Magazine article Russian Life

Moscow in the Middle: The View from Moscow's Newest Passenger Railroad Is Not Picturesque

Magazine article Russian Life

Moscow in the Middle: The View from Moscow's Newest Passenger Railroad Is Not Picturesque

Article excerpt

The Moscow Central Ring Railroad snakes 34 miles past power stations, road junctions and abandoned industrial zones in a circle through Moscow's middle--a former industrial belt between its historic center and the endless Soviet-era apartment blocks on the outskirts, where most people live.

Dilapidated buildings, construction sites and smokestacks are visible through the windows of the brand new trains, the same model as used to ferry guests around the Black Sea resort of Sochi for Russia's 2014 Winter Olympics.

But, actually, the railroad is not completely new. It is an upgrade of tracks first laid at the beginning of the twentieth century under Russia's last tsar, Nicholas II. Never really popular, as it was located in what was back then the city's fringe, the service was stopped; in the post-war Soviet Union it was switched to carrying freight. When the refurbished line was unveiled in a ceremony attended by President Vladimir Putin on September 10 this year, it was the first time it had carried passengers for 80 years.

Trains whizz past the crumbing, but still elegant, tsarist-era stations without stopping. The $1.38 billion revamp included the electrification of the line and the construction of 31 new stations, 17 of which have connections to the metro network. Planners hope it will carry 75 million people in 2016.

While many of those who first rode the trains this fall were joy riders, interested only in trying out the new line while it was free during the first month, several weeks later it is now being used by commuters and is fairly crowded during rush hour. At the end of September, construction workers were laboring intensively to finish many of the stations, which still lack escalators, windows and, in some cases, coats of paint.

THE RE-BIRTH OF THE MOSCOW CENTRAL Ring is the most visible sign of the transformation of the capital's infrastructure under Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who was appointed by the Kremlin in 2010, and reelected to the post in 2013. Other parts of the city have also been made over, with international architects attracted to help rejuvenate public spaces and stimulate the re-development of decaying industrial complexes.

The challenges facing Sobyanin's planners are unique. With 12 million residents, Moscow is Europe's largest city and notorious for its overcrowded public transport, heavily congested roads, and expensive housing. Problems accumulated rapidly under the previous mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, who did relatively little to modernize the city's infrastructure or accommodate the rising numbers of motorists--despite more than a decade of rapid economic growth.

The Moscow Central Ring is expected to play a crucial role in developing the little-used rust-belt that once housed buzzing factories. One of the stations on the new line serves the site of the former ZIL Car Factory, currently undergoing reconstruction. (See the article in this issue on GON, page 28.) The once-flagship Soviet manufacturing complex is to be transformed into upmarket apartments, shops and schools.

"Industrial zones will start to develop in a very different way... In 10 or 20 years this project [Moscow Central Ring] will completely change the city center," said Yaroslav Kovalchuk, a prominent Russian architect.

The city's transformation began with the make-over of Moscow parks, starting with the iconic Gorky Park and its Moscow River waterfront, which was transformed in 2011 from a depressing backwater with weedstrewn paths, stray dogs, and aging fairground rides, into a well-tended and bustling space with trendy eateries, where people on Segways weave between mothers out for a stroll with their children. Many other parks across the capital have since received similar makeovers.

Russia's VDNKh park was initially built for a Soviet agricultural fair in the 1930s, but has come to be known as the "Soviet Versailles." It is a huge ensemble of mainly Stalinera pavilions, fountains and statuary in Moscow's northeast that has also seen a multi-billion dollar revamp. …

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