The Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) railroad has been called the project of the century in Russia. However this is not because its been the most amazing piece of construction built in Russia; this connotation is given because the project has taken about a century to be fully completed.This railway runs 2,687 miles in eastern Siberia. The BAM departs from the Trans-Siberian railway at Tayshet, then crosses the Angara River at Bratsk and the Lena River at Ust-Kut, proceeds past Severobaikalsk at the northern tip of Lake Baikal, past Tynda and Khani, crosses the Amur River at Komsomolsk-na-Amure and finally reaches the Pacific Ocean at Sovetskaya Gavan while it crosses 4,200 bridges and goes under 21 tunnels(1).
The BAM project was proposed in the late 1800’s, but it didn’t begin construction until the 1930’s. This railroad’s purpose was to be an alternate route for the Trans- Siberian Railroad. One that was farther away from the Chinese border in case something ever happened between Russia and China or Japan. The railroad was constructed with forced labor, including POWs and political Prisoners. These laborers had to deal with the harsh conditions of Siberia. When the project was halted in 1953 afters Stalin’s death, about 150,000 laborers had died during the construction of the railway(2). The Railroad began construction again in 1974 as the next great hero project of the Komsomol(2). The railway officially opened in 1984 with a golden spike, similar to that of the First Transcontinental Railroad in the US. However, the BAM was not fully completed until 1991, where it has seen limited use and efficiency.
The large timeline of construction can be attributed to the lack of labor and funding to complete the railway, as well as harsh conditions accompanying it, such as crossing seven mountain ranges, swamps, taiga, seismic zones, and forty percent of its rail laid on permafrost(2). One extreme problem that was faced by the workers who restarted the project was a tunnel that was filled with ice from the Stalin Era of construction. Stalin’s engineers met the railways from both sides of the tunnel without any survey technology with only a 20cm error, but it was left to freeze solid after the project was discontinued. “The dismayed railway engineers of 1974 were left with the problem of dealing with 32,000 tonnes of ice blocking the shaft– and also of disposing of the frozen bodies of the gulag workers they frequently stumbled on while reconditioning the tunnel. When all else failed, the Soviets resorted to raw power. The workers jury-rigged an aircraft jet engine at one end of the tunnel, and hit the ignition. Its stream of superheated exhaust rapidly blasted a path through the wall of ice, clearing the tunnel for further work”(3). The railway construction also lead to high levels of pollution into nearby rivers and lakes, such as Lake Baikal, as well as large amounts of deforestation and erosion. While the BAM project took multiple decades to complete, thousands of lives, huge amounts of funding and pollution, it still may prove itself to be an effective transportation route for the Russians.
1. Baika-Amur Mainline. wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baikal%E2%80%93Amur_Mainline#Early_plans_and_start_of_construction.
2.Von Geldern, James .The Baika-Amur Mainline. Seventeen Moments in Soviet History.
3. Baika-Amur Mainline Railway. http://www.losapos.com/bam%20railway
Its incredible to think how much time, effort, and money the Soviets wasted away on this project. Without any evidence on hand, I have a feeling a search of Soviet history will surface many major unfinished projects, or projects that were deemed important and then got little to no use. It seems every time the Soviets finally were making progress, something else stands as evidence to the contrary. Looks like this railroad sent
There’s a lot of death involved in this project’s construction. I wonder how stumbling across the corpses of former workers affected moral.
I think this is one of those problems that are somewhat unique to Russia because it is such a large country. While I think it’s important to to connect the two ends of Russia and all the parts in between, it will never be cost-effective since most of Russia is just tundra.
The ersatz tunnel-digging methods are amazing! Your post offers some good context for the complicated history of the BAM, and it fits really nicely with this post about the line’s more recent history: http://blogs.lt.vt.edu/jmhawkins/2014/11/17/here-comes-the-bam-now-wheres-the-boom/