Bridges to Sakhalin Island

This story has popped up every year or two since I can remember:

An epic 8,400 mile railway route will link London to Tokyo in an ambitious project proposed by the Russian government.

Vladimir Putin’s officials are currently in serious talks with Japan about constructing a 28-mile bridge to enable trains to cross the sea.

Serious talks? I’d love to get hold of the Russian version this is based on.

The blueprint for the project, once mooted by Stalin

Projects which have been mooted for seventy years rarely come to fruition. The glaring exception was the Channel Tunnel, on which early efforts were made in the 19th century.

You can guess why I’m interested in this, can’t you?

Russian’s vice premier Igor Shuvalov said: ‘We are seriously offering our Japanese partners to consider the construction of a mixed road and railway passage from Hokkaido to southern part of Sakhalin.’

Sakhalin is Russia’s largest island – and it would take a 28-mile bridge or tunnel to link to Hokkaido in northern Japan, which is connected to the country’s super-efficient rail network.

Shivalov said: ‘We are close to starting our part of the job.’

Hmmm. Technically it’s probably feasible, although that straight line from Sakhalin to the mainland looks as though it was done by an intern at the Daily Mail. Why you’d build a bridge at an angle like that I don’t know, starting from some random spot along the coast of south-west Sakhalin. There is absolutely nothing whatsoever in that area other than a few decrepit and largely abandoned towns that were once fishing collectives. I know this because I’ve been there and took some photos, so you can see for yourselves. It would be far more sensible to take the line up to the midpoint where the mainland is closer and put the bridge there; I suspect the word “proposed” in that part of the drawing is somewhat misleading.

But even if this is technically possible, as an economic prospect it’s laughable. If the Japanese want to get to Europe they can fly and, with their being short, leg-room isn’t a concern even on long-haul flights. Why on earth would they choose to go by train which would take anywhere between one and two weeks? Okay, there is a certain romanticism still attached to the Trans-Siberian railway and die-hard travellers still take it and enjoy it. I never did it, but I have spent 3 days and 2 nights on a train between Moscow and some snowfield near Nizhnekamsk in Tatarstan and let me tell you, the novelty is gone an hour or so into the second day. The biggest problem by far is that Russia, when viewed from the train, is mind-numbingly boring for 90% of any given journey. I’ve done a fair few trips on Russian and Ukrainian trains and mostly I remember vast snowfields the size of France and as flat as a billiard-table stretching out of sight in all directions. And for some confounded reason they line the damned tracks with birch trees so you couldn’t see anything anyway. On Sakhalin we had mountains to look at (through gaps in the brown sludge that adheres to the windows) and it was nice enough for a few minutes, but hardly something you’d pay very much to do. As the Daily Mail says with a certain tongue in cheek:

Passengers would be able to marvel at the snow-capped mountains in Siberia before discovering the stark and deserted countryside of Russia for bulk of the trip.

Uh-huh. Of all the people I knew in Russia, just one did the Trans-Siberian from Khabarovsk to Moscow: a Dutch girl who was mad as a hatter and would later go on to build schools in Zimbabwe using her hands. She loved this sort of stuff, but I doubt many others would.

As a freight route it would be equally useless. The population of Sakhalin is around 200-250k people; the biggest population centre is Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk with 174,203 people according to Wikipedia. This hardly represents an enormous, untapped consumer market just waiting to be opened up. Some Russians might appreciated being able to nip to Japan for the weekend by train, but it’s hard to see why any Japanese would go the other way except for a few who like to shoot bears and the fewer still who like to get yelled at by staff in restaurants. What about the connection to the mainland? Well, back in the construction boom I was sending men and materials from Sakhalin to De Kastri and they’d take the overnight ferry from Kholmsk to some absolute shithole of a port on the mainland whose name I forget. The ferry was some stinking thing from the Soviet era and most people opted to sleep in their vehicles. Anyone not lugging scaffolding around took the plane. In short, nobody is very much interested in going between Sakhalin and the eastern mainland unless by plane, and even then it’s not many. With sea freight costs being what they are, the idea of taking goods halfway around the world by train, or sending them from one wasteland to another, doesn’t make much economic sense.

A bridge between the Russian mainland and Sakhalin has been costed at around £4 billion, while a link to Japan is likely to be more expensive.

The scheme was unveiled at Russia’s Eastern Economic Forum hosted in Vladivostok by Putin.

I bet Putin wasn’t around when this scheme was unveiled. This is a PR stunt for some company or technical college, nothing more. Well done to the Daily Mail for covering it, though.

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34 thoughts on “Bridges to Sakhalin Island

  1. Also, earthquakes. Don’t they have some pretty big earthquakes round that part of the world? Fancy being 14 miles from land when you get tipped into the icy water of the Sea of Okhotsk? 🙂

  2. Don’t they have some pretty big earthquakes round that part of the world?

    Yup, but they can design for them. Might be a bit costly, though.

