The International Steam Pages

Bam Steam Express

Retirement has not stopped Leslie McAllister's wanderings....

I have since posted some pictures of the Sakhalin section of the tour.


"This is just a short(-ish) report on how this tour went, in my opinion. Billed as the longest railtour of all time, (an honour it is unlikely ever to lose!), it certainly felt that way, by the time we reached Irkutsk on 11 August, after 42 days! However, I was very sad to leave the train with its patient and helpful staff.

Was it worth it (at over HK$125,000)? Well, this is impossible to answer, as it depends on what value you put on meeting new people, making new friends, consolidating friendships. Oh, and travelling over 10,000 miles behind about 50 different steam locomotives in the year 2000. Certainly the tour did not go to plan and the King of Railtours (Tim Littler of GW Travel) may have eventually have met his match in trying to cover the ‘BAM’ by steam.

The first section of the tour was from St Petersburg (as Leningrad is now known), down the original Trans-Siberian main line, missing Moscow, to Buy, Kirov, Perm, Yekaterinburg, Tyumen, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Tayshet, Irkutsk and Slyudyanka. Here we left the Trans Siberian to run down the branch to Port Baikal on the famous lake (the World’s largest). For much of this part, our train was 15 coaches, with abut 75 passengers.

The main tour now began with about 25 passengers. From Port Baikal we retraced our steps to Slyudyanka and back along the Trans Siberian to Tayshet. Here we joined the ‘BAM’, then through Bratsk, Lena, Severobaikalsk, Tynda, Khani to Komsomolsk and Sovietskaya Gavan. Here we reversed, returning to Komsomolsk and then running down to re-join the Trans Siberian at Khabarovsk, continuing to the end of the line at Vladivostok.

A smaller group of 23 passenger now flew to Sakhalin Island for several days touring the island’s 3’6" gauge, Japanese-built railways. Returning to Vladivostok (which had suffered flooding while we were away!), the tour continued by travelling to Nakhodka, before returning along the Trans Siberian mainline to Irkutsk again. We travelled along several branches, which I will recount, if I ever get around to a fuller report! Now for some details -

For those not familiar with Russia, the 4,234 km BAM (Baikal Amur Magistral -literally the Baikal-Amur Mainline) was built as an alternative route to the Trans Siberian Railway, especially the sections which are close to the border with China! It was also intended to tap the natural resources of this region of Siberia. The section from Tayshet to Bratsk was built in the 1930s, while the most Eastern section was built in 1944-6, mainly by POWs and political prisoners, of whom possibly as many as 150,000 died. The project was revived in 1974 and the line was completed between Lena and Komsomolsk, at enormous cost in money and human effort (although many of workers for this part were volunteers from the Communist Youth League). It was intended to be a double track electrified mainline, but that intention was lost as money ran out. It is mainly single track and is only electrified at the Western end.

The junction with the Trans-Siberian is at Tayshet, West of Irkutsk, from which it goes north of Lake Baikal through Tynda, Komsomolsk to Sovietskaya Gavan on the Pacific. At the eastern end there is link to the original line from Komsomolsk to Khabarovsk, but there is another link from Tynda on the BAM south to Skovordino. This was built before the main BAM.

As mentioned before, the main objective of the tour was to travel along the BAM hauled by steam locomotives from Russia's Strategic Reserve. Before we set out, it was clear that our chances were not good, as many doubts remained, especially as the management of a critical railway had changed. The new boss was not going to take any risks, despite earlier promises to the Minister of Railways and the British Ambassador.

So we lost the whole central part (1,163 kms) of the BAM to electric and diesel haulage. Further, as the railway company seemed to want to get us off their line as soon as possible, early running made sure that many of us missed the best bits over the steep North Muya by-pass in the early morning. This was the part the manager felt was the greatest risk, I believe. From what I and others saw, it looks eminently possible with steam, with just one questionnable tunnel, which may be too long either for crews or passengers. You see, as the line was built for electric haulage from Day One there are no air vents which one usually finds in tunnels!

The BAM has many utterly spectacular features, which I am very privileged to have seen, although missing doing them this time behind steam is nigh on disastrous, as I wonder if GW Travel has the energy to fight the battles again? One cannot describe in words the immensity of the undertaking which the engineers took on, or the skill they put into conquering nature (not always successfully). Some of the railway engineering is as good as you’ll find anywhere on the Earth and the majesty of some section is breathtaking, as the line sweeps about the broadest canvas you could imagine an artist painting.

Although the original purpose of the railway, to provide an alternative Trans Siberian line, for strategic purposes, there was also seen a potential to relieve the earlier line, especially as the BAM is shorter. However, with the reduction of freight haulage in Russia, since the change of government in 1991, this use has been set aside for the moment. The other reason for building the line was to open up natural resources along the length of the line. This would have been questionned in the capitalist economic model, as the markets for anything produced is thousands of miles away. In the controlled ‘socialist’ model, there may have been an argument, but I cannot easily see it! In 1991, the money supply was cut off and the line seems to have rotted ever since. The worst example of this is the tunnel at Severomuysk, 10 miles long, but lacking the final 500 yards! So the trains run over that impressive by-pass.

