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Wish I were there: a slow train across Siberia

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On a satellite image, Siberia at night appears as an expanse of darkness, extending from the cities of western Russia to the Pacific, from the Gobi Desert to the Arctic. Zoom in on the north shore of Lake Baikal, and you can see a faint chain of lights running eastward through this blackness: the electric glow of little towns along the Baikal-Amur Mainline — also known as the BAM.

It is a mostly single-track railway, on which trains trundle at about 25mph through some of the most remote territory on Earth. It runs north of and very roughly parallel to the famous Trans-Siberian but is firmly in its shadow — the BAM is slower, more decrepit, and according to the rail enthusiasts’ website Seat61.com, “is of little interest to most Western travellers”.

It extends about 2,700 miles — from Tayshet, where it branches off the Trans-Siberian, to Vanino, on the Pacific coast. Were you to move those same rails west, you could stretch them from London to Jerusalem, via Paris, Milan and Istanbul. But out here, the BAM passes only a few small, obscure settlements, marooned in inkless parts of the atlas. To step aboard the BAM is to travel for travelling’s sake.

I had wanted to ride the railway since I first read about it — a few paragraphs, hidden near the index of a Russia guidebook. It was described as a feat of endurance, but to me it sounded like an invitation, like the closest you could come to falling off the map on dry land. It proved to be so: my BAM journey lingers in my memory years afterwards.

Wish I were there . . . 

With the pandemic continuing to disrupt travel, we have been asking writers to journey in their imaginations, to tell the story of a distant place they yearn to revisit. Read more from the series at ft.com/wishiwere

I can see how it has useful lessons for life under lockdown: inhabiting small places, living in proximity with others. But, during days when we are permanently going nowhere, I miss constantly going somewhere on the BAM — its ever-retreating horizons are the vaccine against claustrophobia. Being a passenger on the BAM is like being Gulliver in Brobdingnag: the rivers are as wide as lakes, the lakes as mighty as oceans, the forests seem infinite. Travelling at 25mph, you watch the vast dimensions of planet Earth slowly uncoil.


What the Wild West was to America, the East was to Russia: a virgin land where dreams flooded in. No dreams were bigger than the BAM. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev declared this railway the “Hero Project of the Century” when work commenced in the 1970s. The BAM was meant to blaze a trail through the wilderness to unlock Siberia’s deposits of gold, copper, coal and timber. The metropolises of tomorrow would spring out of the taiga. The BAM would be a bulwark against a feared Chinese invasion: it would connect European markets with the Pacific. Comrades would go forth (in bulldozers) and multiply in this promised land.

BAM passengers riding between Severobaikalsk and Tynda © Philip Lee Harvey

But the railway’s story was, like the story of the Soviet Union, one of hubris. This was a land beyond risk assessments. Rails and buildings (even a hospital) were swallowed by shifting permafrost. Houses spun 45 degrees in seismic tremors. Tunnellers accidentally hit an underground lake and unleashed a tsunami from within a mountain. Many comrades deserted: what were to be million-strong metropolises ended up as impoverished villages. Some estimate that $20bn was spent building the mother of all white elephants.

Map of Baikal-Amur Mainline in Russia

The railway opened in 1991: just as the ideology that it was built to glorify was being abandoned. As the Soviet Union collapsed, locals feared promises being forgotten in the new Russian Federation: even threatening to declare “BAM Land” an independent country. In truth, the BAM felt to me like its own country — an archipelago of little towns, adrift somewhere between the Soviet Union and the modern world.

Even from a passenger seat, you can see the mighty projects of BAM Land, writ large on the landscape. On my first day on board, passengers rushed to the right-hand side as we trundled over the Bratsk Dam: 2,110 square miles of water, shimmering to the southern horizon. This reservoir was once the largest in the world: it supplies a hydroelectric station that was, upon opening, the biggest power producer on Earth. It’s still there, in the middle of nowhere, ready to supply electricity to millions of settlers who never came. It could have been worse. The Soviet Union once planned to reverse the flow of Siberian rivers using nuclear bombs. As abruptly as it arrived, the Bratsk Sea slipped back into the woods.

