Letter to the Editor

Sir - I was interested to read your review of the annual UIC traffic statistics, but felt that it was unlikely that passenger-km in Russia declined by 24% between 2006 and 2007; as you reported. In fact, the figure should have been 2·4%.

The annual UIC report gives percentage changes in passenger-km and freight tonne-km data over single years, as well as aggregate data for entire geographic regions for each year. There are, however, often huge variations, both from year to year in each country and between countries in their respective performance data. Regional aggregates and single-year comparisons tend to conceal such variations. In establishing trends, I think it is more informative to examine the data for individual countries over as long a time period as possible.

The United Nations Statistical Yearbook gives traffic data for almost every country that possesses, or has ever possessed, a railway. For some countries, particularly in Europe, the UN data goes back as far as 1928 but only up to 2004. On the other hand, the UIC data only goes back to 1991 but is available up to 2007, albeit for fewer countries. As the two data sets are fairly consistent for the overlapping period, for the most part there is no problem with consistency in using the two databases.

In the particular case of Russia (the CIS region), only the data following the break-up of the old Soviet Union in 1991 is applicable. Other countries such as Belarus and the Baltic States have data going back to 1963 and 1981 respectively. Regrettably, the UIC gives no recent data for any of the Central Asian or Caucasian countries — not to mention the possible impact of the current military upheaval on railway performance in Georgia.

The graphs (above left) show the longer-term trends in passenger-km and freight tonne-km for Russia, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In both Russia and Belarus passengers and freight have declined considerably since the early 1990s, although freight is making something of a recovery. Passenger traffic in Belarus seems to be haemorrhaging away, while in Russia it is more stable. The Baltic States have all suffered substantial declines in passenger traffic in recent years but with a very slight recovery in Estonia and Latvia. Freight, however, has held up rather better, with Lithuania showing an encouraging recovery since 2000. In all five countries, freight seems to have faired better than passenger traffic since the 1990s but in none of them does railway activity appear to be in particularly rude health. Fortunately the trends in other parts of the world are more encouraging.

Dr John Stubbs
Department of Geography, University of Derby
Derby, UK