Unhappily, the line must be written off as one of the great tragedies of human endeavour, for the line serves no obvious purpose to-day and never looks like serving one even in the furthest future. I hope that I am wrong in this estimation. Along the line are ‘cities’ - half built large towns - where the people almost entirely work just to keep the line running. There was very little traffic running on the line and what there was seemed to be to do with keeping the line open. Some timber traffic, but many, many timber plants falling into decay and misuse.

Everywhere, half built structures, including many stations, although some that had been finished were very fine. Only Komsomolsk showed any real class as a city, with fine wide boulevards, buildings and tidiness. The line beyond there to Sovietskaya Gavan includes a major climb of some 200 kms, ending with a remarkable horseshoe, brilliantly positioned in a bowl in the hills. This is a very fine piece of railway in delightful scenery.

So, the line is well worth a visit, even electric and diesel hauled. Few lines have been thrust through such immensity. However, Mr Putin must have better uses for government money than keeping an unnecessary line of this length open. GW Travel is thinking of diverting his ‘Private Car’ trips to return over the BAM. I cannot think of a more unusual journey to offer his clients and commend it to anyone looking for something very different.

The trip to the island of Sakhalin was, on our experience, a one-off. The railway management there made life very difficult for Tim and Marina (the tour managers), so I can’t see a repeat. Still we did a big mileage there by the single working steam locomotive, D51.4 (Japanese-built 2-8-2). The Japanese, who organise photographic charters twice a year, only do short distances. The island could be described as attractive and the line has some fine coastal stretches, but almost everything is falling into ruin.

One great surprise was seeing for the first time just how spectacular parts of the Trans Siberian itself are. The reason is probably that we covered different sections in daylight this time (to trips in 1996 and 1998).

Otherwise we’d have missed the sight of the giant horseshoe at Obluche, over 25kms of it; or the many 135 degree curves, as the line sweeps about to gain or lose height. We have to convince Tim to run this trip in daylight! A tour just East of Tayshet probably gets in all the good bits

Traffic on the Trans Sib is certainly up both in terms of passenger and freight. Of particular note are the increasing container traffic (P&O are part owners of the container port at Vostochny near Vladivostok) and there are up market trains like the nightly Vladivostok - Khabarovsk "Ocean" with refurbished rolling stock and smart livery.

So, what were the highlights?

P36.0031 (4-8-4) hauled a feeble P36.0249 and 15 bogies (over 1,000 Tonnes) some 113 miles from Kamyshlov to Tyumen at 50.6mph, start to stop, maximum 67mph. This was the location of the fastest run in 1996. Best speed with a P36 was 71mph (some made it 72) in the next section on to Vagay.

P36.0031 made another superb overnight run on her own on 15 coaches weighing about 850 tonnes, maximum 68mph.

I would judge some of the L Class (2-10-0) performance better than P36 efforts. 50mph was achieved by the following - 4009 did 51 with 15 coaches (840T); 3228 and 3873 did 50 four times, 51 max; with sound effects right off the dial and much fire in the night; 51 with 3217 and 3507 after a fearless climb of the Devil’s Mountain with 14 coaches (785T); 53 after Irkutsk with the same two; 51 with 3480 and 4639; 50 with 5149 and 3626 on 12 coaches (675T); 54 twice with 3735 on her own with 12 coaches (675T). Despite these highlights, much of the L class performance was modest in the extreme.

Noise and fire highlights from GREEN 3735 and 3438 which gave the great dam at Bratsk a real baptism of fire (they were the first steam engines to cross it!) amidst high powered L Class jet engine roars; but noise and fire first prize goes to 2035 and 3440 on the Ust Ilimsk BRANCH, on a run which ended somewhat apocalyptically at midnight!

Quadruple heading with Yea 2533, 2450 and 3736 with Yem 3927! The latter two were working home, after hauling us earlier and it seemed a more convenient move operationally! The performance of the smaller American-built 2-10-0s was not as good as 1996 and speeds in the forties were unusual Finally, even in those half-built towns along the BAM, we met friendly people and the most delightful, polite children, who were amazingly keen to photograph us. You see, we were probably the first foreigners they’d ever seen!

Generally, the performance was poor, especially for the first three and half days, when we endured some pretty fearfully bad P36 work! However, the good sections of this trip helped to confirm my opinion that the ‘L’ Class 2-10-0s are very fine engines, when in good condition and in the hands of keen crews, as happily they were on occasion on this tour.

So, am I glad I spent all this money to do this trip? On balance, the answer must be "yes", for Russia offers railway experiences unequalled world-wide, plus the delight of meeting the Russians and seeing their country coming to life again after a hiatus. If Tim can have another stab at the missing bit of the BAM, it’ll be hard to say "no". If he offers a daylight trip down the Trans Sib, that, too will be impossible to refuse, for there are many delights still unseen after my two trips!

Unhappily, this will probably be the last tour to use ‘real’ locomotives from the Strategic Reserve, as that was officially stood down in January. I understand that each railway within Russia has been told to retain 10 locomotives for tourist trains, which will mean that over 100 locomotives will be kept, which is something at least. However, the thrill of stopping for a locomotive change without the slightest idea of what will appear for the next leg will be gone forever.

I will update (and correct, if necessary!) this report in October.

Meanwhile, I’m off on two working trips to USA! Watch this space."

Rob Dickinson