Iron Reporter: Wall Street Journal Versus NY Times On A Russian Train

Siemens recently took its new high-speed train for a spin with reporters on board.

The story provides the perfect fodder to resurrect “Iron Reporter,” the forum in which we contrast how two reporters tell the same story.

Today’s challenge pits Andrew E. Kramer from The New York Times (“Siemens Fills Need for High-Speed Trains in Russia”) against Paul Glader from The Wall Street Journal (“High-Speed Rail Keeps Train Makers on Track”).

I’ll try to channel Alton Brown as we examine the all-important lead.

Kramer ties the story to intrigue and Russia’s quest for global relevance in the waning days of the Cold War:

In the last years of the cold war, the ultrasecret research institute that had designed the Soviet Union’s nuclear submarines received an unusual request: could it build a high-speed train?

The Soviet Union, despite its dependence on railroads, had fallen far behind Japan and Western Europe on high-speed transport. That the order came to the Rubin design bureau suggests that Moscow viewed catching up as a matter of national security.

The result of the little-known program was a slate-gray, round-nosed locomotive called the Sokol, Russian for falcon, that petered out soon after the Soviet Union did. The prototype achieved a top speed of only 143 miles an hour — hardly breaking a sweat by high-speed standards.

But the fall of the Falcon created an opening for Siemens.

Talk about doing your homework and connecting the dots.

On the other hand, Glader takes the approach of capturing an “all-aboard” moment:

As an engineer pulls the throttle, villagers track side gawk at the bullet-shaped train as it gathers speed. Soon, forests and wooden shacks are a blur as a dashboard display reads 250 kilometers an hour (155 miles per hour).

Good narrative for sure, but it pales against the depth of Karmer’s opener.

Further scrutinizing the Glader/Journal piece, we discover that the new Russian train from Siemens serves as a hook into the broader topic of the high-speed train business, with Hitachi and Bombardier as well as Siemens vying for the $182B pie.

This allows Glader to parachute into Spain, China, the UK and the U.S. (noting President Obama’s $13B in stimulus money earmarked for high-speed rail) to share market snapshots. As the GE watcher at the Journal, no surprise that Glader also devotes a graph to GE’s rail operation.

In short, Glader develops a follow-the-money story tying back to the $1B that Russian Railways will pony up for the Sapsan project.

He closes with ping-pong anecdotes, one for and one against fast trains:

“I’m sure they’ll push away aircraft,” says Alexander Dumnich, a captain of the famous Red Arrow train, which was introduced by Joseph Stalin in 1931 and pressed into military service during World War II.

Alexei Daibov, an auditor with PricewaterhouseCoopers in St. Petersburg, is more skeptical. “I travel by plane,” he says, expressing but he hopes a price war will lower the cost of plane tickets.

I would classify his narrative as perfunctory with the exception of calling out the train’s upscale interior design as “a change in Russia’s egalitarian rail tradition,” a clever tip to Dostoyevsky.

Back to Kramer and the NY Times -

Rather than address the world market for fast trains, he hypothesizes that Siemens’ end game is really the U.S., “the last laggard of the high-speed age.”

This opens the door to tidbits not in the public domain, such as Siemens repotting employees from its high-speed train division to Sacramento, and that the very same Sapsan connecting St. Peterburg and Moscow is in the running for the San Francisco to LA train trek.

And Kramer extracts a terrific quote colored against the backdrop of the ride:

The United States “is a developing country in terms of rail,” Ansgar Brockmeyer, head of public transit business for Siemens, said in an interview aboard the Russian test train, as wooden country homes and birch forests flickered by outside the window.

It also turns out that the Sapsan incorporates a technological breakthrough. The train has no locomotive; “instead, electric motors are attached to wheels all along the train cars, as on some subway trains.”

Why didn’t the Glader/Journal piece mention this little ditty? I don’t know. I suppose it wasn’t deemed important.

As the Kramer/NYT story finds its way back to Russia, we learn that geopolitical friction stretched the Siemens sales pitch over a decade, and it wasn’t until “a general thaw in relations between Germany and Russia” took place that the deal was inked.

The imagery of the actual train trip is woven throughout the Kramer/NYT article with one of my favorites explaining that the Russian tracks still need to be upgraded for high-speed trains:

It was like driving a new Porsche over a rutted road.

I think it’s revealing that while both reporters close with an anecdote, Kramer draws from the actual trip:

On the test run, over a stretch of the St. Petersburg-Moscow track, a birch forest blurred outside the window as the train revved. In one village, an old woman in a kerchief stopped in her tracks and pointed in surprise as the silver, rocket-shaped train sailed past at 150 miles an hour.

Reflecting on the two approaches, it strikes me as a bit weird that the Glader/Journal article included so little from the train ride. The issue could come down to timing.

Glader’s reporting didn’t appear until Oct. 21, a full month after Siemens’ jaunt through the Russian countryside and well after the NYT piece was published. I suppose it’s possible that the Journal determined that the “A-ride” story had been told, so decided instead to focus on the market opportunity for high-speed trains.

But if that’s the case, why go through the trouble and expense to fly Mr. Glader from New York to Russia to experience the train firsthand?

Perhaps Glader’s tweet a day after landing in Moscow sheds some light on the question:

After reading through a number of Glader’s stories and his tweet stream, I can see he’s resourceful and clever and knows how to tell a story.

But there’s no question Mr. Kramer has leveraged the knowledge that comes from calling Russia home and his own gift for storytelling to win this “Iron Reporter” episode.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also say kudos to the Siemens PR team for providing the type of access which enabled Kramer to discover so much rich content not in the public domain.

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