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Wednesday, 24 October, 2001, 17:07 GMT 18:07 UK
'Tsar's finger' chopped off
Russian high speed train
The "Tsar's finger" forces trains to make long detour
The busy rail link between Moscow and St Petersburg will be closed for 24 hours from Wednesday night as workers straighten out a kink in the line known as the "Tsar's finger".

The 650-kilometre (400-mile) rail link, built by order of Tsar Nicholas I 150 years ago, runs in a straight line - apart from the mysterious 17 km bend near the town of Novgorod.

Popular legend has it that when planning the project, Tsar Nicholas accidentally drew around his own finger on the ruler, breaking the straight line on the map.

The planners were too afraid to point this out and so the railway was built according to the flawed royal design.

But the Russian newspaper Kommersant says there is a more prosaic, if realistic explanation.


The ER-200 will be able to travel at speeds of up to 200 km/h without having to brake to negotiate the Tsar's finger

Russian steam locomotives of the time were not powerful enough to climb the Verbinsky gully and so the by-pass was built.

A new bridge will shorten the route by 5km and allow Russia's high-speed ER-200 train to cut around an hour off the journey - completing the trip in under four hours.

Anniversary

By straightening out the line, the ER-200 will be able to travel at speeds of up to 200 km/h without having to brake to negotiate the Tsar's finger.

The Moscow to St Petersburg line celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. It is the leading traffic artery connecting Russia's two largest cities and the whole of the north-west region.

The construction of the railway was the subject of some controversy in the early part of the 19th century with one minister predicting social upheaval if the masses were allowed to travel.

Twenty-one-hour journey

But Tsar Nicholas issued an Ukase (decree) on 1 February 1842 ordering the construction of the line. It was officially opened on 1 November 1851.

The first passenger train left St Petersburg at 11.15 and arrived in Moscow at 9pm the next day - 21 hours and 45 minutes later.

From Thursday evening, the journey should take three hours and 40 minutes in winter - and even less in summer.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

See also:

03 Dec 00 | Europe
Forget the night train...
10 Jul 01 | Media reports
Russia marks Trans-Siberian centenary
20 Oct 00 | Europe
Russian church on rail mission
20 Jun 01 | Europe
Shopping by train in Russia
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