How Georgian Railway Helped Russian “Aeroexpress”

By Manana Ghoghoberidze and Ia Asatiani

In 2016, Mamuka Bakhtadze referred to the introduction of double-decker trains in Georgia as ‘a special surprise.’ The government informed us that the Swiss company Stadler had generously offered a discount, allowing us to acquire the trains at a lower cost. However, the reason behind this kindness remained unexplained.

“Georgian Railways” paid 45 million US dollars (97 million GEL) for four double-decker trains. We were informed shortly after signing the contract that “Stadler” trains would operate as seaside trains, connecting Tbilisi to the Adjara resorts. Their stops would include Ureki, Kobuleti, and Batumi.

Our article reveals that despite the perception of affordability, the reality was that these double-decker trains were not inexpensive. In addition to the initial cost of 45 million dollars, “Georgian Railways” invested an additional 2.1 million GEL to adapt the trains to our existing infrastructure. Interestingly, “Stadler” had initially manufactured these trains for Russia.

How Did the ‘Stadler’ Electric Trains Find Their Way to Georgia?

In 2013, the Russian transport company “Aeroexpress” entered into a contract worth 685 million with “Stadler Busnang.” This contract aimed to acquire 25 double-decker trains that would operate between Moscow and the Sheremetyevo, Domodedovo, and Vnukovo airports.

The financial guarantor for this project was “Gazprombank.” However, Russia encountered a financial crisis a year after the contract was signed. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 led to the imposition of sanctions by the USA on Russian companies, including Gazprombank. In 2015, Ukraine also placed sanctions on Gazprom. As a result of these economic challenges, “Aeroexpress” had to revise its contract with “Stadler,” reducing the initially planned purchase from 25 trains to just 11.

Interestingly, “Stadler” had 14 trains designed for Russia’s infrastructure and climate conditions that remained available for sale. Four of these were eventually purchased by Georgia, while nine found their way to Azerbaijan. The fate of the remaining train remains unknown. The GRS-011, GRS-012, GRS-013, and GRS-014 series trains entered Georgia.

On May 26, 2016, it was officially announced that “Aeroexpress” would no longer be acquiring 24 trains. The contract between “Georgian Railways” and “Stadler Busnang” was signed just the day before this announcement.

How “Georgian Railways” Purchased the Trains

In February 2016, “Georgian Railways” initiated the first tender to purchase double-decker trains. Two manufacturers participated in the competition: Swiss Stadler Bussnang AG and Chinese CRRC Nanjing Puzhen. Stadler’s proposed price for a single train was 29.4 million GEL, while CRRC quoted 33.7 million GEL.

However, just two months later, in April 2016, the procurement process took an unexpected turn. The “Georgian Railways” tender commission terminated the proceedings, citing Stadler’s failure to present a bank guarantee document. Consequently, Stadler’s proposal could not be considered. Had they opted for CRRC’s trains, the cost would have been 17 million GEL higher. In light of this, the commission decided to reacquire the trains from Stadler, bypassing the tender process through simplified procurement.

Within ten days, the Georgian government issued a decree granting “Georgian Railways” the right to proceed with the purchase. However, there was a condition: German Deutsche Bahn experts had to verify that Stadler’s documentation aligned with the requirements of “Georgian Railways.”

We initially requested the document created by the Germans from JSC “Georgian Railways”. However, we were informed that they are not obligated to disclose this information publicly, as these documents are considered part of a commercial deal and, therefore, cannot be made public.

“iFact” also contacted Deutsche Bahn, requesting information about their positive conclusion. Unfortunately, Deutsche Bahn declined to share the document or answer related queries.

Subsequently, iFact reached out to Deutsche Bahn inquiring about the timing of their positive conclusion and requesting a copy of the document. Deutsche Bahn responded that they do not provide document copies and refrain from answering such inquiries.

Even without access to this document, we knew that it was not a challenge for Stadler to comply with the requirements set by “Georgian Railways” because they had already developed a train specifically tailored for Russia.

The technical parameters and requirements set by “Georgian Railways” for “Stadler” closely mirrored those demanded by the Russian transport company, “Aeroexpress.” Remarkably, both entities shared identical specifications. For instance, “Aeroexpress” insisted that “Stadler” account for Russia’s harsh climate, designing wagons capable of operating seamlessly even in extreme temperatures ranging from -40°C to +40°C. Surprisingly, “Georgian Railways” echoed the same demands.

In their tender requirements, “Georgian Railways” explicitly outlined characteristics that were already present in the trains manufactured for Russia: Track width: 1,520 mm, Nominal voltage: 3 kV DC, Axle load: 210 kN, Maximum speed: 160 km/h

Additionally, the specifications emphasized the need for standing passenger capacity within the carriages. However, standing for the whole route is impossible on the Tbilisi-Batumi route operated by the “Stadler” train. Interestingly, it is possible in Moscow, where these trains initially ran a maximum of 40 kilometres between Moscow and Vnukovo, Sheremetyevo, or Domodedovo airports.

