Deep in eastern Siberia, one of the most ambitious feats of modern Russian rail engineering is nearing completion.
The Baikalsky tunnel, bored through 5 miles of mountain rock, has taken seven years to build, with construction teams working in distictly Siberian temperatures as low as -60C. Designed to withstand the regular earthquakes that strike this remote region, it is the flagship project of the redevelopment of one of the country’s most iconic rail lines that aims to propel the Soviet-era train network into the 21st century. The Baikal-Amur Mainline, cousin to the Trans-Siberian railway, runs from the town of Tayshet through some of the world’s toughest terrain all the way to the Pacific Ocean, 4,300km away.
State-run Russian Railways (RZD) is investing $17bn over a decade as part of its plan to carry not just passengers but also grab a bigger slice of the billions of dollars worth of goods and raw materials that are transported annually from Asia to Europe. “Russia has advanced,” Vladimir Goncharov, the engineer in charge of the Baikalsky tunnel told the Financial Times. "Today Russia has everything we need for building and developing railway infrastructure.” His optimism understates the Herculean task to modernise Russia’s creaking rail network - the funding of the massive upgrade has been the subject of national discussion for years.
“Some 98 per cent of the transit cargo volume between Europe and Asia uses the Suez Canal. It takes 40-45 days. By railway it’s twice as fast,” Oleg Belozerov, RZD general director, told the FT. Rail has also become cheaper than the marine alternative. The cost of taking cargo from Asia to Europe by train is half the price of doing so by sea.
Yet Russia faces stiff competition from China, which is planning a New Silk Road of upgraded transport infrastructure to western Europe that will run through dozens of countries, as part of its One Belt One Road initiative. Belozerov said Russia’s upgraded rail lines could take at least 10 per cent of the total container volumes that transit from the country’s Far East ports to its western border, which would be a 10-fold rise.