    Fancy being 14 miles from land when you get tipped into the icy water of the Sea of Okhotsk?

    Nope. 🙂

  3. “With sea freight costs being what they are, the idea of taking goods halfway around the world by train, or sending them from one wasteland to another, doesn’t make much economic sense”: that’s what I would have thought. Yet China makes rather a splash about its trains running to London.

  4. Yet China makes rather a splash about its trains running to London.

    Another vanity project I suspect, just like this new silk road they’re always waffling about. I predict 99% of their future wealth will come from shipping stuff, not sending it by rail.

  5. I’ve always been keen to give the trans-Siberian Express a go, but you’ve put me off a bit Tim. I like the idea of travelling overland all the way from Hong Kong to visit the family in NW England. But it does take ages; as I recall it’s about 8 or 9 days even if you don’t get off the train. And with visas and multiple tickets, it ends but being more expensive than flying business class.

    China’s belt & road nonsense seems like smoke and mirrors to me; I’ve sat through a number of presentations about it from both government bigwigs and SOE tycoons and I still don’t know what they really hope to achieve.

  6. Never going to happen. The Japanese would probably prefer to tow their islands further away from the mainland if they could, given how they view foreigners in general.

  7. “99% of their future wealth will come from shipping stuff”

    Worth bearing in mind that although air freight is a small % of trade by weight – heavy stuff makes much more sense to ship – it tends to be high value stuff, so is a rather higher % of total trade by value. Perhaps a surprisingly high one if like me you’ve lived near ports and marvelled at how it seems “everything” we consume is coming by sea. Think Tim W knows the % figure by heart but maybe John^2 does too.

    Rail might make sense for items in the intermediate zone between air and ship. Not at all sure what % might be suitable though.

  8. MBE,

    True, air freight accounts for a lot of goods shipped by value if not volume. I recall Tim W saying Apple airfreight iPhones from China because in the electronics game, getting something to market fast matters.

  9. I’d also looked into taking the trans-siberian, but as others have said the cost one way is the same as a return flight! Have done a few overnight trains before but baulked at the idea of a 5+ day journey.

    The Koreans are keen on a train link to Europe too for some reason, when I went to the DMZ last year the tour stopped at ‘the last station before the boarder’ and had a big map showing the routes that would be possible post reunification.

  10. Tim W and Apple – something even more interesting I’m afraid. Well, to Tim W anyway.

    Cost of 36 tonnes in a container from and to anywhere globally is $5,000 tops. Takes 30 – 45 days.

    36 tonnes of iPhones is $lots of millions.

    Depreciation on electronics is about 1% per week, given technological advance.

    Air freight is $2 a kg, give or take and dependent upon volume (Apple is Cathay Pacific’s largest freight customer) and takes, including customs, 48 to 72 hours.

    Hey, you’re engineers around here, you can model that.

    Yep, Apple flies the stuff.

    As to the bridge to Sakhalin. Tim N has it, not worth it at all.

    Try this as an idea. Imagine we were trying to work out global infrastructure spend. No, imagine, we’re the Fat Controllers deciding where bridges etc go. Sakhalin, Japan, maybe S to Mainland?

    The Straits of Gibraltar are 9 ish miles. Would we build that bridge first or what? And are we building it?

    Umm, hmm.

  11. The Koreans are keen on a train link to Europe too for some reason, when I went to the DMZ last year the tour stopped at ‘the last station before the boarder’ and had a big map showing the routes that would be possible post reunification.

    Yeah, if Rocket Man and his regime fell and North Korea came like the South, the Japanese would be better off building a bridge to Korea and running the railway to Europe that way – should they still want to. Of course, the Japanese and Koreans hate one another but when there’s money to be made they cooperate.

  12. The Straits of Gibraltar are 9 ish miles. Would we build that bridge first or what? And are we building it?

    I’m glad you’ve finally admitted the colossal importance of the Severn Bridge. 😉

  13. Nostalgia?

    None at all, thankfully. For the first year or so after I left yes, but not any further and definitely not now. The place has changed and most of the people I knew left, I have no desire to go back. If I went back to Russia it would be on the full understanding that the place I knew ten years ago no longer exists.

  14. Never underestimate the level of insanity the Russians are collectively capable of. They did not turn the Siberian rivers as planned, but they did destroy the Sea of Aral. And they are building a bridge to Crimea again (already tried that one), this time not only doomed but also illegal.

  15. “Perhaps a surprisingly high one if like me you’ve lived near ports and marvelled at how it seems “everything” we consume is coming by sea. Think Tim W knows the % figure by heart but maybe John^2 does too.”

