Aerial shot of Sochi

Sochi 2014 - infrastructure award and environmental disaster

As all eyes have turned to a worryingly snow-sparse Sochi as it readies itself for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. Many environmental organisations are questioning whether Russia has delivered on its green Games and'lasting'legacy promises.

In preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympics, 183 infrastructure facilities have been constructed and modernised in Sochi. Among them new roads, railways and transport hubs, as well as a rise in the region's energy capacity by two and a half times. The most costly of these infrastructure developments, at $8.7bn, has been the controversial new 31-mile Adler-to-Krasnaya Polyana combined rail track and road, but it was also named as the Major Tunnelling Project of the Year at an international awards ceremony – so was it worth the money?

Coming in at an eye-watering $51bn, 500 per cent more than was originally predicted, Sochi 2014 is the most expensive Olympics Games in history. Much to the surprise of the world it's being held in a sub-tropical region of Russia, where significant snowfall every year is not a given and the temperature, which averages around 8°C in February, only occasionally gets as low as freezing.

Sochi, built on swampy ground next to the Black Sea and known as Russia's 'Summer Capital' with the reputation of being the Miami of Russia, is probably not the first place that would spring to mind when choosing a location for sporting events that take place on snow and ice. In fact, snow in Krasnaya Polyana, which is on the lower slopes of the Caucasus Mountains and where many of the events will take place, is often so scarce that the Olympic organisers have stored nearly half a million cubic metres of snow in vast refrigerated reservoirs as a back-up. The test runs planned for the slopes in the winter of 2013 had to be cancelled due to a lack of snow, so it's looking more and more likely that these reserves will have to be deployed.

However, it's not the questionable climate that has been the biggest shock as the world has watched the preparations for Sochi 2014 unfold; it's the spiralling costs and the Kremlin's seeming indifference to the negative environmental impacts of the construction projects. The environmental issues have been particularly surprising as initial design plans were being made in conjunction with Greenpeace Russia and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), in order to minimise disruption to the ancient ecosystems in the Sochi National Park, which the new road/rail link passes directly through. Both organisations have since withdrawn from the project as they felt their concerns and recommendations were falling on deaf ears.

At the hefty sum of $8.5bn, the rail and road link that will transport organisers, competitors and spectators from the airport and the sea to the mountains has been the single most expensive transport construction for the Games. Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin's claim when Russia won its Olympic bid in 2007 that these Games would be as "green as can be", the construction of this rail and road link has generated significant numbers of protests from environmental campaigners, activists and organisations, who have been shocked and appalled at the detrimental effect of the construction in this formerly pristine area of the Western Caucasus.

It also prompted opposition politicians, Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynyuk, to release their calculations that the project cost the Russian state three times more than the delivery and operation of a new generation of Mars rovers cost Nasa.

The Transport Legacy

Despite the negative environmental impacts and the extortionate cost of the project in the Sochi National Park, the New Civil Engineers' (NCE) Annual International Tunnelling Awards named the Adler-to-Krasnaya Polyana combined train track and road as the Major Tunnelling Project of the Year (over $500m) in 2011.

When you consider that the criteria for judging included cost effectiveness and the ability to drive economies, along with public engagement with and appreciation of the work, the award may come as something of a surprise. But the complexity of the project and the short timeframe that it had to be completed in are the criteria in which it excelled.

The Russian state department that was responsible for the construction project, Russian Railways (RZD), declared that, in order to reduce the area under development and preserve Sochi National Park's unique natural landscape, wherever possible bridges and flyovers would be built. As such, 71 bridges and flyovers, totalling 38km in length and crisscrossing the Mzytma River, have been constructed.

The design of these bridges and flyovers saw them built in kit form from standard components. Bridge designers also had to contend with the fact that the region is subject to earthquakes, so a curvature radius of 600 to 1,200m was used for most of the rail bridges. Their beam spans range from 18 to 34m and the trussed girders from 55 to 110m.

Tunnels and bridges

The largest bridge constructed is a 766m cable-stayed road bridge, which has 82m-high pylons with a maximum span of 312m. At the location of this bridge the river runs directly below the line of the road so the length of the bridge meant pylons did not have to be embedded into the river bed.

Additionally, 12 tunnels have also been bored through the mountains, including a 3.2km road tunnel, a 4.6km railway tunnel, and a service-cum-evacuation tunnel. The International Tunnelling Award recognises the engineering achievements in creating them in such a difficult natural environment.

The excavation of all the tunnels was done using 13m diameter tunnel shields, capable of boring at a rate of 300m a month, which when laying tunnels many kilometres long are out by only 3mm when they meet. The new electrified train lines that run through them will climb 560m with a maximum gradient of 1 in 25. At Adler, where the new train line starts, the station has been rebuilt as a major interchange hub as passengers using the Sochi airport line have to change here for Olympic venues. It's also providing a park and ride facility to reduce road congestion along the Black Sea coast.

