Ukrainian Gangnam Style: Hyundai gets Ukraine wrong, apologizes. While FEMEN topless-climb up South Korean bullet train at Kyiv

by Andy Kozlov

What would happen if Anna Karenina went for her train rendezvous in the Post-Euro’12 Ukraine?

She would catch cold lying for hours on the tracks waiting in vane for that Hyundai Rotem train – Folk wisdom

Despite a mind-boggling price tag of USD 30 million apiece, South Korea-manufactured Hyundai Rotem bullet trains were the pride of Ukraine’s former Minister of Infrastructure Borys Kolesnikov even a few months ago. Mr Kolesnikov’s slightly promotional Wikipedia article describes the events around the controversial purchase of bullet trains in the run-up to the Euro 2012 soccer championship as unfolding this way:

At the end of December 2010 a contract was signed with Hyundai Corporation under which Ukrainian Railways [Ukrzaliznytsia, the state rail monopoly with a combined total length of track of over 23,000 km, which makes it the 14th largest in the world.] obtains 10 new multi-region electric trains. Moreover, first six trains will allow express traffic between Kyiv, Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lviv. For instance, one will be able to get to Kharkiv in 3.5 hrs, Lviv in 4.5 hrs, Donetsk in 5.5-6 hrs.

Describing the purchase on Eastern approaches blog back in May 2012 (when the first Hyundai Rotem trains set off on their scheduled rounds in Ukraine), The Economist suggested:

This is high-speed rail, Ukrainian-style. At a maximum of 183 kilometres per hour [the real-life maximum speed, for safety reasons, rarely goes north of 160 km/hour], the speeds are lower than those achieved by trains in much of Western Europe. But on Ukraine’s old Soviet tracks, it still feels thrillingly fast.

The globalization-supportive publication of whose 75 staff journalists about two thirds are based in London, The Economist reiterated: “The new Hyundai trains are a showpiece of the modernisation programme Ukraine has embarked on in the run-up to the Euro 2012 football championships.”

The failures and subsequent delays in the operation of South Korea-sourced speedy trains in December 2012 have spawned a wave of creative collages, mock videos and topless protests in Ukraine
The failures and subsequent delays in the operation of South Korea-sourced speedy trains in December 2012 have spawned a wave of creative collages, mock videos and topless protests in Ukraine

But who could have predicted that wintertime is going to be snowy in Ukraine?! Several months after The Economist authoritatively rekindled the Ukrainian rail modernization, ice started to form when December snow froze up over the electric wires under Ukrzaliznytsia custody. As a result, South Korean speedy trains got delayed or refused to move altogether (lucky Anna Karenina!).

This forced Ukrainian High-Speed Railway Company, a subsidiary of Ukrzaliznytsia, the world’s 6th largest rail passenger transporter, to shift into an apologetic mode.

The South Koreans apologized as well while drawing Ukrainians’ attention to the fact that Hyundai Rotem “was the only company which managed to supply trains to Ukraine in the rather short-terms – within 18 months, so that Ukraine could launch the trains by the start of the Euro 2012 European football championship”.

“They will make it on time,” says this collage by Focus.ua. Featuring the controversial Hyundai Rotem bullet train, it alludes to Ilya Repin’s 19th-century painting Barge Haulers on the Volga. See here for more on the painting’s place in the Post-Soviet popular culture.

According to Kyiv Post, “Hyundai Corporation says that the defects are the result of several flaws committed during the design and manufacture of the trains and a limited trial period connected with the need to ensure timely transportation of passengers by rail during the Euro 2012”. South Koreans assured Ukrzaliznytsia that it would take into account the experience of the first year of its trains’ operation in Ukraine.

Despite this, Railway Bulletin says, that already in early December 2012 Borys Kolesnikov announced the Ukrainian government’s decision to stop further purchases of rolling stock from abroad. The alternative? Creating conditions for the establishment of production capacities by the world’s leading producers, such as  Siemens and Hyundai within Ukraine. According to what Mr Kolesnikov made public early last month, “the implementation of the new strategy will begin in 2013 and will cover the production of the electric drive trains, which is currently the most problematic segment of the Ukrainian locomotive fleet with the level of deterioration more than 95%”.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych wondered about a week ago:

With the own high-speed train prototype [Kriukovsky car building plant in Kremenchuk, Poltava Oblast has been test driving the bullet train they built from scratch for almost a year now] why the funds were sent to buy imported products and not to start own mass production? What was not unclear for us? Was it unclear that the [South Korean] trains are not adapted to our exploitation conditions? Not taking into account the interests of our goods production.

While South Korea’s PSY lures Brazilian crowds with “Gangnam Style” to Hyundai’s booth at the 27th Salão Internacional do Automóvel de São Paulo, the Ukrainian passengers of Hyundai Rotem trains came up with the global hit’s cover. The Korean song’s lyrics were replaced by Russian text, uncovering the train’s problems: “We just departed and stopped shortly after that, there’s something wrong with the electronics and it’s so very cold in here”.

No matter what, South Koreans are striving to do their best. Just look at their track record. Hyundai Zimbabwe delivers to orphans in Southern Africa (a noble gesture, right). A subsidiary of the Hyundai Motor Group, Hyundai Card, is praised by global affairs-savvy Monocle magazine. According to an advert for the Hyundai Card Air Lounge at Incheon International Airport,  the South Korean loyalty program is “offering a wide range of services to meet customers’ needs according to their travel style”.

So I want to ask the following. Is Ukraine such a complicated spot for international businesses to figure out? Or are Ukrainian standards simply low and our travel style perceived by foreign business as tolerant of temperatures plummeting to -10C inside a passenger car? And maybe what South Koreans were doing was humbly  “offering a wide range of services to meet customers’ needs according to their travel style”?

You may further consider whichever pros and cons you like regarding the Hyundai-Ukraine deal. You may film any mock music videos you care to. But like any public issue in Ukraine, South Korean bullet train hadn’t been through the full circle of Ukrainianization till the female activists from a group called Femen didn’t strip to protest it. In the short clip below, Femen, in their ‘unpretentious’ way, have suggested the South Korean-sourced rolling stock should be retired once and for all.

The questions of internationally competitive standards for Ukraine, world-class local service and socially responsible deals with international businesses throughout the Post-Soviet realm will be discussed in Steppes in Sync future posts. Below, watch an Ukrainian-made train outclass a Hyundai Rotem.

Stay with Steppes in Sync for more on trains, planes and all things creative.

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