LAST MONTH we reported on problems affecting Russian Railways’ Trans-Siberian main line and proposals to rejuvenate its role as a landbridge. At the 7th conference of the Co-Ordinating Council on Trans Siberian Transport in Bremen, concern was expressed about the drastic fall in container traffic from 120000 units a year 10 years ago to just 40000 a year at the moment. The drop was partly attributed to more competitive marine services, but reliability, security and a shortage of boxes were also blamed.

There is plenty of spare capacity on the route, which helps to explain another phenomenon. Traffic moving over the 3145 km Baikal Amur Magistral, built partly to relieve the then overloaded Trans-Siberian, has slumped to a trickle. In the late-1980s BAM was carrying about 20 passenger trains a day and substantial quantities of freight between Tynda and Komsomolsk, but the number of trains is now reported to be in single figures.

Hewn out of the Siberian wastelands by troops, prisoners and other labourers in sub-zero temperatures, BAM is an epic monument to the communist era. The challenges of building a heavy haul railway designed to carry 20 to 30 million tonnes a year through permafrost were stupendous, and the construction statistics were awesome. But even when the line was commissioned in 1989, the Deputy Minister of Transport Construction Yefim Basin admitted the industrial development which was the main justification for building the line had not taken place. Nor has it to this day, and the rich mineral resources along the route will remain undisturbed until Russia’s tragically ailing economy starts to thaw again.