Feature: Hero Project of the Century

The BAM is an astonishing victory of belief over adversity (and economic reason). This ‘other’ trans-Siberian line runs from Tayshet (417km east of Krasnoyarsk) around the top of Lake Baikal to Sovetskaya Gavan on the Pacific coast. It was begun in the 1930s to access the timber and minerals of the Lena Basin, and work stopped during WWII. Indeed, the tracks were stripped altogether and reused to lay a relief line to the besieged city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd).

Work effectively started all over again in 1974 when the existing Trans-Siberian Railway was felt to be vulnerable to attack by a potentially hostile China. The route, cut through nameless landscapes of virgin taiga and blasted through anonymous mountains, was built by patriotic volunteers and the BAM was labelled ‘Hero Project of the Century’ to encourage young people from across the Soviet Union to come and do their bit. But as cynicism began replacing enthusiasm in the late Brezhnev years, 'project of the century' turned into an ironic expression meaning a project that takes eternity to be completed. Building on permafrost pushed the cost of the project to US$25 billion, some 50 times more than the original Trans-Siberian Railway.

New ‘BAM towns’ grew with the railway, often populated by builders who decided to stay on. However, the line’s opening in 1991 coincided with the collapse of the centrally planned USSR and the region’s bright Soviet future never materialised. While Bratsk and Severobaikalsk survived, many other smaller, lonely settlements became virtual ghost towns. Today only a handful of passenger trains a day use the line.