Convicts to rebuild BAM line in Siberia

A Russian three-unit 3ES5K Ermak locomotive pulls a heavy freight train on the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) in Siberia.

The Moscow Times and other news agencies have reported that a 340km (211 mile) section of the planned upgrade of the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) in Siberia is to be delivered by prison convicts.

BAM is 4,000km long, running from Lake Baikal in Siberia to Russia’s east coast on the Sea of Japan. It was built in the Stalin era of the 1930s, with prisoners from the Gulag camp at Bamlag constructing the section from Tayshet to Bratsk.

The whole line was later upgraded to take heavy freight traffic, a project that took 25 years and was finally completed in 1991, although sections had been opened for military traffic earlier.

Russia’s Siberian railways, showing the BAM in green (click to enlarge).

Russian Railways’ 2019 investment plan called for the modernisation of the Baikal to Amur Mainline and the Trans-Siberian Railway (Second stage) as its top priorities, allocating 35 billion roubles (£486 million) to the project for that year.

In its report, Moscow Times states that, due to labour shortages, Russian government officials have discussed plans to use prisoners for major construction projects, but they insist there are no plans to revive the Stalin-era Gulag practice, stating that prisoners will enjoy “decent conditions” and receive a salary.

State news agency RIA Novosti apparently quoted a spokesman for Russia’s Federal Prison Service (FSIN) who said: “An agreement was signed on the intent to use convict labour and create a site that functions as a correctional facility.”

Alexander Tchernoyarov, who heads one of the main companies involved in the project, pointed to a “serious shortage of manpower,” with many migrant workers are unable to enter Russia due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Russian military has said that it will contribute to the modernisation of the BAM track, but more manpower will be needed to fill the 15,000 vacant positions.

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