Neglect Catches Up to Russians in Three-Day Traffic Jam

(from New York Times)

MOSCOW — The snow came down hard on Friday, more than two feet in places, the first big storm of the year here. But in Russia, where the winters are long and hard, it was nothing out of the ordinary, it seemed.

Then some localities apparently decided on their own to close the exits on the M10 highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg, a 400-mile stretch.

The ensuing traffic jam — 100 miles long by some estimates and involving 10,000 vehicles — trapped some motorists for three days and forced senior Russian officials to go on television on Monday to mollify the thousands of angry drivers.

The response came after state television broadcast images of weekend travelers huddled for warmth in idling cars, and after order seemed to break down among drivers left to fend for themselves in the subfreezing temperatures.

Roadside cafes gouged those wanting sausages and loaves of bread, and the price of cigarettes was reported to have shot up tenfold.

Video on the Web site of a local tabloid showed several men working feverishly to disassemble a barrier on the median of the highway in order to drive past the standstill.

On a helicopter flyover on Sunday, Russia’s minister of emergency situations saw what for many had become a familiar landscape: a line of snowbound tractor-trailers stretching for dozens of miles.

Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev, in comments carried by the Russian news media, said that the country was facing a transportation crisis and that the blame could not be placed, at least not wholly, on the Russian winter.

“The elements are the elements, and similar incidents happen in all countries, especially in northern ones, but the question is in the organization efforts to end this situation,” he said, the Interfax news service reported.

The din of complaints in the news media and on social networks refocused attention on the fragile state of Russia’s roads, which are prone to gridlock, even in the region around the Russian capital and the second-largest city, St. Petersburg. When traffic clogged the Moscow beltway for 16 hours in 2001, drivers reportedly tried to persuade others to drive backward down the highway to escape.

Years of underinvestment on Soviet-era infrastructure have left the M10, rarely free of traffic jams on the best of days, prone to nasty bottlenecks in several small towns that lack bypasses. “I left St. Petersburg on Friday and in three days have traveled around 200 kilometers,” or about 124 miles, one driver said on the radio station Kommersant-FM on Sunday evening.

“We called all night to the Ministry of Emergency Affairs in Moscow and in Tver,” the driver said. “Everyone said, ‘Guys, we know what’s happening, but we can’t help you with anything.’ ”

While the government estimated that traffic had been backed up for 25 miles, the RIA Novosti news service cited reports that more than 100 miles of traffic may have been brought to a standstill.

Russian officials said close to 10,000 vehicles had been trapped on the highway.

As the M10 gradually reopened on Monday, Mr. Medvedev and his deputies discussed a flurry of initiatives, including mobilizing Russian military engineers to avoid similar traffic jams or aid stranded drivers.

“Let’s say that this is not a European road — it’s kind of a Russian road, forested, dark and covered in snow,” Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri O. Rogozin said at a meeting with Mr. Medvedev on Monday. “So you can imagine the level of despair for some drivers.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/04/world/europe/russian-traffic-jam-strands-drivers-for-3-days.html?partner=rss&emc=rss


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