I’ve just been on an amazing railway. It stretches across much of a whole and was built at the instigation of politicians who thought it would stimulate the economic development of a deprived region and bring vast riches to the nation as a whole. It was built to a high standard and cost a significant proportion of government spending for many years.
You may think I was fantasising about a journey in the future to take a ride on HS2 in 2035. No, it was rather more prosaically a 10 day trip on the Baikal Amur Mainline, a line in Siberia that parallels the old Transsiberian and took 70 years to build. It was probably (Russian accounts are not exactly transparent) the most expensive line ever built and the human cost was definitely the greatest, with possibly as many as 400,000 lives being lost.
The BAM (as it is universally and proudly known along the route) is a testimony to human endeavour but also to the dangers of a political system without the appropriate checks and balances. The main Transsiberian line, itself the product of a dysfunctional political system, the Tsarist regime that came to an abrupt end in 1917, could be justified on the basis of its importance in opening up Siberia and genuinely stimulating the development of the region.
The reason for building the BAM, running about 300 miles north of the Transsiberian (if you look at a map you will see that even then it is still in southern Siberian with literally thousands of miles of land still to the north) was never so clearcut. It runs north of the main towns, and passes through much more difficult territory for a railway, as much of it is laid on permafrost, ground frozen since the Ice Age and which, when disturbed, turns into a messy swamp. This led to enormous difficulties during construction which took place in three stages. First, in the 1930s, after Stalin had decided to build the railway gulag prisoners were given the task and slowly starved as they laboured, leading to a high death rate. Then, after the war, Stalin ordered work to be restarted with more slave labour, this time provided by Japanese and German prisoners of war who were so poorly treated that 90 per cent died. Work was abandoned when Stalin died and not restarted for nearly a quarter of a century.
Finally, Brezhnev, the lugubrious Soviet leader who took over from Stalin’s successor Khrushchev, restarted the project in the late 1970s, using Labour provided by Komsomol, the Leninist youth wing of the Communist Party along with the army and some experienced engineers. They were paid, and not treated harshly, but the sheer difficulty of the task, which included constructing 24 miles of tunnelling and hundreds of bridges, meant that it was not until 2003, when Putin was in power, that the project was actually completed.
The project caused huge environmental damage. Melting the permafrost turned vast swathes of the area into swamp and, as it dried up, the dead trees were a source of fire. The huge Lake Baikal was polluted with oil and chemicals, and the intensity and frequency of earthquakes, which are a regular occurrence in the region increased.
There was, too, a fundamental mistake about the design of the route. The line joins the main Transsiberian, which is all but full, at Tayshet, 2,000 miles from Moscow and therefore it only relieves the Eastern section, and does not really provide an alternative for freight from the Pacific to western Russia.
Now I am not about to suggest that Andrew McNaughton, the chief engineer of HS2, is a modern day Stalin – he does not employ gulag labour and is quite a nice chap. But there are some uncanny similarities between HS2 and the BAM. The BAM was conceived in Soviet Government circles in the 1920s without any clear explanation of what it was being built for. Subsequently, there were all kinds of reasons given, just as there has been with HS2, but from my experience on the line it does seem like the biggest white elephant ever. We were shunted into a siding for much of a day on the northern most part of the line, at Novay Stara, and I was stunned by the fact that maybe, optimistically half a dozen freights rattled past us as well as the one daily passenger through train and a couple of locals, which consist of one lightly used carriage hauled by a huge diesel locomotive as it is the section that has not yet been electrified.
The line was supposed to be the catalyst for an upsurge in population in the region by attracting industries and to help exploit the region’s huge mineral resources. In the event, with the collapse of the Communist regime, subsidies for the region dried up affecting both agriculture – we passed a huge old bread factory that had closed down because local wheat was no longer subsidised and it became cheaper to import bread from western Russia – and industry. The large and elegant stations that I photographed along the route were clean and well kept inside, invariably with a well-stocked shop selling newspapers and toys for kids to play with on the train, but were little used and far too big for what was mostly a sole daily train in each direction.
