Reiljan building unique Arctic railroad in Russia

Juri Reiljan.

PHOTO: Jaanus Piirsalu

Estonian Yuri Reiljan, who was responsible for the construction of Olympic structures in Sochi, is in charge of a new major project in Russia: the construction of one of the northernmost railroads in the world and a major bridge near Russia’s main natural gas deposit in Western Siberia.

Yuri Reiljan was one of the most important people in Russia for four years, from 2009 to 2014: first as deputy regional development minister and later as deputy construction minister, he oversaw the construction of President Vladimir Putin’s favorite project, the Sochi Winter Olympics structures.

Yuri’s father, Ugo, is one of the more prominent characters among Estonians in the Caucasus. Former traffic militia chief of Sochi (1989-1994), Col. Ugo Reiljan used to love to say about himself that he is the judge, lawyer, and prosecutor all in one for local Estonians. The fist of the former boxer is still mighty, even though its owner will be turning 81 this year.

Ugo Reiljan still cares about recording the memories of Estonians in the Caucasus. “The soul of Estonians will linger here, on the shores of the Black Sea for as long as we cherish it,” the bearer of the Estonian Order of the White Star told Postimees in Adler in April. Both of Ugo’s parents were Estonians from the village of Sulev located in modern-day Abkhazia.

Yuri Reiljan (53) is as mighty as his father, having inherited not only his tall figure, but also his penchant for leadership and the ability to think big. Yuri’s mother, Svetlana, maiden name Lell, was born to an Estonian family in Armavir, just on the other side of the Caucasus from Sochi.

From politics to business

After leaving the Russian government two years ago, Reiljan bought the company Spetstranstroi that quickly became one of the main contractors of Russian Railways (RZD). Their biggest object today is a new railroad around the city of Krasnodar in Southern Russia to boost carriage of goods to Russian ports on the Black Sea.

Last fall, Reiljan’s Spetstranstroi and RZD won a concession for a 350-kilometer stretch of railroad in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug in Western Siberia – from Obskaya (across the river Ob from Salekhard) to Nadym. The project is estimated to cost 100-150 million rubles (€1.3-2 billion at current exchange rates). Reiljan’s company owns 51 percent of the concession enterprise.

It is the first part of a grand plan to extend the railroad to gas deposits near the Gulf of Ob north of Russia’s gas capital Urengoi on the one hand, and to Russia’s newest port Sabetta on the Yamal Peninsula on the other. The first stage of the plan, the so-called north latitude breakthrough, prescribes connecting two existing railroads – the one coming from Komiland through Surgut and the one from Tyumen to Surgut. Yuri Reiljan’s company will construct half of this 700-kilometer stretch the cost of which was estimated at 260 billion rubles (€3.5 billion) by the local governor six months ago.

It is essentially a cut down version of one of Stalin’s grandest ideas, the Arctic railroad. If Stalin dreamt of a railroad running from Salekhard to Norilsk along more or less the entire Arctic Ocean coast, Russia is preparing to build a single section of it.

“It is a small part of Stalin’s grand plan, but it will create new opportunities for a huge area in Russia,” Yuri Reiljan told Postimees in Moscow.

“We want to achieve considerable goods volume for the northern seaway in the end.”

The new railroad will coincide with Stalin’s route for 200 kilometers before Nadym. Some concrete structures are still there from that period,” he says.

While it is not the northernmost railroad project in the world – Gazprom launched a 500-kilometer railroad from a gas deposit in Bovanenkovo to Obskaya on the Yamal Peninsula in 2010 – Yuri Reiljan’s project will be unique in that it will have to build a bridge over one of Russia’s biggest rivers Ob in the permafrost.

No one has constructed a bridge of equal length in the permafrost and on that side of the polar circle – 39 kilometers, approaches and exits included. The part of the bridge that will run directly over the river will span 2.4 kilometers. The bridge needs to be that long because the river has nearly reached its delta near Salekhard. “It is a very complicated construction,” Reiljan repeatedly told Postimees. “The geology is very difficult there.”

Bridge especially difficult to build

Another bridge will have to be built across the River Nadym that will span 2 kilometers in all. Reiljan’s stretch of railroad will therefore begin and end with a major bridge.

Russia ordered a project for the Obskaya-Nadym railroad back in 2009; however, it has become all but useless by now as climate warming has considerably altered construction conditions in less than 10 years. “Specialists say that the temperature of the permafrost has risen by 2 degrees in that time,” Reiljan said. “We need to survey the entire route again.”

Reiljan will have to complete the railroad by 2023. “No one has the kind of experience we will get. However, I have no doubt we will finish the railroad as Russia has the necessary capacity,” Yuri Reiljan assured.

One of the world’s northernmost railroads will initially only be used to move goods, while Reiljan is convinced it will host passenger trains in the future.

Reiljan sees great potential for carriage of goods in Western Siberia because of the development of the northern seaway (Arctic Ocean and the so-called Northeast Passage) and the area’s natural resources. It is a strategic project for Russia, with Gazprom as the main carrier.

“Russian experts believe the area holds at least one hundred years’ worth of relatively easily accessible resources,” Reiljan said.

According to the businessman, the area has a railroad carriage potential of at least 25 million tons a year. To compare, Estonian Railways moved a total of 13 million tons last year.

“Once all that rail infrastructure there is finished, it will noticeably change logistics in Russia and lighten the load of the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Baikal-Amur Mainline,” Reiljan offered.

Yuri Reiljan knows well what it means to execute megaprojects. He said he is keeping an eye on the Rail Baltic project. “The main problem with megaprojects everywhere is that they always end up costing more than planned,” he said. “Take state funding out of the equation, and you will immediately see whether the project will sink or swim.”