April Trip to Sakhalin Island

Paul Goncharoff

This past April 24th I flew from Moscow to Sakhalin Island on Russia’s Pacific frontier. Not a small island, and having lived on Bermuda, I know the difference. With an area of more than 70,000 square kilometers, Sakhalin is Russia’s largest island with a population estimated at about 490,000 according to official estimates.

From the narrow (40 kilometer) La Pérouse Strait separating Sakhalin from the Japanese island of Hokkaido, the island stretches nearly 1000 kilometers northwards in a long and narrow shape along the Russian mainland’s east coast. It is mountainous with two low ranges running parallel to each other. To the north the island flattens into a swampy taiga, while the central part of the island is dense with truly beautiful forests.

While there looking at a resource development project, I had the pleasure of driving almost halfway up the island, on roads along the pacific coast, crossing through the mountains and again onto roads along the inner coast (Tatar Straits).

In the space of 5 hours I experienced everything from Pacific breakers crashing onto dune serried beaches, through snowcapped foggy mountain ranges, and finally a more placid interior shoreline of rocky beaches. Incredibly scenic, although sparsely populated. Passing through some tiny hamlets, locals occasionally had tables set up along the road offering freshly caught king crabs, and if seafood isn’t your thing, there were shashliks being grilled as well. Very down home and enterprising.

Meanwhile, as I crisscrossed the island I saw and heard the persistent hammering and banging of rail crews laying down new railroad ties and tracks along the roadway heading north. It is obvious that much has already been newly constructed and is proceeding busily at a good rate.

The revival of Sakhalin was sharply reinvigorated in the summer of 2018, when Vladimir Putin instructed the Government of the Russian Federation to finalize the economics of the proposed bridge-tunnel project on Sakhalin. In his words, “the construction of a bridge would reveal the potential of the ports of the region.”

Since that summer, while not a ‘hot’ news item geared to grabbing instant attention like Assange, Russiagate, or the Brexit soap opera, the preparations and construction of the bridge to Sakhalin have not stopped for a minute, in fact the pace is quietly speeding up.

Secret tunnel projects planned in the 1950s.

Taking a few steps into the past may lend some perspective. Between 1950-53, the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin began building a tunnel linking Sakhalin with the mainland, with its western (mainland) entrance at Cape Lazarev and its eastern (island) entrance at Pogibi. The project was to have included building a railway connecting Pogibi with the settlement of Pobedino in central Sakhalin, which at the time was the northernmost extent of the narrow-gauge Sakhalin Railway that originated down south in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk which the Japanese Empire built. The project stopped after Stalin’s death, without any new track having been built on Sakhalin; however later the island’s rail system was extended northwards to the settlements of Nogliki and Okha.

Recently new proposals were studied to build either a bridge or a tunnel to connect the railway systems of the mainland and Sakhalin, which again as per the 1950’s project would enter the island via Cape Pogibi. When the railway systems are ultimately connected, the narrow-gauge (1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in)) tracks on the island would be converted to the 1,520 mm (4 ft 11 27⁄32 in) standard gauge of the mainland.

In Khabarovsk, without attracting too much attention, a meeting was apparently held early this April which included the upper management of Russian Railways. There it was finally decided that Sakhalin Island will connect with the mainland railway not by a tunnel, but solely by a bridge. The route has already been defined, along which 585 km of rail will be laid at an estimated project cost of about 540.3 billion (2019 value) roubles. The actual bridge construction will begin by 2021 and come online by 2024. Until then extensive approach works have been and are actively underway both on the mainland and as I saw on Sakhalin.

The approach route from the mainland to Sakhalin crosses the Khabarovsk region, and includes the Komsomolsk, Ulchsky and Nikolaevsky districts, and in the Sakhalin region the Okhinsky, Nogliksky, Aleksandrovsk-Sakhalin and Tymovsky municipalities. The route will include 623 newly built structures, including 35 bridges of various lengths.

Financing for this massive effort shall be with funds obtained from the federal budget, the Development Fund for the Far East, the Sakhalin Region Development Corporation and the Russian Railways investment program.

Once the project is completed, and the bridge commissioned, costs for transporting goods to and from Sakhalin island are estimated to decrease (depending on type) by between 1.4 to 6.8 times, delivery of goods will speed up by over 50%, and logistics will no longer depend on the extremely changeable weather in the Tatar Strait which have bedeviled ships and ferries. This has been shown as saving tens of billions of roubles for building new ferries and about 200 billion for alternate railway approaches to sea ports of southern Primorye (on the mainland).

Coal to be shipped at Nakhodka Port

The bigger picture is that the developing roads, bridge and rail infrastructure on Sakhalin, Khabarovsk and Primorye territories allow a seamless connection between the Northern Sea Route of the Russian Federation with the Great Sea Silk Route of China.

“The implementation of such a project contributes to the creation of a global and competitive route network that will connect North-Eastern, Eastern and Southeast Asia with Europe,” said Putin. Looking at this vast region from an even broader perspective, he spoke of new opportunities that are opening with the formation of the North-South transport corridor with a length of more than 7 thousand km. And within its framework, they are going to establish both railway and road infrastructure, which will significantly speed up cargo transportation from South Asia through Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia to Europe.

Meanwhile, the air transport business hasn’t been sitting idly either. While I was getting ready to jet off back to Moscow and sipping coffee at the Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk Airport a Boeing 747 400 8F cargo plane (yes, they are big) from AirBridgeCargo landed at the airport. Five years ago, that would have been impossible, but today the main airport of Sakhalin is making serious plans to expand airport services and attract cargo aircraft to the island for transcontinental flights. Since the beginning of the year, the number of such flights have increased significantly, and the airport is a beehive of new construction and expansion.

There are 17 air routes flying over the island and currently about 80 large aircraft pass over it each day, delivering cargo from the west coast of the United States to Southeast Asia. Theoretically, they can use the airfield of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk for refuelling or technical servicing, and the airport can increase revenues by servicing an additional number of aircraft.

While informally chatting with the local airport manager, the first quarter of this year saw the number of landings of heavy aircraft that carry oil and gas equipment for offshore projects at the Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk airport increase by 30%. With the opening of the bridge, the port, road and rail routes from north to south, business and trade opportunities ranging well beyond the oil & gas patch should evolve dramatically in tandem.

While driving north, I noticed a huge new greenhouse complex which I learned was fully automated, enclosing 3 hectares of growing area. This one I drove by produces 1.35 thousand tons of fresh tomatoes a year. One square meter yields 40-45 kilos. Furthermore, I learned that during the first half of 2018, more than 4 thousand tons of greenhouse vegetables have been produced on Sakhalin (a record). The provision of locals with local greenhouse vegetables has reached 82% saturation. It is expected that by 2020 the demands of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands too will be fully met by local production. This trend is happening to a slightly lesser degree in livestock and poultry production locally with herds being augmented and investments made into the Sakhalin agrobusiness sectors. That will change with the bridge coming on line and therefore the cost of transporting feed dropping. All in all, Sakhalin is getting quite busy and is in the midst of a major transformation which should be glaringly apparent by 2025. Then, should relations between Russia and Japan finally normalise, we could see the building of the Sakhalin to Hokkaido bridge-tunnel, which would really network the entire region for growth in just about every field of endeavour.