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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

So Far, BAM Railway is a Big Bust

SEVEROBAIKALSK, Eastern Siberia -- In the frozen Siberian wilderness, there lies an untapped territory so abundant in natural resources that Russian officials proclaim it the richest region on earth. Someday, they say, a monumental rail line -- a second Trans-Siberian Railway -- will haul minerals and timber from this hinterland and make Russia wealthy. The dream of exploiting this fortune dates back to the tsars. Communist rulers embraced the idea, and 60 years ago Josef Stalin sent prisoners to cut through the impenetrable mountains and begin building the Baikal-Amur Railway.


Now, long after the railroad's original designers died, the forests, ore and coal would appear to be within reach. At an estimated cost of $10 billion, the Baikal-Amur Railway is nearly complete, and its last tunnel could be finished by the end of the decade. Using temporary bypasses around construction zones, the railroad has been moving some cargo with little fanfare since 1989.


"The economic future of Russia is inseparable from the Baikal-Amur Railway," declared Leonty G. Makhitarov, deputy general director of Moscow-based Baminvest, which manages the rail line. "These reserves are measured in billions of tons. As soon as industry demands the natural resources, we can expect a real boom, an industrial explosion."


But the economic stagnation gripping the country has postponed fulfillment of the ambitious development plan. The huge factories designed to smelt the ore and mill the lumber exist only on paper, and the government does not have the money to build them.


Instead of great wealth, the railway's biggest product is the Balki -- a slum on the north end of Lake Baikal where thousands of former railroad workers and their families live in poverty. Once, they worked for the glory of the Soviet Union to carve the rail line through icy mountains and virgin taiga forest. "I helped create the Baikal-Amur Railway, and at the end of my life I'm left with nothing at all," said Yevgeny Tretyakov, 63, a retired railroad worker who lives with his wife in a dilapidated one-room trailer without running water.


The Baikal-Amur Railway is everything this slum is not: modern, clean -- and empty. Its single track and power poles seem to stretch forever through the taiga. But at any given point on the line, one can wait much of the day to see a train. Officials optimistically say the railway is running at 30 percent to 50 percent of capacity, but they acknowledge that only six trains operate each day along the entire 3,200-kilometer system.


Commonly known by its Russian acronym, BAM, the rail line is a feat of Soviet engineering. It cuts through five mountain ranges, spans 17 rivers and crosses vast stretches of permafrost. The Trans-Siberian Railway, itself a monumental undertaking, linked Russia's distant regions for the first time when it was completed in 1905, extending 9,200 kilometers from Moscow to Vladivostok. BAM runs roughly parallel to the Trans-Siberian line, but about 400 kilometers to the north.


Railway designers planned 10 major industrial centers along the Baikal-Amur corridor to process its timber, coal, gold, silver, copper and numerous other resources. But so far, only a coal mine has opened; instead of powering new industry in the region, its high-quality coal is being shipped to Japan for use in making steel.


Because of its natural beauty, Lake Baikal is often called "the pearl of Siberia." But in Severobaikalsk, just a kilometer from its northern shore, thousands of unemployed railroad workers live in the Balki in what was supposed to be temporary housing.


Huts and shacks are patched together with scraps of wood, cardboard and plastic. A few residents raise goats -- which outnumber cars on the dirt roads. On every block stands a communal outhouse, and during the long winter the city delivers water twice a week.


"You can't really call this a life," said Galina Kuznetsova, standing on her front stoop, arms folded across her thin frame. "It's survival. We live like pigs. What can be done? Nothing. I will end my life in this filthy shed."