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BAM – The secret Trans-Siberian railway

Stretching to 4324 km in length, spanning over six decades and costing around $30 billion to complete, the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) was one of the most costly and time consuming civil engineering projects ever to be undertaken.

Introduced as a vital second railway link to the Pacific Ocean, it was built to exploit the vast natural resources in the area and to combat any military threat that China and Japan posed.

The original Trans-Siberian line ran virtually along the Chinese border for the majority of its journey, so an alternative route further North was considered the solution. Due to Stalin’s belief that the threat of an attack was imminent, work commenced in 1932 in complete secrecy meaning all foreigners and most Russian’s were forbidden from visiting the area.

This resulted in a severe shortage of suitable workers and led to the deployment of some 25,000 prisoners to complete the project. Subject to extreme weather conditions, permafrost and challenging terrain that they had to overcome, many of the malnourished prisoners succumbed to chilling conditions, which saw temperatures drop as low as -60 Celsius in winter.

Following several interruptions, including the war and the death of then-leader Joseph Stalin, the project was left abandoned until it was revived in 1974. Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev decided that construction would be undertaken by the youth of the nation and dubbed it the ‘Hero project of the century’.

In 1984, the ‘golden spike’ ceremony was held to mark the completion of the BAM line, but in actuality it wasn’t until 1991 that the line was fully opened, the same year of the Soviet Union collapse.

The first journey made along the BAM railway by our founder and president Tim Littler, was on the BAM 2000 Steam Express in 2000. It was the third steam-hauled tour of the Trans-Siberian railway for GW Travel (as Golden Eagle Luxury Trains was formerly known). The 18-car train transported 104 passengers and 67 staff members from St Petersburg to Port Baikal, Irkutsk and Taishet before joining the BAM line.

Crowds at Vikhorevka station awaiting the BAM 2000 Steam Express
The crowds came out to see the BAM 2000 Steam Express in Vikhorevka. Taken 12th July 2000.

It was an ambitious prospect at the time. Tim explained how his first steam tour in 1996 came about and how that then led to the idea for BAM 2000: “…I decided in 1993 during a meeting with the Ministry of Transport in Moscow to propose the most ambitious project possible in Russia- steam over the entire Trans-Siberian route. To my considerable surprise, the response was that it was technically possible… To test them further, in 1998 I suggested our tour in 2000 should include the BAM, opened in 1991 and never operated by steam.”

BAM 2000 broke the record for the longest rail trip ever completed, running for 42 days and covering 15,926 miles (25,630 km). It is unlikely to ever be exceeded.

Exclusively for June 2016, we are running a tour of the Baikal-Amur Mainline, to celebrate 100 years of the Trans-Siberian railway. It will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel by private train through an outstanding area of untouched natural beauty, across some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain. To this day, very few foreigners have visited the area and most residents have never met a Westerner.

The celebratory tour begins in Moscow and heads towards the Sayan Mountains, which stretch for over 1000 kms. From Abakan we run north-east to Tayshet where we officially join the BAM line. This section of the journey is known as the Road of Courage, after so many obstacles had to be overcome during its construction. As a result this section of line took 23 years to complete.

We continue east to Severobaikalsk, just north of Lake Baikal. Originally founded as a camp for the railway workers in the 1970’s, this is an extremely remote part of Siberia with a road network that is completely isolated from the rest of the country. Here, the BAM railway is vital to the economy.

Next we head to Novoya Chara, an area famous for Charoite, a semi-precious lilac coloured gemstone only found in the Chara area. With a population of little over 4000, it is an area truly lost in Siberia. It contains unique 6km long sand dunes, the origin of which remains unclear, however, it remains an important site for the indigenous people as artefacts from thousands of years ago have been found buried here.

Steam-hauled train near Novy Urgal on the BAM railway
The BAM 2000 Steam Express gliding through the Siberian countryside close to Novy Urgal.

By contrast, the next destination, Tynda, is the largest town for over 300 miles in any direction. It was built to be the administrative centre for the construction of the BAM route during the 1970s and a local museum provides further insight into this. Continuing further east, we visit Novy Urgal, a town that has undergone little change since the days of the USSR. With a population of around 6,000 people, this town is truly isolated with nothing around for hundreds of kilometres.

Our last stop along the BAM route is Komsomolsk, a city that is renowned for its aircraft manufacturing enterprise (KnAAPO) and is the largest military aircraft producer in Russia. This is the most easterly point of the journey before we turn south-west for the Pacific and cross the Amur River at Khabarovsk. It is here where we re-join the Trans-Siberian mainline to complete our onward journey to Vladivostok.

Join our Company Founder, Tim Littler, accompanied by two expert guest speakers, renowned railway book author, Christian Wolmar, and military historian, Major JGH Corrigan MBE, on this unique and incredible journey from Moscow to Vladivostok, in commemoration of the Trans-Siberian Railway’s centenary year.

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