Workers welcome the first train in operation in the settlement of Tyndinsky, 1975 © TASS/Getty Images

I miss idle days riding the BAM: days with little to do but slip into a trance as you gaze out at the scenery. Like a dervish, you become hypnotised by constant motion. BAM trains are less luxurious than their Trans-Siberian counterparts: there is no first class, and the carriages I travelled in creaked wearily. On certain stretches, they swayed like ships on stormy swells. Russian train journeys are often compared to sea voyages, and the BAM is no exception. To travel from west to east takes four or five days, a little shorter than a transatlantic crossing.

During my journey, I read about the story of Valery Malkov. Travelling from his home in Bratsk to Neryungri, Malkov was enjoying a bedtime cigarette in a train vestibule when he accidentally fell out the door, and into the night-time taiga. It was -40C, and he was wearing a T-shirt. Malkov chased the train along the tracks for half an hour: running four miles through the snow in his slippers. By a miracle, he found a guard at a normally unmanned stop, deep in the wilderness. He didn’t suffer hypothermia, and boarded another train the next day. Malkov was lucky. To fall off a train out here can be as fatal as going overboard at sea.

A monument to the builders of the BAM at Tynda © Philip Lee Harvey
Housing blocks in Tynda at sunrise © Philip Lee Harvey

I miss those remote stops along the BAM: little towns that ambush you with a screech of brakes, and the waft of dried fish being loaded into the dining car. They represent the Soviet Union in microcosm: the town of Novy Uoyan — built by Latvian workers, with Baltic-style houses that conjure up the sea spray of Riga — or Kuanda, an Uzbek-sponsored town with Central Asian ambience. Armenians, Georgians, Ukrainians, even Angolan and Cuban comrades worked on the BAM, some leaving tiny mementoes of their homelands on the frontier.

Comrades travelled 4,000 miles from St Petersburg to build the city of Severobaikalsk — my favourite stop — set between mountains and the north shore of Lake Baikal. Unlike St Petersburg, there is no pressure to go sightseeing. I wandered aimlessly among five-storey tower blocks. I visited the monument to BAM construction workers, which proclaimed “Glory to the Tunnel Builders”. After a short while in any BAM town, you actually realise that the grandest building is in fact the first and last place you visit: the station. In the case of Severobaikalsk it is a piece of space-age architecture, with a swooping roof like a sail, allegedly in tribute to the quays of St Petersburg. BAM towns never quite lived up to their futuristic stations.

The view from the window as the train approaches Komsomolsk-na-Amur © Philip Lee Harvey

In the loneliness of lockdown, I miss the ever-changing cast of passengers on the BAM, for whom births, marriages and deaths are often linked to railway timetables. Midway along the line, in the BAM “capital” of Tynda, I met Vadim and Ekaterina: a husband and wife whose eyes first met in a train cabin one Christmas Day in 2004. They were “BAM-binos” — the second generation of residents. Vadim was an engine driver — he said Tynda produces the best drivers in the country. Ekaterina’s father had also been a driver: their son planned to be one too.

The exterior of Tynda station © Philip Lee Harvey

In Tynda station, Vadim took us into the cab of an idling engine where we drank coffee and talked about bear sightings along the line. He was frank that Tynda was becoming a ghost town — at the last census its population stood at 36,000, down from a Soviet-era peak of 65,000. He tried to be hopeful for the future.

“Younger generations don’t want to hear about the BAM,” he said. “It’s not taught in history lessons — maybe because it is a story from Soviet times. But we are proud of the railway — in the future people will hear about it.”

Since I left, there has been some positive news for locals: freight traffic has been increasing. Construction of a new spur north to the city of Yakutsk is continuing (the so-called AYAM railway). There have been official announcements of billion-dollar upgrades along the BAM. But the most recent timetables still show passenger trains crawling along at average speeds of about 25mph.

Passengers on the platform at Tynda, the BAM ‘capital’ © Philip Lee Harvey

At least, during the pandemic, BAM trains are still running. For many, the railway is the only route in and out — roads are impassable for much of the year. It is the biggest employer too. Essential supplies arrive on two rails: travelling hospital trains serve sick residents along the line. What the Nile is to Egypt, the BAM is to BAM Land, both a highway and a vital artery, sustaining life in a hostile wilderness.

