There was just crazy traffic. And such a traffic flow would fully justify the construction of the bridge. When we started to deal with this in detail, seriously, GIPROTRANS NII and other scientific organizations began to connect, then the main justification for the construction of the bridge was precisely the traffic flow. Scientists told us that the construction of the bridge would be justified if there is a cargo turnover on it in the amount of 5-7 million tons per year. That is why the idea of ​​the bridge began to be discussed with renewed vigor, when at that time there was movement on the Sakhalin shelf projects. After all, a large volume of cargo was to be transported for the implementation of the oil and gas projects Sakhalin-1, Sakhalin-2, and subsequently Sakhalin-3. For the construction of infrastructure and its subsequent maintenance. Taking into account only this traffic flow, the bridge was already becoming profitable.

- Two-thirds of the project seems to have been sorted out. As with the last 1/3, I mean the sections of the railway on both sides of the strait. The railway does not fit the sea either on the mainland or on the island. To connect its torn ends, it is necessary to build no less than almost half a thousand kilometers of the railway?

- That's for sure. To implement a bridge construction project, it is not enough to erect the bridge itself. It is also necessary to build on the mainland, in the dense taiga, about 400 km, and on Sakhalin - from the Nysh station to the town of Pogibi on the bank of the Nevelskoye Strait - along sandstones and mari - more than 100 km of railway.

Moreover, the approaches to the transition from Sakhalin to the mainland began to be built back in Stalin's times. On Cape Lazarev there was even a prepared embankment and a huge hole in the ground - the entrance to an unbuilt tunnel. Its construction was immediately stopped by Khrushchev after Stalin's death. The project was deemed unprofitable and unnecessary.

- Are these all the problems that the developers of the project had to face?

- Of course not. There was another very important problem. The fact is that from the Sakhalin side, the bridge abuts against a nature reserve, a nature conservation area. Accordingly, it is necessary to somehow resolve this issue as well. Either change the status of the territory, or bypass it. Then the matter did not come to the solution of questions in this part. But if the project is implemented, the issue will surely arise again and it will have to be resolved.

- Who else would you mention as a person who has done a lot to implement the project of building a bridge across the Nevelskoy Strait?

I believe that Gennady Fadeev, the ex-Minister of Railways of the Russian Federation, did a lot for Sakhalin. He helped us a lot in resolving the issue of changing the Sakhalin railway to the Russian standard. With his help, it was possible to include the rewiring in the investment program of Russian Railways. It was necessary, however, to divide the rewiring project into stages, which is a very expensive undertaking. Allocated 1-1,5 billion rubles. in year. But the process started slowly. By the way, he walked with varying degrees of intensity from 2004 to July 2020. 

Photo: Sergey Krasnoukhov

What else was the problem? Yes, in that it was necessary to redo all the bridges along the route of the railway. They were still of Japanese construction. They had to be either strengthened or completely rebuilt. And there are quite a few of them. To make it clearer, I will say this - on a railway with a length of 700 km, bridges are located almost every 5 km. Plus streams, under which 3-4 pipes must be laid. All this is very expensive.

- You said that coal played an important role in the flow of goods to the mainland. Coal on Sakhalin is still being mined decently. Retired mines have replaced open pit mines. The main one is Solntsevsky, located in the Uglegorsk region, where more than 1 million tons of coal have already been mined since the beginning of this year. But how were they going and are going to transport coal from there in the event of a bridge being built, there is no railway there either?

- The developers of the bridge proposed in parallel to build a railway line to Uglegorsk, the region where the bulk of Sakhalin brown coal is mined, its calorific value is 2 times higher than that used at seaside power plants. By the way, it is transported from Yakutia. That is, large volumes of Sakhalin coal could be in great demand on the mainland.

- How could the cost of cargo transportation on Sakhalin change if the bridge construction project was implemented? It is no secret that the extremely expensive transport component makes almost any production on Sakhalin uncompetitive. Therefore, in the place where oil is produced, there is still no refinery of its own.