The trains that will run on this new line have been designed and built by Siemens. The Desiro RUS trains are part of their Desiro EMU product line and in total 294 of them are being supplied. Under RZD's international strategy the vast majority of train production had to be localised. This was with the aim of reducing the cost of the trains and to develop Russia's manufacturing capability. As such, Siemens invested $260m in building a new factory in Yekaterinburg for the production.

At 3.5m wide, the new trains are large but have been built using a lightweight body shell made up of aluminium fabrications and extruded profiles, and are fitted with regenerative braking systems. This, combined with an intelligent traction control system, means that the Desiro RUS will use 30 per cent less energy than current Russian electric trains. Power cars at each end of the five coach units deliver a total of 2,550kW and all trains have a dual voltage power supply of 3kV DC and 25kV AC. They were tested in Rail Tec Arsenal's climatic wind tunnel in Vienna at temperatures between -40'C and +40'C, and the underframe equipment has been designed to prevent the accumulation of ice and snow. Assuming that they have to travel through any.

Although the smart new trains will be capable of transporting 8,500 people an hour during the Games, whether they will ever need to transport anywhere near that number again is a subject that has been hotly debated. Most believe that within a decade the rail line will be barely used, particularly as climate change is likely to make snow in the region even more unlikely than it already is. So what is the real legacy of Sochi's new rail and road infrastructure?

The environmental legacy

Unfortunately, it's one of irreversible damage to ancient ecosystems, rivers, flora and fauna. Among the environmental issues that protestors have been up in arms about during the construction projects are the deforestation of the Mzymta River valley and the fact that toxic waste dumped into the river itself. Territories of the Western Caucasus UNESCO World Heritage site have been removed from World Heritage protection and crushed-stone quarries are being mined in the reserve areas of the Sochi National Park.

According to the NGO, Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (ENWNC), Russia, the Sochi 2014 Organising Committee, the Russian Olympic Committee and the city of Sochi, have not complied with binding guarantees that are stipulated in the Olympic Contract. "Information we have gathered while monitoring developments throughout the construction projects show that a unique environment has been damaged irreparably over a large area."

However, when the news emerged that construction waste from the project was being dumped in an illegal landfill in the Caucasus, the International Olympic Committee was outraged. But alas, the damage was already done. Not only to the forest that had been cleared to make way for the waste, but also to residents in a Sochi street that backed onto the forest, whose homes are now subsiding due to erosion.

The legal deforestation that took place to make way for ski trails, chair lifts and competitor and spectator facilities, has dramatically increased the threat of landslides, erosion, mudslides and, assuming the snow turns up, avalanches. Alongside that it has destroyed natural habitats of birds and bears, and numerous plant and animal species are now on the verge of extinction or have already disappeared for good.

UNEP Investigations

Major concerns about the environmental impact of the road/rail track, raised by organisations such as Greenpeace Russia, EWNC and the WWF, prompted the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to instigate a second Expert Mission to investigate the issues, way back in January 2010. The mission saw UN experts visit sites along the construction path that were considered sensitive, as well as and other sensitive sites in the region.

The report that was issued after the investigation revealed that the assessments carried out by Russian Railways on the impact on flora and fauna in Sochi National Park had mostly been based on literature about the subject rather than field studies. The short-term view of the assessments was also a concern as: "the assessments focused on the direct impacts of the projects to the immediate surrounding and did not take into account the cumulative and synergetic effects of the various projects on the ecosystems of the Sochi region and its population."

Another concern was the reluctance of the various stakeholders of the project to engage with each other to ensure that the environmental impact was managed with a holistic approach. However, the report did also state that the UN inspectors had been impressed with these same stakeholders' willingness to engage with them.

As the construction projects come to an end and the immediate environmental impacts have been revealed, it would seem that the report's recommendations for a comprehensive assessment of the long-term environmental impacts and implementation of a monitoring programme, were not carried out at any meaningful level.

In the conclusion the report stated: "Effective engagement of stakeholders and using experiences of international best practices could make Sochi 2014 a unique environmental showcase. Sochi 2014 also presents a major opportunity to raise environmental awareness and care for the environment, particularly in the Sochi region. It is an important opportunity for best practices on waste management and sustainable transport to be implemented in Sochi."

As has been shown throughout the project,'these international best practices were largely ignored and responsible waste management was way down on RZD's 'list of priorities. Rather than demonstrating care for the unique natural environment in the region and creating 'an environmental showcase', the Sochi 2014 rail and road construction projects have been cited by many as an environmental disaster.

So while Sochi may well have a more energy-efficient and sustainable transport system to thank the Games for, it seems that it lost an awful lot of its natural heritage in order to get it.

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