Nizhny Novgorod city administration withdrew from the public procurement website the bid for the purchase of 11 retro streetcars priced at nearly 946 mln rubles ($12.78 mln).
However, just a few hours later, the Town Hall explained that “the purchase had been cancelled in order to add clarifications to the documentation. The changes are technical. The number of pieces of purchased equipment and allocated funds will remain unchanged. In the near future, the updated document will be posted on the public procurement website.” In short, the story is not over.
Any Whim for Our Money
Here is the background. Nizhny Novgorod Mayor Yuri Shalabaev announced in March that the city would purchase 11 vintage streetcars. In early April, the Department for Economic Development of Nizhniy Novgorod Administration scheduled an e-auction for the lease of 11 tramcars for 945,9 mln rubles.
The streetcars are to be retro styled while pairing modern features like wi-fi. They are expected to arrive in Nizhny Novgorod this summer for the 800th anniversary of the city.
A wave of indignation surged in the city. Residents ranted at the project on social media. Some public organizations and local branches of political parties appealed to supervisory bodies. Blogger and urban specialist Ilya Varlamov said that more than 1 bln rubles ($135.1 mln) would be wasted and called on the Nizhny Novgorod administration to cacnel the auction. He meant 71-415R streetcars, designed by Uraltransmash. Despite their modern automotive electronics they have a retro design. For example, the back of a retro-car accommodates a wheel imitating the emergency brake of vintage streetcars.
According to Varlamov, these retro streetcars produced by Uraltransmash were not of good quality. In the town of Cherepovets, a moving streetcar emitted smoke. In Chelyabinsk, a streetcar stuck on tracks. Both were sent back to the manufacturer.
"If the administration had bought advanced streetcars without the 50% leasing overpay, the money saved might have been used to find and restore several real streetcars of the models that were used in the city in Soviet times. This would have made Nizhny Novgorod much more attractive to tourists," Varlamov said.
Making the city a tourist destination is a big problem. Retro cars alone will not lure more visitors to Nizhny Novgorod. A well-developed infrastructure is needed, including special routes with the guides and proper atmosphere (for example, involving actors wearing period clothing) and special transfers from the airport, railway or river station. An advertising campaign in major Russian cities will be needed as well. Consequently, the city cannot offer the tourist product for which the retro streetcars are purchased. After all, they will eventually be used on ordinary city routes, quite inferior in comfort to modern cars. The money allocated for 11 vintage streetcars will buy 17 modern ones.
Evil tongues claim that it’s not about tourism revenue, but a billion or so rubles to be paid to certain people. Uraltransmash is part of Uralvagonzavod, which is part of Rostec. According to unofficial information, it is Rostec that is behind Gleb Nikitin, the governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region. Yury Shalabaev, the Mayor of Nizhny Novgorod, who made the decision to purchase these retro cars, is Nikitin's protege. Anyway, those are just rumors. We will simply say that no one has presented any logical and economically justified arguments.
The cost of one car at 85.9 mln rubles ($1.2 mln) for Nizhny Novgorod also raises questions. Nizhny Tagil purchased three modern low-floor streetcars for 37.3 mln rubles ($503,923.) Moscow bought 90 new streetcar cars for 51.44 mln rubles ($694,954) to replenish the streetcar fleet. Izhevsk and Perm, Nizhny Novgorod’s neighbor cities in the Volga Federal District, got one section low floor cars for 47 mln rubles ($634,970.) Novokuznetsk bought two articulated low-floor streetcars for 67.4 mln rubles ($910,574) per car.
St. Petersburg got streetcars at 92 million rubles ($1.24 mln.) It is more expensive than the price for Nizhny Novgorod. Only at 7% difference in costs, the capacity is 1.5-2 times higher, and the streetcars are much more comfortable.
Ulyanovsk spent 89.65 mln rubles ($1.21 mln) for streetcar cars on lease. However, the purchase was made under the Safe and Quality Roads program, and the municipal budget paid only 40% of the cost, with total costs of 35.8 million rubles ($483,658) per car.
On Ground or Underground?
The rivalry between streetcars and the subway in Nizhny Novgorod is also adding fuel to the controversy. Several city mayors in a row have diligently destroyed the streetcar network, without offering anything instead. The construction of new metro stations, that are supposed to provide passenger transportation instead of streetcars, will not begin anytime soon. Neither the region nor the city has the money for it. The last Strelka subway station to date was launched for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. It cost 11 bln rubles ($148.61 mln) and was funded entirely by the federal budget.
In addition, the subway in Nizhny Novgorod is unprofitable. Two, sometimes three stations out of 15 are profitable there. Unsurprisingly, Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin who is in charge of construction and regional policy issues, said that it makes sense to build the subway "if the passenger flow is not below 30,000 people per hour.” In Nizhny Novgorod, the passenger flow is at 5,000 per hour.
Alexei Sadomovsky, head of the City Projects Foundation in Nizhny Novgorod, told wek.ru that the cost estimates for the three new metro stations Varya, Music Theater and Sennaya as well as the development of the streetcar network of Nizhny Novgorod were ready.
Designing the Varya station in Sormovo would cost 700 mln rubles ($9.46 mln,) and redesigning Sennaya and Music Theater would cost 590 mln rubles ($7.97 mln.) A total of 50 bln rubles ($675.5 mln) are needed for construction of all three stations.
"The construction of streetcar tracks is 50 times cheaper than the subway. Economically, it's more efficient, because the city passenger traffic is not big enough for the subway. The streetcar, with the right infrastructure and traffic management, will not depend on traffic jams and have short running intervals.
The design of the three new Metro stations alone (1.29 bln rubles) costs as much as a new streetcar line to Shcherbinka (1.35 bln rubles) or to the 7th Sormovo neighborhood (1.25 bln rubles). Alternatively, a streetcar might be returned to the Kanavinsky Bridge to revive one of the most popular routes (1.14 bln rubles). These are rough estimates, but the price range is just like that," Sadomovsky said.
However, much smaller sums might be spent. The construction of the cofferdam between the auto-factory part of the network and the line in Leninsky District will cost 300 mln rubles ($4.05.) A total of 900 mln rubles ($12.16 mln) will be enough to reconstruct the Urban Ring tracks with their separation from the roadway and construction of streetcar platforms.
The regional branch of the Russian United Democratic Party Yabloko, whose leadership includes Sadomovsky, sent requests for the purchase of retro streetcars. It seems that in the September elections to the Legislative Assembly of the Nizhny Novgorod region for urban districts, the issues of streetcars and metro will cause hot debates. Even now, they tend to consolidate protesters.