In fact, little industry has come, and the BAM is the biggest employer in most of the towns along the route. Indeed, since the demise of Communism, the population in what is known as the BAM zone has decreased as subsidies to the region have no longer been forthcoming and people need an incentive to live in that harsh climate. The housing we saw in the small towns mostly consisted of Soviet style five storey blocks that make Broadwater Farm look like Paradise.
Nor is the line in very good nick. It was noticeable that in several sections the train slowed to virtual walking pace because of speed restrictions. There was evidence of repair work and clearly keeping the line open is hugely costly – one estimate suggests it loses around £50m per year. That seems rather low to me.
Of course I jest somewhat. It is a bit unfair to compare a 2000 mile relatively slow line through the sparsely populated Siberian steppes and taiga with HS2 but there are similarities, such as a lack of clarity about the project is for, huge cost, unrealistic engineering assumptions, optimistic predictions about usage, a lengthy timetable (though I suspect HS2 will be completed before 2060!) and great environmental concerns.
Big projects, megaprojects as they are called by some academics, must be game changers if they are to be successful. They have to be in order to justify the massive expense and the BAM has clearly failed in that respect and there is no sign, despite bold statements about investment plans from Russian Railways in order to boost container traffic. The BAM, for all the human and financial cost, has not been the transformative force for Siberia which the Soviet government – and indeed its successor – had hoped it would be.
Torbay’s needs ignored
I have recently written of parts of the UK which are more or less ignored, or inadequately served by the rail network, such as Grimsby and Church Stretton, and Roger Dixon of the Torbay Line Rail Users Group wants to add his area to the list.
Torbay, he points out, is the second largest conurbation west of Bristol with a population of 140,000 that is growing. While there is some industry and research, the key employer, with more than a third of local jobs, is tourism and hospitality. This is not reflected in the provision of the rail service.
When I travelled recently on the Avocet Line between Exeter and Exmouth, I discovered that many of the trains originate in Paignton, which is part of the Torbay area. Indeed, these DMU shuttles, of varying quality – some Pacers at times, occasionally even attached to 150s – provide the bulk of services to Torbay which means there are few facilities: they have no first class carriages, are not bookable and have no on board refreshments. Moreover, there are very few direct trains to London and crucially none that arrives between 15 00 and 21 00, the key times people arriving would want to check into their hotels. Another issue, which deters commuting, is that the three stations serving the town are reached by a branch (though double tracked) from Newton Abbot, there is no direct train to Plymouth, just 35 miles away.
Dixon, who is in frequent conversation with Great Western, complains that the company has little interest in boosting direct train travel to London, preferring to encourage people to use the shuttle service to change at Newton Abbot or Exeter. Overall he feels the poor services is a disincentive to train travel and is greatly damaging to the area’s economy. He has set out in detail how services could be improved, boosting the local economy.
He has a good case and he makes a telling point: ‘there has been little analysis of why people don’t travel by train’. Torbay is, like the other two places I have mentioned above, one of those forgotten parts of the rail network and there are countless others, particularly at its extremities. It is understandable that Great Western is not very interested in this market because it has much bigger fish to fry and it has different priorities. As with the other examples, this shows that the absence of any strategic thinking on the railways is at the root of the problem. There is no one sitting down in the Department for Transport or Network Rail or anywhere else saying ‘what regions and towns suffer particularly badly from an inadequate train service and need the economic boost that better connectivity would give them?’
Well my fears came to pass and my recent optimism proved unfounded. So now what? So far, writing this just a few days after the vote, no one has yet mentioned HS2. But Boris Johnson, God help us – and indeed him, as he will have to lead the terribly difficult Brexit negotiations – is favourite to be PM and with the economy likely to be in freefall, HS2 could be ditched, as I predicted in Rail 800. But then dear old Mystic did predict Arsenal would pip Leicester to the Premiership title.