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Baikal-Amur Mainline railway

The BAM Railway can be hardly named as a popular tourist attraction. Most people even never heard of it. However, this railway winding trough the Siberian Mountains and beautiful nature is a very good alternative for its famous counterpart: the Trans-Siberian line.

The BAM Railway, (3400km / 2113mi) stands for Baikal-Amur Mainline. The Trans-Siberian, was already in operation when, in 1938, Soviet leader Josef Stalin ordered a second line from Tayshet city to the Pacific Ocean. We will take a look into the BAM’s amazing construction history, being maybe the greatest civil engineering endeavor the world has ever seen.

Stalin’s era

‘BAM’ was conceived in the 1930s as a northerly relief line for the furthermost stretch of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the tenuous track that traverses the cold and massive expanse of Siberia. Stalin felt the original route’s close proximity to the Chinese border could be a dangerous threat. In the years between the world wars, much of eastern China was occupied by hostile Japanese forces and the Soviets felt keenly the vulnerability of their vital trans-continental link. In addition to its military-strategic value, it was believed that the new route would replicate the success of its southern predecessor and open up vast chunks of resource-rich Siberia for settlement and industrialization.

Map marking the Trans-Siberian (red) and BAM (green) route

In this part of the world, the automobile has yet to assert its dominance. Even now, there is still no continuous highway linking Moscow to the port of Vladivostok. The original Trans-Siberian Railway continues to play a vital role in Russia’s economy. Satellite images taken at night demonstrate how Siberia’s larger population centers are clumped along the railroad’s path.

The railway was one of the last great achievements of Imperial Russia, being finally completed in 1916. Although it spurred development and slashed journey times across Russia from months or years to mere days or weeks, its construction was far from easy. The project was costly and tragic owing to the extreme temperatures and difficult terrain.

Satellite picture of the world by night. You can easily spot the Trans-Siberian railway.

But the difficulties in constructing the original line paled into insignificance compared to those of building its younger awkward twin, the BAM. Permafrost, earthquakes, unusual geology, labour problems, Soviet centralized planning– all conspired to make the project vastly expensive in money, effort and the lives of its reluctant workers. Whereas the full length of the Trans-Siberian Railway took twenty-five years to construct, the 2000 mile BAM extension took almost three quarters of a century to complete.

In the 1930s Stalin’s purges provided plenty of potential workers for the job. The Soviet leader was keen to keep the project secret from prying Western eyes, and the Siberian forced-labour camps– the gulags– provided numerous discreet and disposable political prisoners who could be persuaded to try their hand at railroad building and tunnel-digging.
In 1939 workers first arrived on foot at the site of the Dusse-Alin Tunnel, one of BAM’s first planned constructions. All they had was a single horse, a motorized cart and some hand tools to complete the task. This was typical of the resources allocated to ‘BAMlag’ prisoners across the whole of the project. Overwork and starvation soon started to thin their numbers, but thanks to the events unfolding in the world outside Siberia, the workforce soon swelled with German and Japanese prisoners-of-war. The death toll among these laborers was horrendous: when the German POWs working on BAM’s western end were belatedly repatriated in the late 40s and mid 50s, only 10% of the original 100,000 had survived.

The BAM Railway during the cold war

When Stalin died in 1953 the gulags were closed and building of the BAM was halted. But the strategic and economic rationale for the project remained and in the early 70s Leonid Brezhnev ordered a resumption of building work. This time the construction was to be a prestige project driven by idealistic young communist volunteers, rather than starving political prisoners and POWs.

Freight train on the BAM

It was only during this period that the full extent of the engineering difficulties became apparent. First and foremost was the problem of permafrost. In the BAM area the Siberian year boasts only ninety frost-free days; in the winter temperatures can drop to -60 degrees centigrade. So it’s not surprising that under the insulating top layer of moss and grass, the land remains frozen year-round. Cold-tolerant steel was required, and special techniques were needed to prepare the ground for laying the rails: when standard methods were used, the construction vehicles would inevitably scrape away the insulating top layer of vegetation enabling the permafrost to melt in the summer. The hapless workers would soon find themselves in a messy quagmire of swamp and collapsing newly-laid track. Although building on permafrost was not a new problem for the Soviets– it was known that a foundation of insulating rock laid over the ground would preserve the permafrost and thus the integrity of the track– the target-driven and idealistic-but-not-necessarily-experienced workers often found themselves cutting corners. Over the course of the project large parts of track and infrastructure had to be repeatedly re-laid or rebuilt.

Tunnel problems
The tunnels were particularly troublesome. The unswerving straight-line commitment of the original Soviet planners meant that in a number of cases, tunnels were built unnecessarily: later geological reviews suggested that acceptable diversions through easier terrain were possible at greatly reduced cost and with minimal increase in the distance of the track. Yet with commendable enthusiasm the Soviets dug onwards. The Dusse-Alin Tunnel was successfully built in the Stalin era without any survey work whatsoever; incredibly, when the two tunneling teams of BAMlag workers met in the middle, they were out of alignment by only 20cm. But while the passage lay abandoned for twenty years, water seeped in through the bedrock and froze solid. 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.

Jet engine

Despite its long and tragic history, the Dusse-Alin Tunnel was not the greatest technical challenge faced by the BAM-builders. That honour goes to the Severomuisk Tunnel, a 15km construction near the north end of Lake Baikal. Earthquakes were one problem– the stubborn mountain range that blocked the railroad lies in a tectonically active area, and the path of the tunnel crossed four different fault zones. But the first hitch the workers encountered was a touch of damp. While chipping through the mountain a rush of water unexpectedly broke through the tunnel wall. The workers had penetrated an underground lake, pressurized to 35 atmospheres by the bizarre geology of the area. Its contents were rapidly draining into the tunnel. The Western experts called in to help were dumbfounded: conditions inside the tunnel were unlike any before encountered. Eventually the Soviets managed to patch up the passage in a novel way: they brought in a large tank of liquid nitrogen, and injected it into the rocks surrounding the leak. The super-cold fluid froze the lake water briefly, long enough to erect a retaining concrete shell. When work started on the Severomuisk tunnel in 1979, the expected completion date was 1986. In fact, it was 2003 before the tunnel was finally opened for freight traffic. Before then, steep and unsatisfactory bypasses were needed to enable some form of a service to be run along the route of the BAM.

Severomuisk Tunnel entrance