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Eulogy For A Subway: Siberian City Decides To Bury Its Metro Once And For All

Omsk Governor Aleksandr Burkov inspects the doomed subway project in an undated photo.

In the annals of public transportation around the world, there isn’t anything quite like the saga of the subway system in the Siberian city of Omsk.

For more than 25 years the city, one of Russia's largest, has had an ongoing project to build a subway to serve its more than 1 million residents.

After spending billions of rubles over that period, engineers have this to show for their efforts: One station, a section of rail tracks built into a bridge over the Irtysh River, and a source of continuing humor among locals.

The city government formally announced a halt to the project last month and, on June 8, according to the news site, engineers began filling in one of the other half-constructed stations with sand to give officials more time to figure out what to do with the half-built tunnels.

The initial plans for the city's subway were conceived by the Soviet planning agency Gosplan in the 1970s, but formal construction didn't get under way until 1992 -- at the very moment when Russia's economy was in free fall following the Soviet collapse.

Perennial budget problems slowed construction for years.

By 2003, workers had managed to bore a tunnel between two proposed station stops, and city officials predicted the system would be formally opened in 2008.

But funds were diverted to the rebuilding of a major bridge over the Irtysh River and the inclusion of a lower level for subway cars. The global economic crisis in 2008 further pinched the local budget, pushing back the completion date.

In 2012, President Dmitry Medvedev said the system would be completed in full by 2016, when the city was to celebrate its tricentennial. In one sign of locals’ cynicism and humor, Medvedev’s announcement was met with laughter by the audience listening to his speech.

Things worsened when the bridge construction company overseeing the effort went bankrupt.

In May, Omsk regional officials threw in the towel and ordered the project frozen altogether. Another 500 million rubles ($8 million) were allocated for preserving the existing infrastructure.

In the meantime, the Omsk subway has served as a source for a growing collection of homegrown humor and fascination.

A page on the social network VKontakte that is dedicated to the effort is rife with biting humor. One local business tweeted out a subway map, showing the extent of the system: with only one station displayed. A rock band penned an ode to the effort. And a 24-year-old designed his own tokens for the nonexistent subway.

In 2016, an intrepid visitor from the largest Siberian city to have actually completed its subway -- Novosibirsk -- visited Omsk and managed to get into some of the blocked-off tunnels and stations. He later posted a video of his wanderings.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.