Slow train through Siberia offers a glimpse of Russia’s railway ambitions

On the shore of Lake Baikal, deep in eastern Siberia, one of the most ambitious feats of modern Russian railway engineering is nearing completion.

The construction of the Baikalsky Tunnel, carved through 7 km of mountain rock, took seven years, with construction teams working in temperatures as low as minus 60 °C.

Designed to withstand the weekly earthquakes that hit this remote corner of Russia, it is the flagship project of the redevelopment of one of the country’s most iconic railway lines that aims to propel the Soviet-era train network into the 21st century.

Cousin of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the Baikal-Amur Mainline runs 4,300km from the city of Tayshet through some of the world’s toughest terrain all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

The state-run Russian Railways (RZD) is investing $17 billion over the past decade as part of an ambitious plan that aims to transport not only passengers but also a larger share of the billions of dollars of goods and raw materials transported annually from Asia to Europe.

“Russia has made progress,” Vladimir Goncharov, the engineer in charge of the Baikalsky tunnel, told the Financial Times from Severobaikalsk, a sleepy town at the northern tip of Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake.

“When I started building tunnels in 2007, there were major financing problems. Now there are none. I believe that the problem of human resources and financial resources is solved quickly every year. Today Russia has everything we need to build and develop railway infrastructure.”

His optimism underestimates the daunting task of modernizing Russia’s creaky rail network — financing the massive upgrade has been the subject of national debate for years.

The Baikal-Amur Mainline runs through Siberia to the Pacific Ocean © Philip Lee Harvey

The four-day journey along the BAM takes passengers through high mountain ranges, over fast-flowing rivers and through dense taiga forest, interspersed with a series of railroad towns built for construction workers in Soviet times and frozen in time.

Severobaikalsk is one of them. The largest city on Lake Baikal, with a population of 23,000, overlooks the cold beauty of the deep blue water, surrounded by peaks that are snow-capped even in summer.

The city’s main attraction is the train station, built by workers from Leningrad – now Saint Petersburg – in the shape of a sail as a tribute to their city’s maritime traditions. Lyudmila, an assistant at a local grocery store, moved to Severobaikalsk a few years ago to join relatives on the trail.

“This city is great. I love it here,” she said enthusiastically, eager to speak to a rare visitor. “It’s nice, clean, safe, but it’s expensive. Rail is the only major employer. Every family has someone who works on the railways.”

Russian railway upgrade in numbers

4,300km

Baikal-Amur Mainline Length

$17 billion

Russian Railway Upgrade Investment

43km

Speed ​​on the rail network, per hour

The BAM was conceived in the 1930s as an alternative to the Trans-Siberian line in case a conflict with China would render that line unusable. But construction was delayed until the 1970s, and while the line opened in 1989, the last of the 10 tunnels was not completed until 2003.

Victor, now 74, recalled his decade as leader of the construction workers in Severobaikalsk from 1977-87 with a deep sense of patriotism.

“The sense of pride and connection with the great construction project was shared by all the people who lived along the route,” he said. “In difficult times for the country, the people unite and perform difficult tasks.”

Russia hopes the route will become a viable transit corridor between Asia and Europe, transporting goods to Western markets and addressing changing demand for mineral resources such as coal.

It markets rail as a faster, safer and more environmentally friendly alternative to shipping, with the recent blockade of the Suez Canal bolstering Moscow’s argument.

Vladimir Goncharov, the engineer in charge of the Baikalsky tunnel project © Nastassia Astrasheuskaya/FT

The 7 km tunnel was built to withstand earthquakes © Nastassia Astrasheuskaya/FT

“About 98 percent of the transit freight volume between Europe and Asia uses the Suez Canal. It takes 40-45 days. It is twice as fast by train,” Oleg Belozerov, general manager of RZD, told the FT.

Rail has also become cheaper than the maritime alternative. The cost of bringing freight from Asia to Europe by train, based on the Eurasian Rail Alliance index, is half the price by sea, as measured by the World Container Index.

Still, Russia faces stiff competition from China, which is planning a new Silk Road of improved transport infrastructure to Western Europe that will cross dozens of countries as part of its One Belt One Road initiative.

Belozerov said Russia’s upgraded rail lines could carry at least 10 percent of the total container volumes going from its ports in the Far East to the western border, which would be a tenfold increase.

A freight train on the Trans-Siberian Railway near Irkutsk
A train journey through Siberia means traveling through mountain ranges and dense taiga forest © Nastassia Astrasheuskaya/FT

While Siberian railways operated at maximum capacity last year to carry 144 million tons of freight, the upgrade will increase this to 180 million tons by 2025.

The rail project will also contribute to the redevelopment of Eastern Siberia, which is rich in natural resources. The region “has enormous development potential and can become the locomotive for the development of the national economy,” Belozerov said.

He is not concerned about the global shift from fossil fuels, or the fact that coal accounts for nearly a third of Russia’s rail transport, mainly to China. While Beijing has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2060, demand from India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand will remain strong, Belozerov emphasized.

Yet the mammoth task of revitalizing Russia’s crumbling rail infrastructure will still require massive effort, massive investment and decades.

Workers lay track as part of construction of original Baikal-Amur Mainline © Yuri Lizunov/TASS/Getty

Severobaikalsk station was built by Leningrad workers in the shape of a sail as a tribute to the maritime history of their city © Nastassia Astrasheuskaya/FT

Finding employees who want to do the job is another problem. One official has even suggested sending inmates to complete the work, according to a Kommersant report, an idea reminiscent of the Soviet regime. Activists have also criticized the environmental impact of the rail redevelopment on the delicate Siberian ecosystem.

Even when the upgrades are completed, Russia will be far behind China, which is rolling out a fleet of high-speed trains. The average speed on the Russian railway network is only 43 km per hour, according to RZD.

A few years ago, Elon Musk’s Hyperloop proposed a superfast magnetic train line between Moscow and St. Petersburg, but this could be a step too far for Siberia.

“I doubt whether a magnetic rail could be implemented in our climate. The summer is very short and the winter is hard,” said Goncharov, the engineer. “Maybe Elon Musk didn’t test his magnetic monorail at minus 50°C.”