ALMATY | Almaty’s very long wait for a very short ride is finally over. Perhaps more than anyone, Toleugali Altykenov has been waiting for this day.
When he started work in 1988 on the construction of the Almaty subway, the 40-year-old engineer knew it would take some time, but he didn’t expect it to last for more than two decades.
Still, Altykenov delayed his retirement until he could see its launch, which he did on 1 December. He took his first subway ride only 10 days after.
With 200 people piled up in line for subway tickets, Altykenov stood unnoticed by the window until a woman from behind told him to go to the end of the line.
He stood firm before walking decisively to the front of the queue. “I built this subway from square one. I’m here for my first ride. Would you let me go first in line? That’s all I’m asking for,” he said to the crowd.
At the platform, while waiting for the train to arrive, underneath Altykenov’s unbuttoned trench coat, an elderly woman noticed his two golden medals, received from the mayor for his work on the subway.
“I spent 23 years of my life building this metro,” Altykenov told the woman.
“It took such a long time,” she said, regretfully.
“It wasn’t our fault though. We stood still for six years.”
“I understand,” she nodded.
“The hurdles are gone now,” Altykenov continued. “Soon you’ll see our metro becoming a complete circle.”
Within its first six hours of operation, 11,000 curious passengers took an 8.56-kilometer (5.3-mile) ride through the seven stations, bored 50-plus meters beneath the Soviet capital of Kazakhstan.
Talgat Tulendinov, a graduate student at Kazakh Pedagogical University, alighted at every station to check out the slick underground façade with crystal chandeliers lighting up a glossy marble interior. “Our metro is impressive inside, though it deserves an entry in The Guinness Book of Records as the world’s shortest subway,” Tulendinov said.
That’s an arguable point. The honor could go to subways in Italy or Israel, which are even shorter.
The Almaty transportation department estimates the cost of the first seven stations at $1.1 billion, more than 60 percent above a 1995 projection of $680 million.
Started by the Soviet authorities on 7 September 1988, the 23-year journey from groundbreaking to opening suffered several false starts and survived a few complete stops.
The construction slowed down with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in 1995, it stopped completely due to budget cuts.
“We turned into the underground watchmen,” said Marat Dzhaksylykov, a former shaft miner, now a technical director for labor safety at Almatymetrokurys. He said workers were owed more than a year in back wages at that point.
In 2001 state funding resumed, and construction started again. The general contractor, Almatymetrokurylys, began hiring new people, who needed to be trained. The construction picked up real pace only four years later when President Nursultan Nazarbaev put the subway among the key strategic investment projects for Almaty, according to the city development plan for 2003 to 2010.
“By 2005, with two tunnel-boring machines moving toward each other, we had finished up to 65 percent of the drilling,” Dzhaksylykov said. “Our schedule grew tougher. Time was scarce. We continued digging and drilling around-the-clock to meet the deadline.”
Altykenov said the conditions underground were extremely hazardous, as workers contended with clay-bearing rocks, which could fall thick and fast.
In 2009, as workers neared the midpoint of the route, one tunnel-boring machine was shut down. Then the forward end of the other hulking, steel cylinder broke through the last remaining bit of earth, right on the bull’s eye. Altykenov said the deviation was minimal – just 14 millimeters off the target.
In the meantime, the initial target completion date, set for the beginning of 2008, kept being pushed back until the absolute deadline was set for 1 December 2011, days before the 20th anniversary of independence.
Now when Dzhaksylykov sees passenger-filled trains circling underneath the vibrant metropolis of 2 million people, his heart skips a beat. To see it in his lifetime, he says, is to know that his hard labor and sweat were not wasted.
“It was worth taking risks as well as living through the hard times,” he says.
While seven Hyundai trains, equipped with automatic control system, video cameras, air-conditioning, and even seat-warmers, keep running daily from 6 a.m. until midnight, the second line of the subway system is already under construction, starting this March.
Sixteen kilometers long, the second line will cost about $1.5 billion, local experts estimate. The opening of its first five stations is scheduled for 2017.
Eventually, planners want to extend the underground web of steel for 45 kilometers to link the city’s outskirts with downtown.
To assemble one station takes about two-and-a-half years. “To finish up on time, we need to start drilling shafts for those five stations simultaneously,” Dzhaksylykov said. “We can handle this.”
The first 305 meters tunneled for the second line will be Altykenov’s last: good to his word, he’s retiring.
“I won’t be stepping underground,” he said. “Not anymore.”