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Municipal Indecision: Projects to Modernize Yerevan's Children’s Railway Stalled

“The Children’s Railway cannot remain in its current state,” announced Yerevan Mayor Hayk Marutyan on June 16, 2020. However, since then, projects to modernize the railway remain on the drawing board. No steps have been taken to implement them. The coronavirus and 44-day war also presented obstacles.

The Yerevan Children’s Railway opened on July 6, 1937. The suggestion to have a children’s railway in the capital was made by First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Community Party of Armenia Aghasi Khanjyan, who laid the cornerstone of the Paros (later known as Hayrenik) Station in April of 1936. However, he did not see the opening of the railway because, according to official sources, he committed suicide a few months later.

The chief architect of the Children's Railway park is Mikayel Mazmanyan.

The length of the railway is 2.1 km. There are two working stations (Hayrenik and Pionerakan), 1 platform (Uraxutyun), and a 45 meter-long tunnel. Preserved here is the oldest locomotive, which was coal-powered. It is around 80 years old and currently not in operation. The operational wagons are also not new.

The last time work was carried out to renovate and modernize the railway stations was in 2011, when the Yerevan Municipality and the South Caucasus Railways (SCR) company signed a socio-economic cooperation agreement. In a statement released by SCR, the Children’s Railway locomotive and steam locomotive, three summer wagons, and 1.2 kilometers of the railway lines were repaired, and nearby areas were improved.

After the renovation, the company director Victor Rebets noted at the opening ceremony on August 2, 2012: “The repair of the rolling stock and railway lines is only the first part of a more complex program aimed at reconstructing the park. Over the second phase, the plan is to create a railway school for teenagers, where they can become acquainted with railway specialties and general operations.”

In March 2014, within the framework of the Safe City program, former Mayor Taron Margaryan gave instructions to fix up a network of outdoor lights and set up cameras at the Children’s Railway as well as the path leading from the tunnel to the railway.

On March 15, when we visited the railway park, it was deserted and there were few people there. All the park infrastructure–the attractions, cafe, and railway–were closed, and the adjacent area was strewn with garbage. The railway station was also in deplorable condition. During our visit, we talked with Suren Kosakyan. Retired for some fifteen years, he works here in shifts as a supervisor. Comparing it with his childhood memories, he notes that the park during that time was more lively; there were so many visitors that they had to wait their turn, entering one area and leaving from another. There was a camp, educational center, play centers, and more.

Video editing by Ani Sargsyan
The park currently operates seasonally: Depending on the weather, it is open from mid-April/early May to late November. In the past, there were closed wagons, and the railway operated all year round. Last year, due to the pandemic, there were practically no visitors, though summer is usually when the park operations are active. Both old and young are among the visitors. They come from Yerevan as well as the regions to attend concerts and other events.
Suren Kosakyan describes how last year there were investors, though he can’t remember any names. “There was a project and an investor who wanted to invest big money. They put together the project and prepared everything to begin working and, due to this virus or whatever other reasons, it’s been delayed. We still have hope that this year they’ll come and make investments.”

Company operating the Children’s Railway acquired by an Armenian businessman living in Russia

The Yerevan Children’s Railway is operated by Children’s Railway LLC, which was founded by Robert Atayan in 1998. Starting in 2006, the company owners were Samvel and Armen Gevorgyan. However, in May 2020 Ruben Grigoryan, a Russian-Armenian businessman who is president of the construction and investment holding company Rutsog Invest, took over 60% of the company’s shares.

The whole children’s railway and adjacent park area is community property, but the lease belongs to Children’s Railway LLC. The current contract between the company and the municipality was signed on December 18, 2014. The agreement was based on a decision made by the Yerevan Municipality on April 17, 2014, according to which the 59,915 m2 of land owned and occupied by Children’s Railway LLC was divided into two separate units of property: one measuring 58,950 m2 and the other 965 m2. Of the 965 m2 property, 376 m2 was directly sold to the company for 9.5 million drams, while the remaining land–nearly 6 hectares–was leased to the company until June 15, 2025. According to the lease agreement, Children’s Railway LLC pays 863,000 drams in annual rent for the six hectares.