As well as the landscapes, the company and the stories, I even miss the night-times on board: the deep sleeps as you cross time zones. Eating my breakfast in London this morning, I could see the overnight train from Tynda would soon be leaving for Komsomolsk-na-Amur, near the eastern terminus of the line. The Russian Railways website was selling 28 bunks. With the streets around my house eerily quiet, I thought about the chorus of snores on board, the clockwork clatter of the rails. People buried under blankets as the temperature sinks outside.

A view from a frozen train window, near Komsomolsk-na-Amur © Philip Lee Harvey

On my last night on board the BAM, I remember waking in the small hours, and spending some time with my nose pressed against a cold window pane. The reflection of the moon glittered on the rivers. Pine forests were swathed in snow, shadow and silence. Once or twice, the lights of a lineside hut appeared — like a lighthouse in the dark. Most of the time, there was no mark of homo sapiens; we could have been on a train ride through the Pleistocene.

Spending my days between four walls, I miss the BAM’s unfenced horizons. And in future — in an increasingly populated planet — I wonder if these vast open spaces will be more precious than the mineral riches that lie beneath them.

Details

Regent Holidays (regent-holidays.co.uk) and Real Russia (realrussia.co.uk) can arrange trips along the Baikal-Amur Mainline. The Golden Eagle (goldeneagleluxurytrains.com), a luxurious private train, is due to operate a one-off trip along the BAM in June 2022

Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Listen to our podcast Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on AppleSpotify, or wherever you listen





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Europe

EU plans digital vaccine passports to boost travel

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Brussels is to propose a personal electronic coronavirus vaccination certificate in an effort to boost travel around the EU once the bloc’s sluggish immunisation drive gathers pace.

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, said on Monday the planned “Digital Green Pass” would provide proof of inoculation, test results of those not yet jabbed, and information on the holder’s recovery if they had previously had the disease.

“The Digital Green Pass should facilitate Europeans‘ lives,” von der Leyen wrote in a tweet on Monday. “The aim is to gradually enable them to move safely in the European Union or abroad — for work or tourism.”

The plan, expected to be outlined this month, is a response to a push by Greece and some other EU member states to introduce EU “vaccination passports” to help revive the region’s devastated travel industry and wider economy. 

But the commission’s proposed measures will be closely scrutinised over concerns including privacy, the chance that even inoculated people can spread Covid-19, and possible discrimination against those who have not had the opportunity to be immunised.

In an immediate sign of potential opposition, Sophie Wilmès, Belgium’s foreign minister, raised concerns about the plan. She said that while the idea of a standardised European digital document to gather the details outlined by von der Leyen was a good one, the decision to style it a “pass” was “confusing”. 

“For Belgium, there is no question of linking vaccination to the freedom of movement around Europe,” Wilmès wrote in a tweet. “Respect for the principle of non-discrimination is more fundamental than ever since vaccination is not compulsory and access to the vaccine is not yet generalised.”

The travel sector tentatively welcomed the news of Europe-wide vaccine certification as a way to rebuild confidence ahead of the crucial summer season, but warned that regular and rapid testing was a more efficient and immediate way to allow the industry to restart.

Fritz Joussen, chief executive of Tui, Europe’s largest tour operator, said “with a uniform EU certificate, politicians can now create an important basis for summer travel”. But he added that testing remained “the second important building block for safe holidays” while large numbers of Europeans awaited a jab.

Marco Corradino, chief executive of online travel agent Lastminute.com, said he feared the infrastructure needed would not be ready in time for the summer season: “It will not work . . . at EU level because it is too complicated and would not be in place by June.”

He suggested that bilateral deals, such as the one agreed between Greece and Israel in February to allow vaccinated citizens to travel without the need to show a negative test result, had more potential.

Vaccine passport sceptics argue it would be unfair to restrict people’s travel rights simply because they are still waiting for their turn to be jabbed. 

