Far East | Transport, logistics

BAM: the forgotten glory of the 20th century, ready for its revival

17 Jul '09
Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor

Russian Railways has unveiled a $14.5bn technical upgrade and infrastructure development plan for the Baikal-Amur BAM Railroad to be in effect through 2020. After years of near-oblivion the legendary BAM is once again a buzzword for the RF government. Private business, too, is on the lookout for prospects of using the railroad to transport products of revived extraction, mining and processing companies in East Siberia and Russia’s Far East to mainland Russia and abroad. BAM celebrated its official 35th anniversary on July 11, but the project as a whole, with its break-throughs and failed dreams, is more than a century old. Its history is a reflection of the history of the Soviet Union. Post-Communist Russia hasn’t contributed much to it so far. With the renewed interest we may witness the dawn of BAM’s “Fourth Age” as Russia’s major Far East export route.

Russia’s longest railway

BAM is one of the world’s largest railroad systems; it is more than 4,300 km long. The railroad bypasses the older Trans-Siberian Rail in the north and runs to the Pacific. It was originally designed as an alternative to the Trans-Siberian Rail. BAM has been laid through Irkutsk, Chita, Amur and Khabarovsk Regions, as well as the Republics of Buryatia and Yakutia. Like Trans-Siberian, the Baikal-Amur Railroad is a shortest way to the Pacific.

Its tracks cross 11 large rivers, including the Angara, the Lena, the Amur; and runs through seven mountain ridges. More than a thousand kilometers of tracks have been laid in permafrost and highly seismic areas. Eight tunnels, 142 bridges, more than 200 stations and junctions, over 60 towns and settlements – all are part of BAM too.

BAM’s “three ages” in the 20th century

Officially, the Baikal-Amur Railroad has always been known as one of the most momentous construction projects of the 20th century. However, the idea dates as far back as 1888. It was then that the Russian Technical Society started championing a rail project in Russia’s East. It was then that a “second Trans-Siberian” notion galvanized expert circles. First practical attempts to give shape to the dream were made at the turn of the 20th century, but the Russo-Japanese armed conflict of 1905-1907 and Russia’s internal political instability caused enthusiasts to shelve the project indefinitely.

A quarter of a century later, the idea continued to beguile the Soviet government. In 1932, construction of the Baikal-Amur Railroad was decreed and R&D launched. In 1938, the road’s Western section between Taishet and Bratsk in Irkutsk Region was laid, followed a year later by preparatory work at the Eastern section between Komsomolsk-on-Amur and Sovetskaya Gavan in Khabarovsk Region.

The advent of WWII stalled the project. But as improbable as it may appear, BAM’s tracks played a key role in the victory of Stalingrad. In January 1942 they were removed from the completed Bam – Tynda section and flown westward to build a Stalingrad – Ulyanovsk backup rail for military redeployment.

In the 1950-60s BAM construction carried on by fits and starts. It wasn’t until July 1974 that the Soviet government once again decreed the full-blown project, this time heralding BAM as “a construction project of the century.”

The public goes boom for BAM

There was hardly any other endeavor in the former USSR that could compare to BAM in genuine, nation-wide enthusiasm. In the 1970s the project was declared an all-Soviet Komsomol (Young Communist League) construction site. It was international in all possible senses; Komsomol building crews from all over the country would compete there for the common cause. Ukrainians, for example, built the Urgal station; Azerbaijan builders completed the Ulkan station; Tynda, the unofficial BAM capital, was built by Muscovites. Seventy nationalities took part in construction of the railroad.

The core section of the Baikal-Amur Railroad took more than a decade to complete before builders of the Eastern and Western sections, moving towards each other, finally met on October 27, 1984. Following some infrastructure improvements the railroad was finally put into operation in November 1989. It wasn’t truly completed, though; the North-Muisky tunnel in Buryatia was left unfinished, and trains had to make a long detour.

BAM goes bust

In the agonizing 1990s Russia’s leadership showed little appreciation for the project. In a complete U-turn of values it was officially slammed as “an idea of no use,” a socialist utopia and “a propaganda trick of the stagnant times.”

New economists insisted BAM would never be fully utilized and couldn’t pay off. It was an easy call--many large companies in Russia’s East were closing down and there was less and less cargo to ship.

