The nearly 12-mile-long railway bridge connecting Russia with the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia has illegally occupied since 2014, was seriously damaged Saturday, Oct. 8, by an explosion that destroyed part of the parallel road bridge.
The explosion occurred just after 6 a.m. local time. The exact cause of the explosion remains unclear although it appears to be a deliberate act. Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly blamed Ukraine, while the Ukrainian government has welcomed the damage but has not officially taken responsibility. The bridges are being used to supply Russian forces that have invaded Ukraine.
The explosion on the eastbound roadway collapsed two sections into the water below; on the rail bridge, which is just south of the road bridge but built at a higher level, the blast triggered fires on a freight train carrying oil or gasoline. Seven tank cars caught fire, damaging part of the rail bridge. Initial pictures from the scene showed the entire 59-car freight train stopped on the bridge, with the middle section on fire, but the rail company managed to remove the cars on either side of the fire. This prevented further damage to the bridge, since most of the other cars were also loaded with fuel. Helicopters and firefighting trains sent from both ends of the bridge were used to extinguish the fire.
Russian officials said that rail traffic has resumed as of today (Sunday, Oct. 9) and that the few long-distance passenger services were running “to schedule.” Only one of the bridge’s two tracks was in service, as the westbound track remained blocked with burned-out tank cars. The number of scheduled long-distance passenger trains using the bridge is low in normal times, although it is likely additional trains have been run regularly for the Russian military.
Some road traffic also resumed today on the less damaged westbound roadway, with traffic reportedly being alternated directionally through the damaged area. Only cars were initially permitted, with heavy vehicles such as trucks reportedly having to take ferries.
Longest bridge in Europe
Following the occupation and annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Russian government sought to build new fixed links from the Russian mainland over the Kerch Straits to the Crimean Peninsula, which is otherwise isolated from Russia.
The two bridges, at around 12 miles the longest in Europe, were built side by side at a cost of around $3 billion. One is for road traffic; the other, with a double track railway, provides the first direct fixed link between the Russian rail network and Crimea The only other rail routes both went via Ukraine, although there had been a direct train ferry before the bridges were built.
The road bridge opened in May 2018 with Putin personally driving the first truck over it. The parallel rail bridge opened in December 2019, again with Putin present in the cab of the first official train. Because of international sanctions following the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s main state rail company, RZD, didn’t operate services on the bridge or in Crimea. A new Russian-owned Crimean rail company, Krimskaya Zheleznaya Doroga (KZD), was set up. It is apparent from pictures this week that RZD passenger cars are now using the bridge.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, the Ukrainian government has made it clear the bridges, which are between 150 and 200 miles from the current Ukrainian front-line areas, are in their sights and that “they must be dismantled … voluntarily or otherwise.” There was widespread jubilation in Ukraine at the news the bridge had been damaged. In Crimea, residents started forming lines of cars at gas stations, fearing a shortage as all fuel is imported from Russia, mostly by rail.