Gloria Guevara, CEO of the World Travel and Tourism Council, said it was important not to discriminate against less advanced countries and younger travellers, or those who simply cannot or choose not to be vaccinated. “Future travel is about a combination of measures such as comprehensive testing, mask-wearing, enhanced health and hygiene protocols as well as digital passes for specific journeys,” she added.

A European Commission target to vaccinate 70 per cent of the bloc’s 446m residents by September means many people are likely to go through summer unimmunised.

While some countries around the world have long required visitors to be vaccinated against infectious diseases such as yellow fever, a crucial difference with coronavirus is that those inoculations are available to travellers on demand. 

Questions also remain about the risk of people who have already been vaccinated passing on coronavirus if they contract the disease.

 





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EU must prepare for ‘era of pandemics’, von der Leyen says

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Europe must prepare its medical sector to cope with an “era of pandemics”, the European Commission president said, as she warned the bloc was still in its most difficult period for Covid-19 vaccine deliveries. 

Ursula von der Leyen told the Financial Times that the EU could not afford to sit still even once Covid-19 has been overcome, as she described her plans for a Europewide fast-reaction system designed to respond more quickly to emerging medical threats. 

“Europe is determined to enlarge its strength in vaccine production,” she said in a telephone interview. “It’s an era of pandemics we are entering. If you look at what has been happening over the past few years, I mean from HIV to Ebola to MERS to SARS, these were all epidemics which could be contained, but we should not think it is all over when we’ve overcome Covid-19. The risk is still there.” 

Von der Leyen last month unveiled plans for a biodefence preparedness plan called the HERA Incubator, which will combine researchers, biotech companies, manufacturers and public authorities to monitor emerging threats and work on adapting vaccines. This will become part of a Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA). 

The concept is an attempt to mirror some of the benefits conferred by America’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which is charged with the job of responding rapidly to new health threats.

“The US has a strong advantage by having BARDA . . . this is an infrastructure Europe did not have,” von der Leyen said. “But Europe has to build up to be prepared for whatever comes, and also for the next possible pandemics. This is the HERA incubator.” 

The EU remains within its “most difficult quarter without any question” for vaccine deliveries, she said, cautioning “many, many problems” could always occur within the production process.

Looking towards the second quarter, she pointed out that a second EU contract with BioNTech/Pfizer for their vaccine would kick in, alongside the new jab from Johnson & Johnson, which is expected to be authorised in March.

In an EU summit on Thursday, von der Leyen addressed vaccine production and the threat of virus mutations after a rocky start to the year, when she was hit by complaints from politicians in member states, including Germany, about supply shortfalls. 

Von der Leyen acknowledged to the European Parliament in early February that mistakes had been made in the EU’s vaccination effort, and the campaign remains behind those of the US and UK. Among the difficulties are continued production problems at AstraZeneca’s European facilities. 

Von der Leyen said she was sticking with the EU’s target for the delivery of 300m doses in the second quarter, saying the challenge will shift from vaccine production to national rollouts. As for AstraZeneca’s shipments, she said: “I need to see the proof of the pudding . . . It’s very good that they also delivered from the rest of the world, but they have to honour their contract and we want our fair share.”

Ursula Von der Leyen says she is sticking with the EU’s target for the delivery of 300m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the second quarter © Remo Casilli/Reuters

The good news for the EU is its access to mRNA technology, which is used in the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine and which scientists believe can be used to rapidly adapt to mutations, said von der Leyen. 

But she also supported French president Emmanuel Macron’s proposal to share up to 5 per cent of supplies to permit the vaccination of healthcare workers in developing countries.

“We all suffer from the fact that the scaling up was not and is not as rapid as we thought at the beginning. This has a general effect all over the world,” she said. “With production picking up I think we should never forget that only if everybody has access to vaccines will we overcome this virus.”

Von der Leyen added that the EU needed to be particularly concerned about developments in its immediate area. 

“The mutant story is worrying me the most,” she said. “When the virus is still raging in the neighbourhood, the probability that mutants will occur, that will come back, for example, to Europe, is only rising.”



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Did US hiring accelerate in February?

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Did US hiring accelerate in February?