Our acquisition of the double-decker trains through simplified procurement occurred within a month after the initial tender failed. Remarkably, just one month after the contract was signed, the trains were already in Georgia, and within two months, they embarked on their inaugural journey. Naturally, we were curious if this swift process was standard elsewhere.

According to information from Stadler’s official page, other countries typically sign contracts several years before the trains actually commence operation. This extended timeline allows the company to craft a unique model tailored to the specific railway network. For instance, the trains arrive approximately three years after the purchase agreement in Germany. In Switzerland, Luxembourg, and the USA, the delivery timeline extends to around four years post-purchase.

“The process is straightforward: you define the purpose, and the wagon manufacturing company proposes a concept. Subsequently, a tender is announced, and an acceptable option is chosen for construction. Even if someone were to gift us a train, it would still require approval for operation on the Georgian railway. Yes, it’s a “Stadler” train, but during its construction in Austria, “Stadler” collaborated closely with Russian engineers. The train was crafted according to their dictation, instructions, drawings, and specifications,” explains Davit Gochava, founder of the Professional Railwaymen’s Club.

Dachi Tsaguria, director of passenger transportation at JSC “Georgian Railways,” views the swift deployment of “Stadler” trains two months after contract signing as an advantage rather than a problem. He emphasizes that waiting three or four years before placing an order is not always the ideal solution. Factories operate continuously, fulfilling various pre-determined orders. Sometimes, the work is already completed and ready for delivery.

Furthermore, Dachi Tsaguria highlights that “Stadler” had previously developed a similar project train: “This is the Stadler Kisi project on 1520, which Georgia acquired. They produce a specific train model, which you can buy if you want. Special orders can be placed at a higher cost.

“These trains were not specifically designed for our country; the railways purchased them as-is. Buying these trains may not be a wise decision despite the seemingly attractive pricing. The anomaly lies in that we adapted to “Stadler” rather than the other way around. For instance, allowing a train with a 160 km/h speed to pass through a tunnel at a mere 15 km/h does not mean tunnel compatibility, shared Ilia Lezhava, deputy chairman of the New Trade Unions.

When we inquired with “Georgian Railways” about whether they possess a document confirming that the “Stadler” trains are adapted to the Georgian Railways’ infrastructure and operate safely, Dachi Tsaguria informed us that such a document exists. However, he refrained from disclosing its name:

“Of course, this document exists. If it is public, we will determine if we will send it to you or not. Once you receive it, the title will be displayed on its top. If sharing this information with you becomes necessary, we will do so.”

“Georgian Railways” has not yet provided us with the requested document.

Double-decker Trains Could Not Adapt to the Georgian Infrastructure

The “Stadler” train embarks on its journey from Tbilisi to Batumi, a route that spans five and a half hours. It stops at only three locations along the way: Ureki, Kobuleti, and Batumi. This is because the train is tailored for a high platform height of 1,100 mm, which does not align with the 200 mm platforms at our Georgian railway stations.

“Why should it stop at additional stations? This train serves a specific purpose. It’s not akin to a taxi that shuttles between Borjomi today, Kutaisi tomorrow, and Batumi the day after,” asserts Dachi Tsaguria, director of the passenger transportation branch at the “Georgian Railways”.

Interestingly, “Georgian Railways” was aware of this platform mismatch even before procuring the trains. The tender requirements explicitly state that adaptation becomes unfeasible if the railway line and stations cannot accommodate the train’s dimensions. However, there is a notable exception when it comes to platforms:

“This does not affect the height of the platform, which may be adapted in some stations to match the height of the train entrance.”

In such cases, “Georgian Railways” instructed the manufacturing company to create a special structure to facilitate safe boarding and disembarking of passengers from the low platforms.

This unique construction likely takes the form of rolling stairs, which were briefly employed at the Samtredia and Mtskheta stations. An anonymous source shared a video demonstrating passengers boarding the double-decker train from the Samtredia low platform. Remarkably, this occurred only once, in July 2016.

“The ladder was specially welded, and this is how they were going to serve the passengers. Then they removed it; they realised that they were doing something stupid. They designated the train from Tbilisi to Batumi, making stops in Ureki. There, they built a special platform, and that is how they decided to operate this train,” says Davit Gochava, the founder of the Professional Railwaymen’s Club.

According to “Georgian Railways”, they employ such stairs during exceptional circumstances. One such instance occurred in Samtredia.

“This happened once when the train encountered an extraordinary voltage drop. Despite its robust security system, the train came to a halt multiple time. Iron structures are strategically placed in various railway stations to address extreme situations.

During this incident, the voltage drop rendered the train stationary for approximately an hour, leaving it without power. Consequently, the air conditioning ceased to function. The decision was made to enter the Samtredia railway station to ensure passengers’ comfort and minimise disruption. The train halted, allowing passengers to disembark temporarily and avoid discomfort within the train.

How much does it cost to maintain “Stadler” trains?

