BACK IN the USSR in 1981, construction workers toiling to build the 15·3 km Severomuisky tunnel on the Baikal-Amur Magistral encountered fast-flowing underground rivers that rapidly halted work. As we said at the time, ’streams of hot and cold water mingled with sand to produce a treacherous quicksand that spelt havoc for the tunnelling teams’. For a time, work was all but abandoned, and two bypasses were built, the first a steeply-graded 30 km deviation to carry trains with construction materials, and the second a ’temporary’ 60 km line allowing revenue-earning trains to avoid the obstacle. When excavation of the tunnel had begun in April 1977, the target date for completion had been 1986.

More than two decades later, Russian Minister of Railways Nikolai Aksyonenko presided at a breakthrough ceremony in the Severomuisky tunnel on March 30. The tunnellers were sent a message of congratulation from President Vladimir Putin, something that they no doubt richly deserved.

Located 356 km east of Severobaikalsk, the longest tunnel on the Russian Railways network will be formally opened in December. In the meantime a single track will be laid and overhead wires strung up. Amazingly, there are only eight tunnels on the 3145 km BAM, of which the next longest are the Baykalsi (6700m), the Kodarski (1940m) and the Nagorninski (1300m).

Once regular traffic commences through the Severomuisky bore, RZD will be able to use the BAM route as it was originally intended, with heavy haul freight trains taking minerals to market from mines located along the line. Iron and copper deposits are located at Chiney, and there is more copper and coal at Udokan. Traffic is expected to rise to around 20 million tonnes a year.

Traffic volumes will increase again in 2005 once construction of a new 300 km line is completed between Ulak and an important coal mining area at Elga. Deposits at Elga are reckoned to amount to 2·5 billion tonnes, and around 10 million tonnes a year will be extracted from opencast mines. The project entails construction of 200 bridges and viaducts, and with track panels being assembled at Taishet, junction with the Trans-Siberian main line, the first permanent way is due to be laid this month.

Further east, plans are taking shape to build a permanent rail link between the Russian mainland and the island of Sakhalin, replacing a train ferry that first plied between Vanino and Kholmsk in 1973. The Ministry of Railways is considering an 8 km tunnel or a bridge of similar length across the Tatar strait from the Cape of Nevelsk. A planning and construction directorate has been established at Khabarovsk, and air surveys are being undertaken to plot a route for a link from a point approximately midway along the Komsomolsk-on-Amur - Vanino line north to Nevelsk.