    Irritatingly, there’s not a dead straight answer- 85% seems the lower bound for goods generally, but the one I like is “96% of everything spends time on a ship at sea”. The higher figure comes from the fact that raw materials are moved by bulk freighter, even if the finished goods end up going air freight.

    “Rail might make sense for items in the intermediate zone between air and ship. Not at all sure what % might be suitable though.”

    It’s about 30%, precisely because goods trains still move a chunk of stuff from port to plant. There’s a lot of double counting though. TimW’s analysis of global logistics, and how it’s skewed the economic forecasts done through gravity modelling is spot on, though- distance isn’t the factor, it’s transhipments: whilst China to Dover sounds a long way, it’s a lot easier than China to (say) Delhi, because there’s multiple legs once you get landside, and that loading and unloading from ship to train to truck to whatever is the buggeration that IoT and the big data logistics mob are keen to better understand and improve.

    As an aside- global dry freight rates are also in the toilet nowadays, with vessels being chartered on runs to south America for $5-$8k per day- that same route was six figures a few years back.

    So: sending stuff places is cheap as chips: the problem I get to wrestle with is the impact of that is causing havoc in shipping, which is the only way we’ve come up with to send things anywhere. Without it, we’re all fucked.

  16. TimW’s analysis of global logistics, and how it’s skewed the economic forecasts done through gravity modelling is spot on

    Of course: I’d have deleted his comment otherwise saying “Your time here is done”. 🙂

    It’s about 30%, precisely because goods trains still move a chunk of stuff from port to plant.

    Yes, Japan to Moscow might make sense. But Japan to Western Europe by rail? No point at all. Better just to ship it to Rotterdam.

  17. Doesn’t Japan still claim Sakhalin as her territory?

    My Tokyo office, years ago, was opposite the Soviet embassy and at lunchtime every day a loudspeaker van would arrive, police would move a few cones, and it would unleash a broadside of invective against the Rusks within.

    I shouldn’t expect any country to cooperate on infrastructure projects with an occupying power.

  18. The Russian bridge and rail thing will have a gold plated plaque to Lysenko mounted in honour of him at the bridge entrance, ie will not happen.

    One belt one road, is happening whether you like it or not, this is the biggest rail boom in history and makes the Gilded Age rail roads appear Hornby sized in comparison. Some folk have missed the train and been left behind at the station.

    Yes air freight is great and massively growing.

    Yes sea freight has never been cheaper, that a good thing, and it will work better when it is better connected in the one belt, and then there is the mind boggling India port program.

    According to Dow theory when these sectors of the economy are growing it is a very good sign for where the economy is going next.

    I call it the Mother of All Booms.

  19. Doesn’t Japan still claim Sakhalin as her territory?

    No, they ceded that at the end of WWII. However, they claim the Kuril Islands which the USSR seized at the end of WWII; the Soviets claimed they were part of the Sakhalin deal, Japan says they weren’t.

  20. “I’m glad you’ve finally admitted the colossal importance of the Severn Bridge.”

    Us Somerset lads agree it’s important. That’s why we don’t want it. Who wants to let the Welsh in?

  21. One belt one road, is happening whether you like it or not

    Oh, I’ve no doubt it will happen. One thing the Chinese do deliver on are white elephants they promise, but they remain white elephants nonetheless. I expect this one-belt on-road thing will deliver something, but nowhere near what is projected as vested interests and corruption eliminate a chunk of the gains and economic reality pushes aside political dreams.

    Of course I could be wrong, and if I am, then so much the better for everyone.

  22. “If I went back to Russia it would be on the full understanding that the place I knew ten years ago no longer exists.” You can’t stand in the same river twice. Knew a thing or two, yer Greeks.

  23. “One thing the Chinese do deliver on are white elephants they promise, but they remain white elephants nonetheless.”

    But will they always remain white elephants. As long as they continue to lift millions out of poverty and create booming modern cities, engineering marvels and a growing economy at such a stunning pace I guess we can forgive them for any white elephants that may come along with it.

  24. As long as they continue to lift millions out of poverty and create booming modern cities, engineering marvels and a growing economy at such a stunning pace I guess we can forgive them for any white elephants that may come along with it.

    Absolutely.

  25. “One thing the Chinese do deliver on are white elephants they promise, but they remain white elephants nonetheless.”

    Dunno about that entirely. If you believe it, I’ve got a canal in Nicaragua to sell you…

  26. If you believe it, I’ve got a canal in Nicaragua to sell you…

    Heh! Is that one still doing the rounds?

  27. Now this is significant, I have been waiting patiently for some highly paid financial whiz kid to come up with the ultimate solution, the rental loan.

    And now the Chinese take the lead on this score as well, this will be a massive shot in the arm to getting the rest of them up above the poverty line. Lets hope the West don’t take too long to follow the Chinese lead.

    Hail Xi!

    “China’s second-largest bank unveils easy loan in push for rental housing market”

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