According to the contract, the leased land should be used exclusively as a children’s park; the buildings, constructions, and vehicular and technical equipment should be maintained and repaired; and green spaces should be preserved and expanded.

On June 16, 2020, issues raised in a proposal outlining the reconstruction and construction of the children’s railway, park, and former Central Post Office and its surrounding areas were discussed by Yerevan Mayor Hayk Marutyan and former Chief Architect Arthur Meschian during a working meeting. Representatives of various government agencies also took part in the discussion. During the discussion, Hayk Marutyan said that the goal was to make proposals regarding the city available and accessible to various government agencies.

“The purpose of this meeting is to give an opportunity to those businesspeople who have interesting proposals to present their proposals not only to the city authorities but also the government, so that the two sides can listen to one another and, as they say, be on the same page. As a second step, city authorities and the government will understand what is needed for the future of this area of the city, which is a place Yerevan residents hold dear and close to their hearts from childhood, and which cannot continue to remain in the condition is it today,” said Marutyan.

Representatives of the companies Berkeley Capital, Boghossian Foundation, Nor Yerevan and Defi, Renshin, Rutsog Invest Holding, and Children’s Railway presented their project proposals. According to the municipality’s official announcement, they envision establishing a modern sports arena in accordance with international best practices, modernizing the railway and reconstructing the railway station, constructing an underground parking garage, repairing the tunnels that connect to the Hrazdan gorge, and carrying out a number of other projects that will be important in turning that whole area of the city into a recreation zone and a place that attracts tourists.

Two months after that discussion in August 2020, Rutsog Invest Holding presented its railway improvement project via a video showcasing how the Children’s Railway could become an ultra-modern children’s park.

In response to the widespread video, Municipality spokesman Hakob Karapetyan wrote on his Facebook page that, "while several proposals to invest in modernizing and expanding the area around the Children’s Railway were examined by the interdepartmental commission that makes decisions on urban development projects, it was decided that it wasn’t worthwhile to carry out any construction work on the area around the Children’s Railway and the Hrazdan gorge other than fortifying, restoring, and renovating the railway and installing landscaping."

We asked the Municipality if, after nine months, they made any final decisions about those proposals or decided who should be in charge of modernizing the Children’s Railway. The Municipality gave the following answer to our written inquiry:

“Please be informed that none of these projects have been selected yet. Working discussions about the projects continue, and no other information can be provided at this time. The Yerevan Municipality will make an official announcement in the event that programs are selected.”

We tried to clarify what specific proposals were made to the Municipality. Only the Boghossian Foundation responded to our inquiries; the other companies did not respond. The Boghossian Foundation said that they received a response from the Municipality, stating that the Municipality is preparing to prioritize discussions around proposals from the companies Rutsog Invest and Children’s Railway, since those companies have rights over the area.

We also asked the Foundation to provide details about the specific proposals made to the Municipality and the recommended investment.

“The Boghossian Foundation, in conjunction with the JHM Foundation, proposed to revitalize the park adjacent to the Yerevan Children’s Railway. The project envisaged restoring around 7 hectares of common ground, modernizing the children’s railway, and improving and cultivating the public green space, as well as constructing a pavilion for cultural and educational infrastructure.

Within the framework of the project to be initiated with an investment of over $5 million, the two foundations set up a collaboration between the Urbanlab research laboratory and SP2 design firm. They plan to establish a free and public green park for common use in Yerevan, only expecting to be given the right to construct. That is, the entire infrastructure and investment would continue to belong to the Yerevan community and to the people of Yerevan.” 

Thus, while the Yerevan Municipality keeps focusing on the issue of developing the Children’s Railway, officials state that construction will not be allowed there. The issue remains unresolved, even as the railway and park have been in need of restoration and renovation for a long time now. 

Authors: Koryun Simonyan, Hasmik Knyazyan

Coordinator: Trdat Musheghyan

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