US hiring picked up markedly in February from the previous month, economists have forecast ahead of the monthly employment report that is due to be released on Friday.

After the country lost 227,000 jobs in December, hiring rebounded in January — albeit with a modest gain of 49,000 jobs — as the rise in coronavirus infections abated and vaccinations accelerated.

Economists polled by Bloomberg anticipate that the US will add 145,000 jobs in February, pushing the unemployment rate 1 percentage point to 5.3 per cent. If that forecast holds, it would mark the strongest pace of hiring since November.

The prospect of a resurgence was bolstered by data released last Thursday showing that filings for first-time jobless benefits fell to a three-month low in the week ending February 20.

The labour market stumbled in the final stretch of 2020 under the weight of the pandemic’s upswing in the autumn, which prompted tighter restrictions on businesses and social activity across the US.

The leisure and hospitality sector alone shed 597,000 jobs in December and January, according to labour department figures, whereas the January payroll gains were concentrated in government employment and professional and business services.

However, the outlook is brighter for the coming months, particularly with the expected passing of the Biden administration’s $1.9tn stimulus plan, which last week won the support of a large group of senior Wall Street executives, and further vaccination progress.

“US households appeared quite febrile at the end of 2020 as the cocktail of a worsening health situation, weakening employment and expiring fiscal aid weighed on private sector confidence and restrained mobility,” analysts at Oxford Economics said. “Fortunately, we see hope on all three fronts.” Matthew Rocco

Will eurozone inflation continue to rise?

Eurozone inflation hit its highest level since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in January, after five months of falling prices. On Tuesday the bloc’s statistics body will publish a preliminary estimate of February’s level, which is expected to continue the upward trend.

Many economists are predicting a steady rise over the spring on the back of higher energy costs, continuing supply chain disruptions that have raised costs for retailers and manufacturers, and the reversal of a VAT tax cut in Germany.

“For eurozone inflation, the only way is up,” said Carsten Brzeski, economist at ING, who forecast that headline consumer price inflation in the bloc would reach 1.3 per cent in February, from an 11-month high of 0.9 per cent in January.

Claus Vistesen, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said a further increase in the price of oil — international benchmark Brent crude is up more than 30 per cent this year — could be the biggest driver of inflation in coming months.

A change in the inflation basket of goods and services is also at play. The 2021 basket reflects that people are consuming more food, where prices are rising, and less recreation activity, where prices are generally falling.

The European Central Bank has forecast that price growth will rise to 1.5 per cent in the fourth quarter this year before dipping to 1.2 per cent a year later — still under its target of below but close to 2 per cent.

“The ECB will not contemplate raising its policy rates until eurozone inflation expectations and wage inflation have increased substantially and persistently,” said Andrew Kenningham, economist at Capital Economics. “That is probably several years away.” Valentina Romei

Line chart of By date of forecast, % showing Economists revise up their eurozone inflation forecast for 2021

Can the copper bull run continue?

If, as the commodity market adage goes, the cure for high prices is high prices, where does that leave copper?

The world’s most important industrial metal, used in everything from electric vehicles to power cables, has risen more than 100 per cent from its pandemic lows in March last year.

Last week it hit a 10-year high above $9,500 a tonne before falling back as speculators piled in and a Chinese brokerage amassed a $1bn long position on the Shanghai Futures Exchange. 

A growing number of banks and brokers believe the bull run will continue and copper will go on to surpass its all-time high of $10,190 reached in February 2011. 

Citi and Goldman Sachs are both predicting big supply deficits for 2021 that would further drain already-low stockpiles of the metal, citing strong demand from China but also the rest of the world as the economic strain from the coronavirus pandemic eases. 

Unlike previous cycles, a dearth of “shovel-ready” copper projects means a flood of supply is not going to hit the market and send prices tumbling. If anything, even higher prices might be needed to spur production of low-grade ores in far-flung parts of the world where it is difficult to build a mine.

“It takes 15 years from discovery to navigating approvals to ultimately getting a development up and running in our industry,” Anglo American chief executive Mark Cutifani said. “So you can’t just wiggle your nose. It does need high prices, but it also needs time.” Neil Hume



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