In the immediate postwar years the railroads suffered a period of decline. The car had become the preeminent form of passenger transportation, and the semitruck dominated the freight business. Highways were being built across the world, and they were intended to replace the railroads. The plane had also become affordable, and both international and domestic services were proliferating globally. Railroad closures were inevitable, starting with branch lines and rural tracks, then spreading to the main lines themselves. In the United States, the decline of passenger railroads was particularly swift, and for a while it seemed as if they would barely last into the 21st century.
Then everything changed. The oil crisis of the mid-1970s, together with congestion on the roads and environmental concerns regarding exhaust emissions, suddenly brought the train back into fashion. In Japan, high-speed “bullet” trains were introduced, which traveled faster than any car, and networks of similar lines were built in France and Germany, and later in China and Spain. Moreover, when the long-proposed 31-mile (50-km) Channel Tunnel linking France and Britain was finally given the go-ahead, it was built to carry trains because a railroad was the only practical way of traveling in such a long tunnel. Similarly, to relieve the pressure of congestion on Europe’s Alpine roads, a series of lengthy modern rail tunnels are now being built under the mountains. In 2006, China completed the highest railroad in the world—the Qinghai–Tibet line, which offers a far easier journey than the highly dangerous road—and is currently building the largest high-speed network in the world.
The railroads are therefore booming in the 21st century. Light rail systems, subways, high-speed lines, and newly electrified tracks are being built across the world. The 19th-century invention has found new friends in the 21st century and is enjoying a fantastic renaissance thanks to its ability to transport masses of people quickly and cheaply.
OF ALL THE MANY HAREBRAINED IDEAS in the history of the railroads, one takes the prize for being not only the craziest but also the most costly. That winner is the 2,300-mile (3,700-km) Baikal-Amur Mainline, a branch of the Trans-Siberian Railway (see The Trans-Siberian Railway) that dwarfed the original railroad both in difficulty and cost. It was one of the most ambitious of numerous megaprojects dreamed up by the Soviet regime to demonstrate the superiority of Communism (others included the space program and a plan to reverse the flow of several Siberian rivers, which was fortunately abandoned). The BAM, as the railroad became universally known, took three quarters of a century to complete and cost $14 billion, but its worth still remains in doubt.
The idea behind the BAM was to provide an alternative route to the existing Trans-Siberian, which ran from European Russia to the Asian Pacific. The Soviet regime first mooted the railroad as a strategic alternative in the 1930s Stalinist era, following disputes with China and Japan over a section of the Trans-Siberian that crossed Chinese territory to reach Vladivostok. Even the Amur Railway, a longer route over exclusively Russian territory that was completed in 1916, was considered too close to the Chinese frontier and therefore vulnerable to attack. To counteract the perceived threat, Stalin’s government passed a secret decree to construct a new line running parallel to the existing Trans-Siberian but around 500 miles (800km) farther north. No details of the route were set out other than the terminal at Tayshet, where the line diverged from the Trans-Siberian, and Sovetskaya Gavan, on the Pacific Ocean north of Vladivostok.
The land crossed by the proposed new railroad was virtually uninhabited, as most of the population of Siberia had settled within 100 miles (160km) of the Trans-Siberian, so the reasons for undertaking this vast project were (the Sino-Japanese menace notwithstanding) questionable. The Soviet government had started publishing five-year plans setting out its economic targets, and its Second Five-Year Plan, for 1933–37, emphasized the economic advantages of building the BAM. It “will traverse little-investigated regions of eastern Siberia and bring to life an enormous new territory and its colossal riches—amber, gold, coal—and also make possible the cultivation of great tracts of land suitable for agriculture,” the plan stated.
