Home Events The history of Siberian Railways

The history of Siberian Railways

The history of Siberian railways, their engineering and operational challenges and future development is to be the subject of a presentation “Siberian Railways – Past, Present and Future” by RailStaff’s special correspondent, David Shirres.

David has been invited to several press tours led by Russian Railways and travelled on a commemorative train in July last year to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the decision to complete the Baikal Amur Main Line (BAM). Prior to this announcement, part of the BAM had been built by prisoners at great human cost until its construction was abandoned after the death of Stalin.

Arranged by the Railway Civil Engineer’s Association (RCEA), David Shirres will be speaking at the Institution of Civil Engineers, Great George Street, London on Thursday 26, February at 18.00.

Clean hands

In 1974, Leonid Brezhnev announced that the BAM was to be completed “with clean hands”. As a result, throughout the Soviet Union around 100,000 young people moved to Siberia to build the railway in difficult conditions. Apart from the extreme climate, 40 per cent of the line was constructed over Permafrost and tunnelling presented unique problems. One tunnel in an earthquake zone had four tectonic faults and took 27 years to build.

The 4,324-km long BAM was perhaps the world’s most expensive railway construction project. It was also completed as the Soviet Union collapsed and so did not realise its potential even though it is in an area rich in natural resources. Now, however, the line is almost at capacity and is the subject of a significant investment programme.

Also at capacity is the BAM’s more famous southerly neighbour, the Trans- Siberian Railway – sections of which have 6,000-tonne one-kilometre long freight trains every five minutes, a track maintenance challenge indeed.

Tayshet marshalling yard, at the junction of the BAM and Trans- Siberian Railways, has 169 sidings totalling 116 km and yet is almost at capacity.

Permafrost construction

This presents a real constraint to Russia’s economic growth. Hence by 2018, £9.4 billion is to be invested on the BAM and the Trans-Siberian Railway, 46 per cent of which is directly funded by the Russian Government. The strategy is to increase passenger and container traffic on the Trans-Siberian whilst the BAM will carry increasing amounts of heavy freight traffic.

Meanwhile in North West Siberia, thousands of kilometres from the BAM, the world’s most northerly railway line, at 70 degrees North, services northern Siberia’s natural gas fields. This 572-km line was opened in 2011 and required special permafrost construction techniques.

The future development of Siberian railways is an interesting subject, but so is their past. For example in 1896, two icebreaking ships in kit form were constructed for the Trans-Siberian Railway. These were built in Newcastle and then transported to Siberia’s Lake Baikal, reassembled and launched there in 1899. This was because the lake presented the line’s most difficult construction challenge, necessitating the use of a train ferry for its first four years of operation.

This much and more will be the subject of David’s presentation to which all are welcome. However, those wishing to attend must reserve their place at least two days beforehand on the RCEA website: http://www.rcea.org.uk/Events

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