Bulgaria tragedy threatens to sink waterways industry

The Bulgaria disaster that caused the death of 114 people, with 15 more missing, presumed dead, has become one of Russia's worst-ever shipping tragedies. And today it is raising serious questions about the country's river fleet.

­Russia is still in shock over the sinking of the river cruise ship Bulgaria that killed 129. But attention now turns to the safety of the rest of Russia's river fleet.

In the city of Yaroslavl, the vast majority of vessels on the River Volga were constructed in Soviet times. In the last 20 years they have changed hands several times, and each owner has exploited it relentlessly.

Most passenger ships at the city wharf operate at a loss. Vessels servicing remote areas are subsidized, with tickets costing as little as 50 cents apiece.

But tourist craft have to get city funding too. There is no money for replacements.

“We are just a small company. We could never afford to build our own ships. I think with good care these existing ships can be used for another 50 years,” Andrey Zhanin, a river transport company manager told RT.

The owners insist the ships have passed the latest technical inspections. But so too did the Bulgaria. And its antiquated emergency alarm was partly blamed for the high death toll.

Some are calling for stricter regulations, including banning the subletting of old ships to smaller operators.

“When a large, respectable company sees that a ship is getting too expensive to repair, instead of writing it off, they pass it on to a smaller operator. And these smaller outfits are often unscrupulous about how they approach maintenance, and have no money for it anyway,” explained Vitaliy Efimov, president of the Union of Transport Workers.

But not everyone seems to agree.

“If we simply start banning ships we will lose river transport altogether. Any such measures must go hand in hand with redeveloping the river shipping industry,” said Vasiliy Amelin, a professor at the River Transport Academy.

Vladimir Nemchinov is one of a new class of entrepreneurs who is hoping to do just that. Yet he admits that orders for new vessels have declined dramatically following the economic difficulties of the last few years.

“This industry is not going to pull itself out of the current crisis. For that to happen, the government must take the first step,” stated Nemchiniov.

But even if this does happen, it will take years for the new ships to come on-stream. In the meantime, when passengers on antiquated ships were asked if they are going to stop using them because of safety concerns, their answer was more than definite.

“Well, you can't be scared of everything. So I will carry on going on these river boats whatever happens,” one passenger said.