Surveyors were dispatched to the Siberian wastes to prospect the land. Working under a reign of terror, several were executed for not doing their job properly in the view of the regime, while others ended up in the construction gangs. These were made up of prisoners—mainly political—sent to the Gulag (the government’s corrective labor camps) by Stalin’s increasingly repressive regime. Tayshet became infamous as a camp for Gulag prisoners working on the railroad after Alexandre Solzhenitsyn described it in The Gulag Archipelago. Published first in the West in 1973, the book drew the world’s attention to the atrocities that took place in Soviet forced labor camps under Stalin. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners were sent to camps in Siberia and forced to work on the line in appalling conditions—far worse than those endured on the Trans-Siberian. Russians knew that being sent to the “Bamlag”—the camps of the BAM Gulag—was a death sentence, as prisoners were subjected to unendurably harsh conditions and systematically starved.
The northern latitude of the track meant that most of the terrain it traversed was permafrost—a leftover of the freezing temperatures of the Ice Age—which presented particular difficulties for track-laying. Once railroad workers started digging through the insulating surface layer of soil to the permafrost, ice that had been frozen for millennia thawed and did not refreeze, even in winter. Instead, the land turned marshy and unstable. Waiting for the ground to settle would have delayed work by years, so tracks were laid regardless, resulting in rail breaks and derailments. Disturbing the permafrost also led to an increase in seismic activity in the region.
Not surprisingly, little progress was made on the line. On top of permafrost and earthquakes, the mountainous region north of Lake Baikal posed insurmountable difficulties. Weather conditions were extreme, with only 90 frost-free days a year, and winter temperatures as low as –76°F (–60°C), meant that mechanical equipment did not work and special cold-resistant steel had to be used for the rails. These factors, combined with a starving labor force, meant that by the outbreak of World War II, when work was halted, only a couple of short sections at each end had been completed.
Remarkably, as soon as the war ended in 1945, work resumed on this vain project, which Stalin seemed intent on completing. The workforce was now made up of Japanese and German prisoners of war, who were treated more harshly even than the prewar domestic convicts. It is estimated that of 100,000 German POWs sent to the Ozerlag camp near Lake Baikal, only 10 percent survived to be repatriated in 1955; the Japanese prisoners suffered similar rates of mortality. A conservative estimate of the death toll of the two groups is 150,000—and all for nothing, since barely 450 miles (725km) of the line had been completed by the time work was again halted following Stalin’s death in 1953.
The demise of Stalin and his repressions might have signaled the end of the BAM project. Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, showed no interest in the railroad, and the Gulag camps that had provided its labor were closed. By the 1960s, however, interest was revived, with a series of ostensible new reasons to build it: the line would relieve congestion on the Trans-Siberian, open up gas fields in western Siberia, and provide a new route for burgeoning container traffic between the Far East and Europe. Moreover, vast copper deposits had been discovered at Udokan, 250 miles (400km) east of Lake Baikal.
It was Leonid Brezhnev, the uninspiring and deeply conservative leader whose stern demeanor characterized Soviet rule in the 1970s, who decided to restart the program. Now a new type of cheap labor was to be used: volunteers of the “All-Union Leninist Youth League” (the Komsomol). The project was turned into a propaganda exercise, in the hands of the Komsomol, not only to demonstrate the advantages of the Communist way, but also to enthuse a whole generation of young people with that ideal. By helping to build the line, the volunteers would become lifelong supporters of the regime. Building the BAM became a rallying cry for Socialist propaganda as well as a path to victory over the obstacles that nature and the elements posed against humankind, making it a struggle that had to be won, at whatever cost—and that cost was to prove enormous.
In 1972, after much secret preparation, the Komsomol announced that work on the railroad would restart immediately and the BAM would be completed in 10 years (later extended by two years to 1984). The project was given priority over other Soviet plans and a nationwide appeal for volunteers was issued. While some young people may have turned up at the recruitment offices for idealistic reasons, there were practical incentives too: volunteers were promised priority allocation of housing and cars, both of which were in short supply in Soviet Russia, and for those interested in a political career, working on the BAM was essential for their résumés. The pay was good too, compared with jobs back home. However, even those who started off with genuine enthusiasm were soon disillusioned. They were well treated, but once they discovered the sheer scale of the project and the incompetent way in which it was being run, it dawned on them that the railroad was no advertisement for the Communist system—quite the opposite. They realized, as geologists and other scientists had long known, that creating a railroad in northern Siberia was not a good idea.
