New Trans-Siberian Produces Slum Instead of Riches

By Richard C. Paddock

SEVEROBAIKALSK, Eastern Siberia - In the frozen Siberian wilderness, there lies an untapped territory so abundant in natural resources that Russian officials proclaim it the richest region on earth. Someday, they say, a monumental rail line - a second Trans-Siberian Railway - will haul minerals and timber from this hinterland and make Russia wealthy.

At an estimated cost of $10 billion, the Baikal-Amur Railway is nearly complete, and its last tunnel could be finished by the end of the decade. Using temporary bypasses around construction zones, the railroad has been moving some cargo since 1989 - with little fanfare.

"The economic future of Russia is inseparable from the Baikal-Amur Railway," declared Leonty Makhitarov, deputy general director of Moscow-based Baminvest, which manages the rail line. "These reserves are measured in billions of tons. As soon as industry demands the natural resources, we can expect a real boom, an industrial explosion."

But the huge factories designed to smelt the ore and mill the lumber exist only on paper, and the government does not have the money to build them.

So instead of great wealth, the railway's biggest product is the Balki - a Siberian slum here on the north end of Lake Baikal where thousands of former railroad workers and their families live in poverty.

"I helped create the Baikal-Amur Railway, and at the end of my life I'm left with nothing at all," said Yevgeny Tretyakov, 63, a retired railroad worker who lives with his wife in a dilapidated one-room trailer without running water.

"I am very much ashamed for my country. It is the eve of the 21st century, and we have to live in such appalling conditions."

The Baikal-Amur Railway is everything this slum is not: modern, clean - and empty. Its single track and power poles seem to stretch forever through the taiga. But at any given point on the line, one can wait much of the day to see a train. Officials acknowledge that only six trains operate each day along the entire 3,200-kilometer system.

During the 1930s, Stalin mobilized half a million prisoners to construct the line, but the project came to a halt with the onset of World War II. When relations with China soured in the 1960s, Russia feared that its former ally would try to seize part of the vital Trans-Siberian Railway, which runs perilously close to the Chinese border. To create an alternate route, Brezhnev in 1974 resumed construction of BAM, which was protected by mountains, making it a national priority.

The brightest and strongest of the new Soviet generation were recruited to work on the project and sent to live in Severobaikalsk and in settlements that sprang up along the line.

The Trans-Siberian Railway, itself a monumental undertaking, linked Russia's distant regions for the first time when it was completed in 1905, extending 9,242 kilometers from Moscow to Vladivostok. BAM runs roughly parallel to the Trans-Siberian line, but about 400 kilometers to the north. It passes around the upper end of Lake Baikal - the largest freshwater lake in Eurasia - and connects with the older route in Taishet to the west and Komsomolsk-on-Amur in the east.

Between these cities, BAM has the advantage of being 480 kilometers shorter and has siphoned off some of the Trans-Siberian's cargo traffic. BAM will become an even better option once work is completed on its last tunnel, a 16-kilometer shaft beset by numerous engineering challenges.

Sergei Korolko, chief engineer of Bamtonnelstroi, the company building the tunnel, said the project is at least two years from completion - once money is found to finance the work. For now, trains must take a steep, winding 53-kilometer mountain bypass that adds significantly to the time and expense of using BAM.

"When the tunnel is complete, the capacity of the railroad will increase tremendously," Korolko said.

Railway designers planned 10 major industrial centers along the Baikal-Amur corridor to process its timber, coal, gold, silver, copper, jade, lead, zinc, iron, titanium, cadmium, vanadium, magnesium and other resources. But so far, only a coal mine has opened; instead of powering new industry in the region, its high-quality coal is being shipped to Japan for use in making steel.

For now, the money-losing railway has no capital to invest in developing the industry that could ultimately ensure its success. Officials say it has been unable to lure outside investment because of its remote location, the extreme climate, the high cost of electricity - and the high price BAM charges for hauling cargo.

"So far, these have scared off the investors," Makhitarov said. "Railroad tariffs are so high that some industries don't think it's profitable to transport their products around the country. We must wait until the economy of the country stabilizes."

Because of its natural beauty, Lake Baikal is often called "the pearl of Siberia." But in Severobaikalsk, just a mile from its northern shore, thousands of unemployed railroad workers live in the Balki in what was supposed to be temporary housing.

Huts and shacks are patched together with scraps of wood, cardboard and plastic. A few residents raise goats - which outnumber cars on the dirt roads. On every block stands a communal outhouse, and during the long winter the city delivers water twice a week.

"You can't really call this a life," said Kuznetsova, standing on her front stoop, arms folded across her thin frame. "It's survival. We live like pigs. What can be done? Nothing. I will end my life in this filthy shed."

To heat her house in winter, she uses a one-meter-long metal rod plugged into a wall socket and inserted into a pipe full of water - the kind of device responsible for burning down a number of houses in the slum.

Tretyakov, the retired BAM worker, has spent 17 years living in the tired green trailer that measures only 10 square meters. He dreams of visiting his relatives in western Russia, but a one-way ticket costs twice as much as his $63 monthly pension.

"That's the preposterous thing," he said. "We devote all our lives to the railroad and making transportation better, and now we can't even afford to go see our relatives."

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