“Georgians got a good deal on it, so what’s the issue?” remarked Bidzina Ivanishvili in 2016 when questioned about the safety of the “Stadler” trains. He likely referred to the cost of the contract when mentioning “cheap.” However, because our infrastructure was already somewhat adapted for trains, “Georgian Railways” faced additional expenses.

The double-decker train was initially only compatible with platforms at Tbilisi, Batumi, and Kobuleti stations. Later, a stop was added in Ureki, too. “Georgian Railway” incurred a cost of 302,000 GEL to raise the height of the Ureki platform, with three tenders announced. In 2016, two were for designing and directly elevating the platform, while the third in 2018 was for extending the already elevated platform.

“Georgia Railways” explains that the platform had to be raised because the train project was already in motion, and altering it would escalate costs. Dachi Tsaguria mentions that if needed, platforms will be elevated at other stations as well:

“This would significantly increase costs for Georgian Railways compared to the 302 thousand GEL for raising a specific platform. The train project of this type already existed, and higher demands increase costs. Economically, this approach is more profitable. Similar trains operate in Baku, and platforms were prepared even where high platforms didn’t exist.”

Maintaining “Stadler” bogies posed a significant financial burden for “Georgian Railways”. These bogies, integral to the train’s operation, carry the wheelsets and are attached to the vehicle—a modular subassembly comprising wheels and axles. However, the contrast between the new “Stadler” trains and the older Georgian trains lies in their bogies.

According to Davit Gochava, founder of the professional railway club, the “Stadler” wagons differ from our old trains in a crucial aspect: they stand on soft, gentle bogies. The rails these bogies must move in Georgia are rigid, primarily adapted for freight transport and heavy-duty wagons. Gochava emphasizes that if the soft “Stadler” bogies were placed on these rough rails, they would wear out more frequently than other electric trains.

“It was intended for a short-distance route in Russia, where there is no freight transportation. The Moscow central airport connection hardly requires freight transport. Despite Georgia’s combined track type, the focus was on serving freight. In essence, Russia’s goal was different from ours.

Due to the mismatch between the “Stadler” double-decker train bogies and the Georgian infrastructure, frequent repairs became necessary. A special tool is required for repairs. The existing machine tool in the Tbilisi locomotive depot is unsuitable.

“The machine tool кж-20б in the locomotive depot of Tbilisi cannot adequately handle the machine tooling required for trains manufactured by “Stadler Bussnang AG”, due to the construction – stipulates “Georgian Railways” in procurement aims.

In March 2016, “Georgian Railways” invested 1.6 million in machine tools for welding bogies, with an additional payment of 138,000 GEL in October 2016 for the machine’s foundation.

The urgency for the purchase of the foundation was explained due to the potential risk of “Stadler” train bogies breaking down unpredictably.

“It is impossible to determine the timeframe to replace the bogies since during the operation of the GRS series electric trains; we are not insured against damages of bogies such as chemical wear and circular wear. If the aforementioned construction works are not carried out in an accelerated manner, there is a danger that at any time, the bogies of electric trains will be damaged, and in the absence of tools, the GRS series electric trains will stop,” states “Georgian Railways.”

“This is a high-tech machine that Stadler requested, and it also serves other trains, enhancing efficiency for our company. We do not want to serve Stadler with poor quality; we aim to provide top-quality service. The introduction of “Stadler” to Georgia improved passenger comfort and brought advancements in high-tech infrastructure. We also have to evolve to serve this train. This purchase was crucial for our development, and I would be delighted if such technology were widely available across the country,” Dachi Tsaguria emphasized.

First, “Georgian Railways” acquired a machine tool for worn-out bogies, followed by the purchase of new bogies three years later. In May 2019, they invested 971 thousand GEL in acquiring 200 new bogies, and shortly after, 333 thousand GEL went into repairing 24 bogies.

A sum of 1.7 million GEL was paid for a five-year insurance plan for “Stadler” double-decker trains. The crew’s restroom furniture cost 5,600 GEL, and new uniforms were tailored for the “Stadler” train staff, amounting to 15 thousand GEL.

“Considering the organization’s image, it’s crucial to opt for new uniforms featuring a contemporary design for our electric train staff. This decision will not only positively influence customer perceptions but also elevate our organization’s prestige,” emphasizes “Georgian Railways” on the state procurement page.

Ultimately, “Georgian Railways” inadvertently assisted Russian “Aeroexpress” in overcoming financial challenges. However, this came at a cost of 45 million US dollars for trains that are challenging to integrate with Georgian infrastructure.

When questioned if they have purchased the trains manufactured for Russian “Aeroexpress,” Dachi Tsaguria from responded:

“We acquired top-notch trains at a great price. It seems you have some phobias. I’m not familiar with that history, and I doubt you are either. Besides, how can you be certain they are indeed the same trains? Nonetheless, even if they were, what is the issue? We are not concerned with what “Aeroexpress” ordered.”

Manana Ghoghoberidze
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Manana Ghoghoberidze

Manana Ghoghoberidze joined iFact in 2019

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