There were innumerable practical difficulties. The recruits were given little training for what was a skilled task, no detailed route had been prepared, and the physical conditions were even worse than expected. Attempts to continue work in winter, because of the ideological need for rapid progress, were counterproductive. Although work was stopped when temperatures reached –4°F (–20°C), even above that temperature bulldozers stopped functioning and axes shattered. Any lessons learned from previous attempts to work in the permafrost seemed to have been forgotten, and once again whole sections of track gradually sank into the morass, while station and warehouse buildings constructed on shaky foundations collapsed.
Conditions on completed sections of the line were so bad that trains had to go extremely slowly and derailments were frequent. One 117-mile (188-km) section between Tayshet and Tynda that opened early took eight hours to traverse. With the tunnels also proving far more difficult to dig out than expected, the opening of the line was inevitably delayed: the 10-year target had always been a fantasy. The 9-mile (15-km) Severomuysky Tunnel, east of the lake, caused almost insuperable problems. When digging began in 1977, water from an underground lake flooded it. Although an ingenious solution was eventually found—liquid nitrogen was injected into the tunnel walls, freezing the water while the tunnel was lined with a concrete shell—it took 26 years to complete. In the meantime, two very steep bypasses were built, both adding considerably to the eventual journey time. Nevertheless, the Communist authorities—intent on using the line for propaganda purposes—stuck to the 1984 opening date with a ceremony that featured the hammering fast of a golden spike to set the final rail. It was a complete sham. No foreign journalists were invited, as it would have been obvious that the line was far from complete.
In the end, the BAM was officially opened three times. Brezhnev had died in 1982, but Mikhail Gorbachev, who succeeded him in 1985, continued with the program. It was by then soaking up one percent of the nation’s total annual GDP. Seven years after the first ceremony, Gorbachev announced that the line was open and boasted that it would form a new link between Russia and Japan. Even then, the intractable Severomuysky Tunnel was still not complete and several sections could only accommodate slow trains used to supply materials for constructing the line. Russia’s post-Soviet president Vladimir Putin announced the line’s completion in 2001, and the tunnel finally opened in 2003.
The BAM has not lived up to Brezhnev’s expectations. The promise of opening up a vast agricultural region was always a delusion, since the Siberian climate is so harsh. It did not relieve pressure on the Trans-Siberian, since it is the section west of the junction at Tayshet, which is shared with the BAM, that is under greatest pressure. Nor has it provided a practical alternative route between Asia and Europe.
Just as the Trans-Siberian contributed to the downfall of the Czarist regime, the BAM and the excessive resources devoted to it helped to bring down Communism. Most of the half a million Komsomol volunteers and other workers who built the line returned to their home towns deeply sceptical of the ideals of Communism and its grand projects. Indeed, many were infuriated that the cars and housing they had been promised were denied to them, a failure that led to demonstrations in the post-Soviet era, with ex-BAM workers demanding that their vouchers for volunteering be redeemed.
Far from carrying people to the promised land of a 21st-century future, as the slogans had promised, the BAM clearly went nowhere. The BAM became, in the Soviet era, the butt of popular jokes, symbolizing failure and the powerlessness of the Soviet leaders. As Christopher J. Ward wrote in Brezhnev’s Folly, a history of the line:
By repeating ad nauseam claims of BAM’s economic, social, and cultural significance, the Komsomol, the Communist Party, and the Soviet government held an unwavering belief that the USSR’s youth needed this message to avoid a loss of collective faith. Ironically, however, the realities of the railway helped to intensify such a loss of faith in the Soviet political and economic system in general.
Today, however, there are a few signs that the railroad may have been worth at least some of the effort. Russian Railroads, the state-owned company, plans to increase container traffic on the line, which is now carrying more minerals from Siberian mines too, and there has been further recent investment, including the construction of the Kuznetsovsky Tunnel, at a cost of $9million for less than 2½ miles (4km), to give better access to the Pacific, as well as improvement of parts of the line that were slow due to steep grades. However, the BAM will still go down in history as one of the craziest civil engineering projects ever attempted and forever be known as “Brezhnev’s folly.”