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Russia uses military to modernize Far East railway

Prison labor also an option to offset lack of foreign workers amid COVID

The BAM railway, also known as the "second Trans-Siberian Railway," is a major route connecting Europe and Asia.

MOSCOW -- State-owned Russian Railways has brought in military units to work on the modernization of the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM), which connects Siberia with the far eastern part of the country, to make up for a lack of foreign workers due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The spread of the coronavirus has led to a severe shortage of foreign construction workers. In addition to the military, there is also a proposal to use prison labor as was done in the former Soviet Union.

In April, the Russian military began construction in the vast expanse of Amur Oblast near China. The military's fifth railroad brigade, stationed in eastern Russia, is working to expand a 340-km section of single-track rail to double-track. All 10 railroad brigades that provide logistical support for military purposes will be deployed until at least 2023, costing 2.5 billion to 3 billion rubles ($34 million to $41 million).

BAM connects the port of Sovetskaya Gavan on the Sea of Japan to Tayshet in eastern Siberia, a distance of about 4,300 km. Parallel to the Trans-Siberian Railway, which runs from Moscow to Vladivostok, it is sometimes referred to as the "second Trans-Siberian Railway."

Both BAM and Trans-Siberian Railway are becoming increasingly important as main transport routes between Europe and Asia. In May 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a national goal of reducing transport times between ports in Russia's Far East and its western border to seven days. Modernization of both railways has been accelerated, funded by Russian Railways and money directly from the government.

The modernization is meant to deal with the rapid increase in freight traffic from China to Europe. BAM is also used for delivering coal shipments to Asia. The goal is to upgrade by 2024 the combined annual freight capacity of BAM and the Trans-Siberian Railway to 180 million tons from the current 120 million.

But the pandemic has partially derailed the project.

As COVID-19 spread, strict border controls were implemented, and workers from former Soviet countries such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Armenia returned from Russia en masse. In early 2021, labor shortages emerged in construction, transportation and other fields, exposing Russia's reliance on low-cost migrant workers for much of its manual labor.

Construction on BAM began in the 1930s under the Soviet Union. Finding construction workers, estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands, has been a challenge from the start. At that time, soldiers and prisoners were used as laborers for the railroad, which was intended to help defend against Japan. In the 1970s, members of the Communist League of Youth were used as "shock troops" for the project, with the line finally opening in 1984.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, meets with Tajikistan's President Emomali Rahmon in Moscow on May 8.   © Reuters

During the Soviet era, it was common to use forced labor on national infrastructure projects. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, military units have rarely been mobilized for large-scale construction.

Labor shortages have become so severe, Kommersant, one of Russia's leading newspapers, reported at the end of April that the government was considering using prisoners for BAM. The government will pay judicial authorities money as compensation for the inmates not working at correctional camps.

"The issue of foreign workers is an important one," said Putin at a May 8 meeting with Tajikistan's President Emomali Rahmon. "We will do our best to make it easier for them to work." The government plans to accelerate the easing of border restrictions for migrant workers to avoid delays not only in the modernization of BAM, but also in other projects, like housing construction.

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