- Economists calculated that after the completion of the rewiring of the Sakhalin railway and the construction of the bridge, the cost of transporting goods, including coal, would have dropped on Sakhalin 5 times, no less. Then it would be possible to abandon the ferry crossing. But today the tariff for the carriage of goods by sea ferry Vanino-Kholmsk is slightly less than the cost of carriage of goods by rail through all of Russia, from Moscow to Sovgavan. At the same time, the bridge has not been built, and difficulties are already beginning with the ferry crossing. And huge investments will be required. Yes, two new ferries have been built, but more are needed. This is a lot of money. In addition to this replacement or re-equipment for them already require berths-tables in ports. And many other questions appear.

- Can you tell us in more detail how the Sakhalin Oblast administration pushed through the bridge construction project at that time?

- The Sakhalin authorities then, in the early 2000s, unlike their Far Eastern neighbors, actively lobbied for the idea of ​​building a crossing over the Nevelskoy Strait. Governor of the region Igor Farkhutdinov organized scientific conferences, hearings in the State Duma and the Federation Council. We were supported in both wards. Then this work was continued by the governors Ivan Malakhov and Alexander Khoroshavin. If the government of the Russian Federation allowed to include some funds in the investment component of Russian Railways for the construction of the Sakhalin bridge, this would be a solution to the issue. But the cost of railway transportation was constantly monitored by the REC, since Russian Railways are natural monopolists. Therefore, this option did not work, although the administration of the Sakhalin region wrote letters, asked to meet halfway, but this was never agreed. The project was never started.

- But it seems like there was already some kind of bridge crossing project?

- It could not be called a full-fledged project. There was a preliminary feasibility study. And it was necessary to do a normal modern project with all the specified data. To prepare the project, it would be necessary to walk along the entire route, drill a large number of pits, make new surveys, since what was already outdated. After all, the state of the soil changes over time. In total, there were 7 options for crossing the Nevelskoy Strait. A dam, a tunnel and, directly, a bridge were considered. Then they chose a bridge with dump approaches, so that it was shorter. An important factor was the cost of the subsequent operation of the structure. Technically, all this was possible and feasible. And such bridges already existed then and are now. Yes, the cost of the project was not small. At that time, first about 400, then 450, and now the figure is already more than 540 billion rubles. At that time, about 10 billion rubles had to be spent on design alone.


- How do you assess the role of the former Minister of Railways, and at that time the Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Aksenenko?

- In general, it seems to me that if he held the post of deputy prime minister for another year or two, the bridge construction project was started. He was a supporter of Igor Farkhutdinov in this matter. Firstly, he saw the prospect as a railway worker, and secondly, he previously headed the Interdepartmental Commission on Social and Economic Problems of Coal-mining Regions, so the issue of reducing the tariff for the transportation of high-quality Sakhalin coal, of course, worried him. Well, and thirdly, as Deputy Prime Minister, he saw preferences for Russia if the Japanese component was included in the project.

- Was this seriously considered?

- At that time there was a lot of talk about it. Both from our side and from the Japanese side. On the part of Japan, statements even began to sound that if the Russians even begin to build a bridge from Sakhalin to the mainland, Japan will immediately implement a project to build a transition from Hokkaido to Sakhalin. The fact is that in the Land of the Rising Sun all the islands are connected by bridges or tunnels, for them this is not a problem, so if Sakhalin connected with the Trans-Siberian Railway, the Japanese would be happy to send their goods not by the southern sea route, but through Russia. At that time, calculations showed that it was many times more effective.

- Do you believe that the Sakhalin bridge to the mainland will ever be built?

- I would very much like to believe it. I would like to have time to drive on it in this life (smiles). After all, so much effort and money has already been invested in this project! He has real prospects. So I am sure, if not during our lifetime, then the next generation will definitely implement it and Sakhalin will forever unite with the mainland. After all, ultimately it is also a matter of big state policy. It is necessary to “sew the country together,” as our President Vladimir Putin says.

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