Moscow's famed Metro is built to awesome scale, runs like clockwork, and whisks more than 9 million people around the city each day.
But the underground also runs on the edge of bankruptcy because its market practices are unreformed, its once-proud infrastructure is slipping into decay, and some of its employees have been robbing the system blind.
"A ride on the New York subway or the London Tube costs at least $1, but Muscovites get something even better for just five rubles [about 16 cents]," says Valentin Bolotov, director of the Moscow Metro Museum. "We're not living in the Soviet Union anymore. These economics are going to suffocate our beloved Metro."
Fares are set to rise to seven rubles in October, but experts say it will take much more than that to put the 70-year-old engineering marvel into the black. More than two-thirds of the Metro's budget is covered by government subsidy, and the deficit yawns wider every year. The explanation for this winds through the social and economic complexities of post-Soviet Russia.
More than half of the passengers who swarm through the palatial, marble-lined Metro stations and cram into the aging electric trains every day never pay a kopek. According to Communist-era social-welfare practices, liberally augmented by generous post-Soviet politicians, dozens of categories of citizens have the right to ride free.
These include pensioners, orphans, winners of state honors, soldiers, city employees, police, war veterans, customs agents, elected representatives and their staff, military reservists, judges ,and tax collectors. More than 100 different types of identity cards entitle bearers to pay nothing. "I don't even look at the documents, to tell you the truth," says bleary-eyed Svetlana Malkina, who supervises one of the open checkpoints where people gush through, flashing their papers. "I look in their eyes. If someone shows a lack of confidence, I might stop him."
More than twice as many people are riding free than in Soviet times, a trend that has Metro officials demanding urgent reform. "If the Defense Ministry wants to move troops around by Metro, that's fine, but why don't they buy tickets?" says Dimitri Gayev, director of the Metro. "There has to be a way to compensate us for the efforts and resources we expend." The problem has been compounded by counterfeiting and fraud. Metro officials admit they have no way of knowing how many people may be using fake ID's for free rides. One way to crack down, they say, is to issue every Muscovite with a personal Metro ID, containing individual data to be recorded by computerized turnstiles.
This year tens of thousands of Moscow students were issued experimental new cards, which entitle them to a 70 percent fare discount, and fraud was almost instantly cut in half. "Once we make sure that only those entitled to privileges actually receive them, we will be on the way to getting things under control," says Konstantin Cherkessky, the Metro's official spokesman. Students, however, say the cards frequently malfunction in the automatic gates and they find themselves lining up to purchase a regular fare anyway.
Even those with no exemptions are sometimes riding on the cheap, thanks to a booming black market in phony tickets. Metro officials thought they had licked this problem in 1997, when they introduced automated turnstiles activated by disposable magnetic-strip tickets, which were thought to be counterfeit-proof. But just last month, police cracked a vast crime ring including dozens of Metro cleaners, managers, and inspectors who had been recovering used tickets from waste bins, remagnetizing them and selling them to unofficial distributors.
"It was a massive black market swindle" that cost the Metro the equivalent of millions of dollars in revenue before it was stopped, says Mr. Cherkessky."We need better technology to beat this sort of thing."
Metro officials insist they are able to keep the system running safely, even under tough financial constraints. But everyone agrees that it will be very hard to replace Soviet-era rolling stock and modernize switching and control equipment without a substantial increase in revenue. "The bottom line is that public transit in Moscow is extremely unprofitable," says Alexander Belyayev, head of the Moscow government's department of transport. "On the Metro, costs exceed income by 3 rubles to 1."
The Ministry of Transport, which is responsible for all public transit in Russia, says it is drafting a law that would compel government agencies to pay for their employees' travel. It would also cancel the free-ride privileges of pensioners, veterans, and disabled people, and instead give them a monthly cash grant to cover bus and Metro fare. "We're not saying that some categories of the population shouldn't be helped, but there has to be a more rational way than this," says Yevgeny Moskvichov, a spokesman for the Transport Ministry. "Why is it so difficult to make some people see this?"
Galina Sergeyeva, a pensioner who rides the Metro several times daily for her job as a flower vendor, has a hard-edged and pessimistic response to that.
Moving from market to market at different times of the day, she says the right to ride free is the only way she can make any money in her job. She is sure the promised pension supplements would never match fare increases.
"Experience shows that they will take away something valuable from us, and give us something worthless in return," Ms. Sergeyeva says. "After everything that's happened in this country, don't ask me to trust officials and their plans. Why don't they make things better first, then ask us to pay?"