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Trans-Siberian Handbook

Trans-Siberian Handbook

Other railway lines linked to the Trans-Siberian

Contents | Introduction | Individual itineraries or organised tours? | Route planning | What to take | Sample Route Guide: Trans-Siberian Route and map 1 | Other railway lines linked to the Trans-Siberian | Best of Trans-Siberian



BAM – a second Trans-Siberian
In the 1930s another Herculean undertaking was begun on the railways of Russia. The project was named the Baikal-Amur-Mainline (BAM)  (see pp498-504): 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 operational (from Komsomolsk to Bamskaya, 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 15.3km 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 still 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 currently 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 million 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 AyaM having now reached Nizhny Bestyakh as well as plans to move much of the freight traffic from the main Trans-Siberian route onto the BAM, traffic on the BAM may increase significantly in the coming years. Renovation of the Komsomolsk-na-Amure–Sovetskaya Gavan section 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 (2005) 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, built to connect Tynda on the BAM with Yakutsk in the north. The project was scheduled for completion at the same time as the BAM but construction has been fraught with both engineering and financial difficulties. As of 2011, the rails had been laid as far as Nizhny Bestyakh, the town across the Lena River from Yakutsk, with passenger services due to commence by the end of 2013. Nizhny Bestyakh is due to be the starting point for the railway branch that will eventually run as far as Magadan, though that’s not projected for completion for a decade or so. At the time of writing, decisions were being made regarding the prospective bridge connecting Yakutsk to Nizhny Bestyakh – whether that will be a railway bridge or a regular automobile bridge, to connect the railway to the port of Yakutsk in order to transport freight more efficiently. The building of the bridge commenced at the end of 2013.
    Little BAM is the 180km rail link between the Trans-Siberian at Bamovskaya and Tynda, the 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 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.



Trans-Siberian Handbook


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