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Rash Of Russian Transport Accidents Raises Safety Issues, Highlights Cost-Skimping And Corruption

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has described Soviet-era cruise ships like the ill-fated "Bulgaria" as "rusty old tubs."
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has described Soviet-era cruise ships like the ill-fated "Bulgaria" as "rusty old tubs."
MOSCOW -- Grief-stricken relatives still waiting to identify the 129 tourists who drowned on an overloaded tourist ferry that sank in the Volga are a harrowing reminder of the price of a cavalier attitude toward safety.

President Dmitry Medvedev this week ordered sweeping safety inspections to be carried out on all public transport after a recent spate of accidents involving aircraft and boats.

The sinking of the “Bulgaria” double-decker cruiser on July 10 is the second major Russian transport accident in weeks, coming on the heels of the plane crash of a Tupolev Tu-134 airplane that killed 47 in Russia's Karelia region on June 20.

The spate of accidents, analysts say, is largely the result of cost-cutting that results in skimping on upkeep and safety precautions as companies seek to maximize profit margins. Corruption and a cavalier attitude toward safety measures also play a role.

“We are getting the same basic picture everywhere – with river vessels and steamships and planes," says Yelena Sakhnova, a transportation analyst with VTB Capital Bank. "These are essentially industries that require a lot of capital and there has simply been underinvestment in them in the last thirty years.”

Widespread Breaches Of Safety

Details emerging in local press reports point to widespread breaches of safety. Prosecutors said the 56-year-old “Bulgaria” ferry was not even licensed to carry passengers and had engine troubles when it left port in stormy weather. Moreover, it was carrying over 200 people -- considerably more than its 140-person limit. The ferry also had never undergone major repairs.

Medvedev appeared to hint that he was considering banning the use of old Soviet-era cruise ships when he lamented Russia’s use of “rusty old tubs.”

Russia narrowly evaded another major catastrophe on July 11 when the left engine of an Antonov-24 passenger plane burst into flames in mid-air. The pilot was able to make a perilous crash-landing on Siberia's Ob River, although the rear fuselage came apart on impact killing 6 passengers.
A rescuer walks amid the debris of a RusAir Tupolev 134 passenger jet, which crashed on June 20, killing 47 people.

Sakhnova maintains that Russia’s many small airline operators turn profits by minimizing costs, which larger companies can handle, meaning that safety regulations in the air industry are often pushed to the limit.

“Profitability in the aviation business is extremely low so small companies start trying to economize on everything – on enough servicing for planes, on spare parts which can be faked, and on teaching qualifications for their pilots,” she says.

Medvedev this week suggested the ageing Soviet-built Antonov airliner be taken out of service – echoing an earlier statement he made about the Tupolev-134 following last month's crash in Karelia. That model has been grounded until it can be equipped with modern safety systems.

The Tu-134’s patchy record has earned it considerable notoriety. Seventy-two out of 852 of the short-haul Tupolev airliner built in the 1960s have been lost, according to the RIA Novosti news agency. Production of the aircraft ceased in 1984.

Accidents Probably Not Caused By Design Flaws

Russia’s record on air safety has actually improved since its lows in the 1990s. According to the website, which tracks airline disasters, 333 people died in air crashes in Russia between 1994-96.

Paul Hayes, the London-based director of air safety at the “Ascend” aviation consultancy group, says the record has improved since, but it remains “poor” in comparison with Western Europe and North America.

This year, there have been 63 fatalities in four separate airplane crashes, according to the Flight Safety Foundation’s Aviation Safety Network.

But Hayes emphasized that Russia’s ageing airports, infrastructure, and “harsh environment” must also be taken into consideration. According to a 2007 Renaissance Capital report, 40 percent of Russian airstrips are not even paved.

He adds that recent air disasters do not appear to have been caused by design flaws in the Soviet-built planes.

“Obviously the accident investigation reports have not been published as they’re too recent, but looking at the press reports, there is nothing in either accident to suggest an endemic problem with the aircraft design, or their structures, systems etc,” he says.

Corruption Also A Factor

Hayes suggests that the Tu-134 crash appears to have been a “normal operational accident.” The plane landed short of the runway in Petrozavodsk in northern Russia during heavy fog. He also says the uncontained fire in the Antonov 24’s engine could have been caused by “missed maintenance” or “wear,” rather than a design fault.

Corruption also appears to be a factor in some of the disasters, particularly in the case of the sinking of the "Bulgaria" riverboat.

The higher survival rate among the crew of the "Bulgaria" compared to that of passengers has come under scrutiny.
The Investigative Committee said on July 12 that it has detained a regional senior inspector of the Russian River Register. He is charged with offering a service while neglecting security, which carries a possible sentence of ten years in prison.

The head of Argorechtur, the ferry’s operator, was arrested on the same day.

Question marks still remain as to how the boat passed legally-required maintenance checks.

Investigators said the "Bulgaria" did not have professional contracts with the boat’s crew.

Moreover, the crew’s relatively large survival rate against the passenger survival rate has also come under scrutiny. Only 28 percent of passengers were saved, while 69 percent of the crew survived.

An editorial in the daily "Nezavismaya gazeta" on July 12 predicted sackings and convictions over the boat disaster similar to those that occurred as a result of the Raspadskaya mining accident last year, as well as the deadly fire in the Lame Horse night club in Perm.

The editorial, however, reached a bitter conclusion: “But nothing will change – even in time for the next drama.”

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