Russia Table of Contents

The transportation system during the Soviet period was organized in the form of vertically integrated monopolies controlled by the central government. Thus, for example, the same administrative agency owned and operated the airports, airlines, and enterprises that manufactured aircraft. The infrastructure eroded seriously in the late Soviet period and requires much modernization and reform, for which Russia relies heavily on foreign investment and aid.


Roads were one of the least-used forms of transportation in the Soviet Union, a characteristic that has continued in the Russian Federation. Soviet industry placed little emphasis on the production of automobiles and other modes of personal transport, and the privately owned vehicle was a relatively rare phenomenon; therefore, the demand for road construction was small. The dominance of the railroads for cargo transport also constrained the demand for the construction of roads. In 1995 Russia had 934,000 kilometers of roads, compared with 6.3 million kilometers in the United States (see fig. 10). Of Russia's total, 209,000 kilometers were unpaved, and 445,000 kilometers were not available for public use because they served specific industries or farms.

The World Bank has estimated that in twenty years the demands of Russia's new economy will increase the road system's share of transportation to 41 percent from its 1992 level of 13 percent. However, in 1992 some 38 percent of Russia's highway system required rehabilitation or reconstruction, and another 25 percent required repaving. Many major bridges also required large-scale repair in the mid-1990s.


Railroads are the dominant mode of transportation. In 1995 Russia had some 154,000 kilometers of railroads, 26 percent of which were electrified, but 67,000 kilometers of that total served specific industries and were not available for general use (see fig. 11). The entire system is 1.52-meter gauge. In 1993 railroads accounted for 1,608 billion ton-kilometers of cargo traffic, compared with the 26 billion ton-kilometers provided by trucks. The prominence of railroads is the result of several factors: the vast distances that need to be covered; the penchant of Soviet economic planners for locating manufacturing facilities in politically expedient areas rather than where raw materials and other inputs were available; and the conditions for granting state fuel subsidies, which provided no incentives to break up cargo transportation into shorter-haul operations that could be covered by road. Cargo traffic is the predominant use of railroads, in contrast to the emphasis on passenger traffic in West European railroad systems (see table 19; table 20, Appendix). This pattern is a product of the Soviet emphasis on heavy industry and production rather than on consumers. In 1992 Russia's railroads accounted for 253,000 passenger-kilometers, and by 1994 the total had dropped to 227,000 passenger-kilometers.

Railroad traffic has plummeted since the beginning of Russian economic reform, reflecting a general decline in economic activity. Between 1992 and 1994, freight haulage dropped from 1.9 million ton-kilometers to 1.2 million ton-kilometers, and Russia's rolling stock and roadbeds deteriorated, mainly because of insufficient maintenance funding. In 1993 an estimated 8.5 percent of Russian rail lines were defective. As a market economy takes shape, experts forecast a smaller relative role for the railroads. The combination of fuel and material costs, substantially higher in the absence of government subsidies, and new alternative routing will likely prompt Russian manufacturers to find more efficient means of transporting goods. For shorter hauls, trucks will replace rail service, and intermodal transportation will receive greater emphasis as an outgrowth of marketization.

Air Transportation

Of the modest amount of passenger traffic in Russia, air service accounts for a relatively large portion, although the volume of traffic declined in the first half of the 1990s. In 1990 the monopoly service of Aeroflot, the Soviet Union's state-owned airline, accounted for 22 percent of the total distance passengers traveled, a proportion comparable with the proportion of travel on the airlines of the United States and Canada. However, the contribution of air service to total travel had dropped to 12.5 percent by 1993, and the number of passengers flying was less than half the 1990 total. Subsidized air fares and long-distance flights between cities accounted for much of the air activity in the early 1990s. In 1994 Russia had a total of 2,517 airports, of which fifty-four had runways longer than 3,000 meters, 202 had runways between 2,400 and 3,000 meters, and another 108 had runways between 1,500 and 2,400 meters.

As with the rest of the economy, air travel has declined substantially as prices have increased and travelers' incomes have declined. The airline industry also has undergone major adjustments in the 1990s. Aeroflot, since 1995 a joint-stock company with majority state ownership, remains the main Russian airline. However, more than 200 regional carriers have emerged in the former Soviet Union, and most of them are in Russia. With flights from so many carriers, direct service is now available between regions, including direct flights from the Russian Far East to Japan and Alaska, without the previously obligatory stop in Moscow or St. Petersburg.

At the same time that airlines decentralized, so did reservation systems and navigation control networks, making those aspects of airline travel less efficient. Experts predict that as market forces continue to work in the sector, higher fuel costs and declining passenger demand will force mergers and bankruptcies that eventually will lead to a more efficient system.

The airline industry also must deal with an aging capital stock. As of 1993, some 48 percent of the national system's aircraft were more than fifteen years old. To upgrade, Russian airline services have purchased aircraft from Western firms and demanded more modern aircraft from domestic manufacturers.

Water Transportation

Maritime transportation plays an important role in Russian transit, but the country's geography and climate limit the capacity of shipping. Many Russian rivers run from south to north rather than from east to west, constraining their use during the Russian winters.

Russia's major ports providing access to the Baltic Sea are St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad, and Novorossiysk and Sochi are the main Black Sea ports (see fig. 12). Vladivostok, Nakhodka, Magadan, and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy account for the bulk of maritime transportation on the Pacific coast. The largest Arctic port, Murmansk, maintains an ice-free harbor despite its location on the northern shore of the Kola Peninsula. In 1995 Russia's merchant marine had about 800 ships with a gross tonnage of more than 1,000, of which half are standard cargo vessels, about 100 oil tankers, and eighty container ships. Russia also owns 235 ships that are over 1,000 tons and sail under foreign registry. In 1991 the merchant marine carried 464 million tons of cargo.

Navigable inland waterways extend 101,000 kilometers, of which 16,900 kilometers are man-made and 60,400 are navigable at night. Boats of the Russian River Fleet do most of the inland shipping, which accounted for 514 million tons of cargo in 1991. The Russian government has made efforts to decentralize control over water transportation and to separate control of liners from ports.

Public Transportation

Although the high price and scarcity of passenger automobiles required Soviet citizens to rely on public transportation, Soviet policy makers gave low priority to civilian transportation. Only six Russian cities have underground systems--Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Nizhniy Novgorod, Novosibirsk, and Samara. The extensive and decorative Moscow subway system, built in the 1930s as a showpiece of Stalinist engineering, remains the most reliable and inexpensive means of transportation in the nation's capital.

Elsewhere, buses are the main form of public transportation. In cities, tramways supplement bus service, accounting for one-third of the passenger-kilometers that buses travel. The Russian Federation continues the Soviet-era 70 percent state subsidy, which keeps fares artificially low. This subsidy has been a drain on the budget and has blunted the public's demand for alternative modes of transportation. The system's infrastructure and vehicle fleets require extensive repair and modernization.

Transportation Reform

In the first half of the 1990s, market forces shifted some of the demand among the various transportation services. Russian policy makers had not prescribed the proper role of the transportation sector in the new economy. However, officials indicated that Russia will follow the Western model of assuming government regulation of transportation systems while reducing state ownership of those systems.

Many state-owned transportation monopolies have been dissolved, but some monopolies such as public transportation are expected to remain in place. The role of government will be to ensure that the systems are commercially viable and allow private systems to emerge. The government also will continue to be responsible for maintaining the quality and availability of the road, air, and water infrastructure and for maintaining standards of transportation safety.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress