Russia's Northern Latitudinal Railway (NLR) to Accelerate Siberian Economic Development

Russia is the world's largest country but most of its territory is in the far north and with a population of only 144 million it has plenty of room for development, and developing it is.

One of Russia’s most ambitious new infrastructure projects in Siberia will soon begin construction. It is the Northern Latitudinal Railway (NLR).

It will be built in the Yamato-Nenets Autonomous region of the country, connecting the Yamal Peninsula to the rest of Russia through the Northern and Sverdlov railways.

Russia has the largest known natural gas reserves, with about 25% of the world's total and has the eighth greatest amount of proven oil reserves. The largest reserves are in the Yamal Peninsula. Some of that gas is now being exported by ship as liquefied natural gas (LNG) through Sabetta Port and more has been shipped by pipeline since 2012.

With the Arctic Ocean soon to be almost completely ice-free in summer, the railway will also help speed up development of the country’s Northern Sea Route infrastructure. That will in turn offer the shortest transportation path for exports to reach markets in Europe, North America and the Asia-Pacific Region. According to experts, it will quickly become a major trade route for goods traveling between Europe and Asia. The volume of traffic on the rail route after it reaches capacity is expected to be 23.9 million tons a year, which will contribute significantly to Putin's goal of shipping a total of 80 million tons through the Arctic by 2024.

Yamal’s Governor Dmitry Kobylkin said, “We are getting a base for development of the richest mineral base in the region, including the Kara Sea’s shelf. We thus are getting a direct access to international export markets in Europe and the Asian-Pacific Region along the Northern Sea Route. The railroad will make conditions open to high-tech processing facilities on the Yamal Peninsula.”

A previously built Siberian railway constructed with slave labor from the many Siberian prison camps. The region is littered with the graves of millions of prisoners who were literally worked to death as punishment for being too intelligent or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time or just an easy target for Stalin's many purges. Photo: ComIntern

The VIS Group, another Russian company, is building its own extension from the NLR to the recently opened Sabetta Port, which exports oil and liquefied natural gas.

Director General Igor Snegurov said in an interview, “The Bovanenko-Sabetta line will connect NLR with the Sabetta port, which will be a mighty impetus to the port’s development, for growth of its cargo turnover. Besides, the project has a certain geopolitical aspect – development of the Sabetta port opens to Russia a new route to the World Ocean, to West European countries. This is absolutely different logistics, which allows us not to use the Bosporus infrastructures, and thus not to depend on the changing political situations.”

Local authorities are also optimistic about how NLR should help encourage settlement of the Arctic and help deal with employment issues in the region. According to Yamal’s Governor Dmitry Kobylkin, “We shall organize new jobs both on the railroad and in the neighboring sectors–at new deposits, development of which would be economically effective with the new railroad, and at new processing plants, which will be profitable due to the NLR.”

When finished, the Northern Latitudinal Railway will cover a span of 668 kilometers. Building it will require modernizing the existing railway infrastructure, plus building 350 kilometers of new track. The project total cost is estimated at more than 200 billion rubles ($3.6 billion).

Russia hopes to use all this infrastructure to develop a strong enough Arctic economy that it can dominate the critical and strategic shipping route across Russia’s northern waters.

The NLR, along with other feeder routes noted here, should help make that a possibility, if corruption and Russia's formidable non-governmental mafias don't bleed the project dry before it can be completed. So far the government has been successful getting a number of Siberian projects built in a reasonable amount of time without too many cost over-runs but it has done so with help from other nations.

The Yamal gas plant was built with the participation of companies in France, Japan And China.

China is investing heavily in Siberia and is claiming the Yamal LNG plant to be part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).