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Other Regional Railways
OTHER REGIONAL RAILWAYS
OTHER RAILWAY LINES LINKED TO THE TRANS-SIBERIAN
BAM – a second Trans-Siberian (see pp380-92 and pp467-73)
In the 1930s another Herculean undertaking was begun on the railways of
Russia. The project was named the Baikal-Amur-Mainline (BAM): a second
Trans-Siberian railway, 3140km long, running parallel but to the north of the
existing line. It was to run through the rich mining districts of northern Siberia,
providing an east–west communications back-up to the main line. Work began
in Tayshet and the track reached Ust Kut on the Lena River before the project
was officially abandoned at the end of WWI. Much of the 700km of track that
had been laid was torn up to replace war-damaged lines in the west. Construction
continued in secret, using slave labour until the Gulags were closed in 1954.
In 1976 it was announced that work on the BAM was recommencing.
Incentives were offered to collect the 100,000 strong work-force needed for so
large a project. For eight years they laboured heroically, dynamiting their way
through the permafrost which covers almost half the route, across a region
where temperatures fall as low as -60°C in winter. In October 1984 it was
announced that the way was open from Tayshet to Komsomolsk-na-Amure.
Although track-laying had been completed, only the eastern half was opera-
tional (from Komsomolsk to BAM Station, where traffic joined the old Trans-
Siberian route). By 1991 the whole system was still not fully operational, the
main obstacle being the Severomuysk Tunnel, bypassed by an unsatisfactory
detour with an impressive 1:25 gradient. It took from 1981 to 1991 to drill 13km
of the 16km of this unfinished tunnel in the most difficult of conditions. Many
were already questioning the point of a railway that was beginning to look like
a white elephant. Work has more or less stopped now; the main sections of the
line are complete but traffic is infrequent. The BAM was built to compete with
shipping routes for the transfer of freight but the cost has been tremendous:
there has been considerable ecological damage and there is little money left for
the extraction of the minerals that was the other reason for the building of the
railway. It is possible to travel along the BAM route starting near the north of
Lake Baikal and ending up at Khabarovsk. Rail traffic on the BAM line cur-
rently remains far below capacity, with about six trains per day plying the route.
According to Russian Railways, by 2009 the BAM was carrying about 12 mil-
lion passengers and 12 million tons of cargo each year, though its total capacity
is around 18 million. The BAM was saved from oblivion when Kremlin Chief
of Staff, Dmitry Medvedev, discussed developing the Russian Far East in an
April 2005 interview. However, he also mentioned the BAM as the sort of
wasteful project that should be avoided. ‘We do not need yet another huge
construction project with an unpredictable outcome, as happened with BAM’ he
said. The BAM was meant to give development in Siberia a much-needed
boost. But rather it has become another export route to sell Russian resources
abroad. The line is now used to send crude oil from small fields near Irkutsk to
China at a rate of 10,000 tons per month. Oil is loaded onto trains at Ust-Kut
and sent to Komsomolsk-na-Amure and then on to the port of Vanino.
However, with the recently proposed plans to build secondary lines, con-
necting the BAM directly to the sources of mineral extraction, as well as plans
to move all or most of the freight traffic from the main Trans-Siberian route
onto the BAM, traffic on the BAM is set to treble or even quadruple in the com-
ing years. Renovation of the Komsomolsk-na-Amure–Sovetskaya Gavan sec-
tion began in 2009 to reinforce the line for the extra traffic, and is due to finish
in 2016. Though plans conceived in the 1950s to build a tunnel to connect the
BAM with Sakhalin Island have since been abandoned, there is now talk of
building a bridge instead to connect the island to the mainland and even more
ambitious talk of then connecting Sakhalin Island to the Japanese island of
Hokkaido, either via a tunnel or a bridge, to allow a direct land transport link
from Japan to Asia and Europe.
Through Siberia by Accident is Dervla Murphy’s entertaining account of
her travels in the region.
AYaM and Little BAM
The AYaM (Amuro-Yakutskaya Magistral) is the Amur-Yakutsk Mainline,
which will eventually run from Tynda on the BAM north to Yakutsk. The proj-
ect was scheduled for completion at the same time as the BAM but construction
has been fraught with both engineering and financial difficulties. The Yakutiya
Railway Company has, however, pushed ahead to almost reach the Lena River,
70km from Yakutsk, where it has still not been decided if the 2km-wide river is
to be crossed by bridge or tunnel. They also plan to extend the line east to
Magadan. The Little BAM is the 180km rail link between the Trans-Siberian at
Bamovskaya and Tynda, start of the AYaM.
Turkestan–Siberia (Turksib) railway
The Turksib links Novosibirsk on the Trans-Siberian with Almaty in Kazakhstan,
a journey of 1678km. From there it’s possible to continue on into Western S
China. The line was constructed in the 1930s to make it easier to transport grain
from Siberia and cotton from Turkestan between these two regions.
In September 1990 a rail line was opened between Urumqi in north-west China
and the border with Kazakhstan, opening a new rail route between east Asia and
Europe via the Central Asian Republics. China built this link to create the short-
est Eurasian rail route (2000km shorter than the Trans-Siberian) between the
Pacific and the Atlantic, enabling freight to be transported faster and more
cheaply than by ship. This means that it’s now possible to travel along the ancient
Silk Route by rail, through the old Central Asian capitals of Khiva, Bukhara and
Samarkand and the Chinese cities of Dunhuang, Luoyang and Xi’an.
In May 1996 a 295km cross-border railway line was officially opened between
Mashhad in Iran and Saraghs and Tejen in Turkmenistan. This line, it was said,
was the forerunner of a network that would join land-locked Central Asia to the
Persian Gulf and, via Turkey, to the Mediterranean. The potential was there for
a new Silk Route between southern Europe and the Far East, cutting travel times
by up to 10 days. Six years later the line had reached northwards via
Turkmenabat (Turkmenistan) and Tashkent (Uzbekistan) all the way to Almaty
(Kazakhstan), and southwards to Tehran (Iran). In March 2002, with great fan-
fare, a weekly service was inaugurated for the 3300km, 70-hour Almaty–Tehran
journey. But a month later it was suspended, apparently over disagreements
about right of way through Uzbekistan.
At the moment, it’s possible to take the modern, efficient Trans-Asian
Express that runs weekly from Istanbul to Tehran. Alternatively you could take
Asseman Airlines’ more-or-less weekly flight between Tehran and Ashgabat.
The island of Sakhalin (north of Japan) is currently linked to the Russian main-
land by rail ferries operating between Vanino and Kholmsk. Steam specials are
occasionally run on the island’s 3ft 6in-gauge rail system.
A line to Korea
Today shipments of oil, gas and other goods on the Trans-Siberian line are used
to pay off Russia’s staggering foreign debt. In 2001 negotiations began in ear-
nest to extend the Trans-Siberian Railway into South Korea, forming an even
more profitable link between Europe and Asia.
In 2002 North and South Korea announced they would cooperate in
rebuilding the Trans-Korean Railway, with Russia bankrolling part of the proj-
ect to pay off its US$1 billion debt to South Korea. Bridging Korea’s DMZ
(Demilitarised Zone) was the first step in extending the Trans-Siberian to the tip
of the peninsula. Currently, twice-monthly trains run from Moscow to
Pyongyang, consisting of extra carriages attached to the 001/002 Moscow-
Vladivostok Rossiya; there are rumours that this service will increase in fre-
quency in the near future.
- Contents list
- Planning your route
- Breaking your journey
- What to take
- Background Reading
- Sample Route Guides
- Steam Locomotives in Siberia
- Other Regional Railways
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