The Soviet engineers gazed into the abandoned tunnel with dismay. It was 1974 and work was scheduled to resume on the construction of the Baikal-Amur Magistral (BAM), a railway line in north-eastern Siberia. The Dusse-Alin Tunnel had been completed in an earlier phase of the undertaking, as evidenced by the inscription “1947-1950” over the entrance and the busts of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin that earlier workers had hewn out of the nearby rock. But the harsh climate and intervening years had not been kind to the permafrost-piercing passage. Peering into the gaping hole, the worried workers could see something glinting inside. The BAM project, perhaps the greatest civil engineering endeavour the world has ever seen, had encountered yet another problem.

‘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, ever-alert to potential threats, had sensed danger in the original route’s close proximity to the Chinese border. 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.

Siberia at night, with its string of Trans-Siberian railway cities aglow.
Siberia at night, with its string of Trans-Siberian railway cities aglow.

In a part of the world where the automobile has yet to assert its dominance⁠— there is still no continuous surfaced highway linking Moscow to the port of Vladivostok in the far southeast⁠— the original Trans-Siberian Railway still plays a vital role in Russia’s economy. Satellite images taken at night demonstrate how Siberia’s larger population centres are clumped along the railroad’s 6000 mile-long path, a testament to the importance of the line for these cities’ past and present existence.

The railway was one of the last great achievements of Imperial Russia, being finally completed in 1916⁠— the year of prior to the Bolshevik Revolution. 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. Indeed, some historians have implicated the railway in the overthrow of the Tsars; had the railway construction not diverted long-promised social reform funds, the huddled masses may have been placated.

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. The fascination of the Soviet authorities in pursuing the project eerily mirrors that of their Tsarist forebears for the original Trans-Siberian Railroad.

Section of the BAM today: image courtesy of
Section of the BAM today: image courtesy of

In the 1930s Stalin’s notorious purges provided plenty of potential workers⁠— willing or otherwise⁠— for the job. The dictator 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 aforementioned Dusse-Alin Tunnel, one of BAM’s first planned constructions. All they had was a single horse, a motorised 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 labourers 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. 46,000 Japanese POWs also perished in the Soviet Union⁠— most of whom worked on the BAM in the Russian Far East.

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 flagship ‘shock’ project driven forward by idealistic young communist volunteer heroes, rather than starving political prisoners and POWs.

Work began again in earnest. It was only during this stage of construction 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 relaid or rebuilt.

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 tunnelling 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.

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, propelled by a compressive force four times that encountered inside an average champagne bottle. 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.

Eastern portal of Severomuisk tunnel. Image courtesy of
Eastern portal of Severomuisk tunnel. Image courtesy of

The opening of the Severomuisk Tunnel marked the completion of the BAM project as it was originally envisaged. However, even now work continues: much of the line is only single track, and unlike the main Trans-Siberian line, unelectrified. This greatly restricts the tonnage of freight that can be carried, and the railroad is maintained in working order only by the unnecessary diversion of freight trains from the main southern route.

For much of the last twenty years BAM’s future has looked bleak. When Gorbachev came to power in 1985 the project emphatically fell out of favour; he decried it as a ‘white elephant’, realising that the collapsing Soviet system could no longer keep up with the vast financial demands of the construction. Funds earmarked for developing resource-extraction and manufacturing industries in the BAM area were swallowed up by construction of the track itself, and thus much of the proposed development of north-eastern Siberia never took place. With most of the original building work taking place in the context of a Soviet command economy, the cost of the project in its entirety is difficult to calculate⁠— but some estimates go as high as $30 billion for the whole endeavour, to date. Certainly, the funds directed towards the project in the 70s were equivalent to the level of resources pumped into the Space Race in the 50s and 60s.

Nevertheless, the long term future of BAM looks brighter. The vast untapped mineral resources are still there, ready to be exploited when the ever-fluctuating world economy makes the effort financially worthwhile. With electrification and dual-tracking, the line will be able to take traffic of the same tonnage and speed as that on the original Trans-Siberian route; with the BAM line being 450km shorter, it will start to become an attractive option for sending freight and passengers between the continents of Europe and Asia.

But a recent announcement outlines perhaps the most beguiling prospect for the future of the line: in April of this year, Russian experts published plans for a Bering Strait rail tunnel, linking eastern Siberia with Alaska. This link⁠— previously considered in bridge-form by capitalists in Tsarist Russia in 1905⁠— would connect the BAM with the North American rail system, stimulating trans-continental commerce and incidentally enabling continuous rail travel between London and New York, courtesy of the Channel Tunnel. With its vast ambition⁠— and shaky economic justification⁠— this idea can be viewed as a worthy successor to that of the original Baikal-Amur Magistral construction project.