Construction work is pressing ahead on the new line through Russia's Sakha Republic, which is in on course to reach Yakutsk in 2010

MORE THAN 20 years since tracklaying began on the railway to serve the remote Siberian city of Yakutsk, the Yakutiya Railway Co is within sight of completing the long-planned link.

Since August 28 2004 trains have been running as far as Tommot, 368 km short of the intended terminus (RG 10.04 p660). Completion of the line is a priority for the regional government of the Sakha Republic, as there are currently no all-weather roads to or from Yakutsk.

'We cannot afford to live any longer in the 21st century when we have to spend 18bn roubles on transporting food and consumer goods by air, with trucks on frozen rivers in autumn and winter', said the President of the Sakha Republic, Vyacheslav Shtyrov. 'Due to the high transport costs, all local industry - even gold mining - is loss-making'. By comparison, the total cost of building the rail link is put at around 15bn roubles.

Regional project

The first track panel was laid on the line to Yakutsk back in 1985, starting from a junction with the Trans-Siberian Railway at Bamovskaya and intersecting the Baikal-Amur Magistral at Tynda. But when perestroika set in the project's finances collapsed and RZD halted construction at Berkakit.

The regionally-owned Yakutiya Railway Co (OAO ZDY), was set up to build and operate the remaining 830 km Berkakit - Tommot - Yakutsk section, from an operating base at Aldan. The company has inherited staff from the Baikal-Amur project with prior experience of building railways in Siberian conditions, and says it did not face any significant technical problems while building the Berkakit-Tommot section.

Funding for the final section remained a problem until earlier this year, but when President Putin visited Yakutsk in January he announced a firm decision to complete the project. This led to a meeting at the end of July 2006 attended by Russia's Vice-Minister of Transport Alexander Misharin, at which it was agreed that an extra 2·2bn roubles from the local budget would be invested in the project, in addition to 450m roubles allocated in 2005.

Work is continuing on the final 368 km, which will be largely laid on permafrost. One of the biggest structures still to be tackled is a 2 870 m rail and road bridge across the Lena river at Kerdem, around 80 km south of Yakutsk. ZDY expects to complete the whole line by 2010.

Locomotive modernisation

ZDY has its own dedicated fleet of six 2TE-10M diesel locos, acquired from RZD, which are based at Aldan. These locos are aging, and earlier this year the company awarded a modernisation contract worth 67m roubles to General Electric. Over the next six months GE and its local subsidiary GE-Rus Ltd will refurbish two locomotives, under a programme which calls for the whole fleet to be re-engined with GE equipment.

According to ZDY, GE-Rus won the contract 'based on the expertise and the high quality repairs for which the company is known.' The railway's recent purchase of a GE diesel locomotive and GE's proposal to set up a maintenance base and training centre at Aldan also played a part in the decision.

Partially privatised in 2005, the Yakutiya Railway Co handled 2 million tonnes of freight last year, and it expects this will increase to between 5 million and 7 million tonnes a year when the route has been completed. Passenger traffic has been slower to develop, but the line carried 32 000 passengers in the first quarter of 2006, which is more than the total carried for the whole of 2005. At present Tommot has a regular through service to Moscow via the BAM route, and a through train from Yakutsk to Khabarovsk is also envisaged.

Expansion plans

With completion of the main line within sight, the Sakha government is now developing plans for a series of connecting branches to open up the the region, including a line from Ulak to El'ga and an extension beyond Yakutsk to Magadan.

The expansion programme is being driven by a desire to harness Sakha's vast untapped natural resources, and President Putin has given his backing to an industrial production plan that will provide the baseload traffic for the new lines. A number of major Russian and foreign companies have expressed their interest in participating, although under current regulations Russian firms must hold a minimum 30% stake in any joint ventures.

Tracklaying on the line to Yakutsk was completed as far as Tommot in August 2004
Photo: RZD