The railroad was also vilified in the press; disparaging names were given to it like “road to nowhere” or “monument of the past.” Shrouded in the mist of the 1990s’ economic meltdown, the once rosy glow of a successful BAM slowly faded into near oblivion.

According to Russian Railways president Vladimir Yakunin, BAM’s annual freight turnover was less than 45 billion ton-km those years, and the prognosis was that things would get even worse.

After 30 years, BAM is finished

By the turn of the century the state managed to raise some funds to complete overly protracted construction projects of the former USSR. The North-Muisky tunnel was finally put into operation in late 2003, 14 years after the official launch of the Baikal-Amur Railroad. Bored 15.3 km into hard rock, it is Russia’s longest railroad tunnel. With North-Muisky, trains now take just 15 minutes to traverse the mountainous area instead of 2.5 hours in the past.

It took the Baikal-Amur Railroad, or a “second Trans-Siberian,” almost 30 years to become the way it was envisioned in 1974. BAM begins in Irkutsk Region’s Taishet, runs through the town of Ust-Kut, the launch pad of the “great Komsomol endeavor” of the 1970s, and ends in Sovetskaya Gavan on the Pacific shore.

Failure breeds success

Although North-Muisky was completed, the railroad played a very insignificant role in Russia’s economy until very recently. Ironically, it is the current economic crisis that has awakened “the sleeping giant.” As domestic demand for industrial products shrank in late 2008, companies scrambled to export as much as possible. Ore, oil, coal, wood, lumber, cellulose – all became hot exports that have helped breathe new life into the legendary tracks. Irkutsk’s Oblastnaya regional newspaper reports as many as 15-16 freight trains are fully loaded and ready to roll but can’t as BAM’s throughput capacity is only 10 trains.

According to the newspaper, it’s primarily BAM’s single track that hinders a boost in freight turnover. Railroad builders never dreamed that future traffic volumes would be so demanding and failed to make spans between stations shorter. As a result, as one train runs, another one coming the other way has to sidetrack and wait at a junction.

There’s another deficiency, too. The railroad is not 100% electric-powered, and diesel locomotives have to take it from where electricity ends. But they are not powerful enough to move heavy trains, especially in rocky areas of Western BAM. Railroadmen have to reduce the payload by a thousand tons and uncouple cars.

Big plans for the new BAM

Last week national rail operator Russian Railways declared its willingness to get cracking and address all these issues. A ten-year, $14.5bn technical upgrade and infrastructure development plan for the Baikal-Amur Railroad was announced.

The company’s president, Vladimir Yakunin, believes the railroad has a future. “BAM’s freight turnover has picked up 82% over the past four years. We have no other rail system that shows such an impressive rate of growth,” he said. According to Russian Railways’ estimates, turnover will hit 220 billion ton-km by 2020.

Construction of the new Kuznetsovsky tunnel on the Komsomolsk-on-Amur – Sovetskaya Gavan section already is underway and is expected to bump up traffic at BAM’s Eastern part to 50 million tons a year by 2020, the company says. Once commissioned, the tunnel will reportedly enable faster speeds and much greater payload at the section (from today’s 3,600 to 5,600 tons).

According to senior vice-president of Russian Railways Boris Lapidus, the railroad reportedly needs, among other urgent things, to have its long sections repaired, double tracks built, lockout systems on tracks installed, stations developed, and some bridges and tunnels upgraded.

These are large-scale projects, Mr. Lapidus emphasized, and Russian Railways expects the state and private business to join the effort. Speaking of private sector, he said oil and gas firm could, for instance, step in to build tracks from their fields to the main line. Other sectors could fork out, too. For example, metal and mining holding Mechel has already begun construction of a branch line to Russia’s largest coal deposit, Elginskoye, in South-East Yakutia.

Another major railroad, the Amur-Yakutsk Railroad, is currently being built from BAM’s Tynda – Berkakit section northward. Mid-term, 13 new tracks with a total length of 7,000 kilometers will be laid in the BAM area in future, according to plans. Long-term, a branch line to the city of Yakutsk and further north-east to Chukotka’s Magadan will be built.

The distance between Taishet and Sovetskaya Gavan is 500 km shorter if you take BAM rather than the Trans-Siberian Railroad. If BAM can keep the interest in its upgrade high, many transportation experts feel the railroad has the potential to become Russia’s major Far East export route.
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Locations: Amurskaya oblast; BAM


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