TYNDA, U.S.S.R. -- Three years ago, as millions of Soviets watched on their television screens, two crews of jubilant railroad workers laid the "golden link" of a 2,000-mile railroad in eastern Siberia. The "project of the century" was declared complete, ahead of schedule.

In fact, in spite of the elaborate ceremony and self-congratulatory coverage, the Baikal-Amur (BAM) line was not finished on Sept. 27, 1984, and will not be for another two years. Miles of track are now rusting from disuse. Workers living in one of the world's coldest climates are underemployed, undersupplied and underhoused, and prospects for the Soviet Union's newest railroad are still uncertain.

The fate of the BAM -- probably the last of the country's so-called "hero" projects in which thousands toil amid great hardships and which traditionally have siphoned off huge stocks of the country's reserves -- is a striking example of the wasteful mismanagement that has characterized Soviet growth.

It is a legacy that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev must contend with as he tries to put the country on a more rational economic footing.

Designed to complement the famous Trans-Siberian line to its south and move rail traffic farther from the sensitive Chinese border, the BAM is a key factor in the future development of the Soviet Far East's rich mineral deposits and another route to the growing ports on the Pacific coast.

Construction began in earnest in 1974 with a call issued from a congress of the Young Communist League, or Komsomol. Tens of thousands of young people poured into the BAM zone, above and to the east of Lake Baikal, working at minus-70 degrees Fahrenheit in winter and hounded by insects in the summer.

For 10 years, there was practically nothing but good news from the BAM. The project produced heroes. The tracks, built on permafrost across 2,230 bridges and culverts and through 18 miles of tunnels, were laid according to schedules set in successive five-year plans. Books, films, paintings and songs were issued praising the endurance and enthusiasm of the young bamovtsi.

The costs were great. By the latest estimates, it took 3 million rubles ($4.6 million at the official exchange rate) to build each kilometer of track. Because of cold and the delicate permafrost conditions, construction cost 75 percent more than in the western parts of the Soviet Union. To lure workers to the project, the state offered generous three-year contracts that averaged, over the term, 20,000 rubles ($31,250) above wage and benefit packages in milder climates.

For 10 years, the goal set before the workers never wavered: Get the railroad completed on time. The first deadline was 1983, but that slipped to 1984. That September, even though a major 9.3-mile tunnel through the Buryati Mountains was still under construction, the project was declared finished, and the BAM, once the center of national attention, dropped from sight.

Now the subject has been resurrected in the Soviet press, but this time the news is not so good. "Why are rails rusting on the BAM?" queried one headline in Sovietskaya Rossiya. And in the first paragraph, one of the veterans of the project put this question: "Three years ago, the . . . question that worried everyone was: When will we link up? Now our children have grown up, and we look at it all in another way. Where were we hurrying? What exactly did this desired linkup give the country?"

The View From Khorogochi

Khorogochi, a station on the BAM that opened in 1983, looks like any Soviet town, with blocks of drab nine-story buildings, a weedy playground and a shopping-cultural center where, on a Friday night in July, a discotheque played rock music for the teen-agers.

Located 49 miles from Tynda, capital of the BAM network, Khorogochi is not as far-flung as the other 52 BAM outposts. Still, the view on the other side of the railroad track is uninterrupted taiga, or low-lying Siberian pine forest, and, in the distance, some violet hills.

About 600 railroad workers live there with their families. The school has 220 students, but only five in the 10th grade. Tatyana, a 16-year-old girl on her way to the discotheque, insisted that her life is not boring. After school, she said, she helps her uncle build a garage.

There is one major problem in Khorogochi: On the average, only three or four passenger trains pass through in a day. For its people, as for those along other parts of the BAM, there is simply not enough work.

Yuri Esaulkov, first secretary of the Tynda city party committee, cited Khorogochi as an example of why the BAM is still supported by government subsidies that are four times its income. According to one published figure, BAM subsidies in 1986 equaled 140 million rubles, four times the 1981 level.

In the meantime, life goes on in the settlements that have already been built. "These people have to be fed. Housing has to be maintained, water and electricity brought in," Esaulkov said in Sovietskaya Rossiya. "All this will pay for itself only when the railroad starts working in earnest."

The main reason for the delay are the nightmarish engineering problems posed by the 9.3-mile tunnel through the Buryati Mountains. Geologists had warned the builders of the difficulties but, given the choice of an expensive bypass, planners took the shortest route: through a mountain compacted with frozen slush and unstable rock, and cut by a fault line.

Now, to get around the northern Muya range, trains are sent along temporary tracks that have already been ripped up and relaid twice. The gradient of the track is so steep in places that it sometimes takes four locomotives to drag a load and engineers stand on the running boards so they can jump off in case of an accident.

As a result, BAM's main east-west track is now grossly underused.

The opposite problem exists on the so-called "Little BAM," which runs from the Siberian coalfields at Neryungri to the Trans-Siberian Railroad. There, trains are heavily overloaded: freight tonnage has jumped from 9 million tons in 1981 to 24 million. Planners regret the decision not to build double tracks on the 249-mile line.

Other, more systematic problems continue to plague the BAM, a railroad with two masters -- the Ministry of Railroads and the Ministry of Transport Construction. Turf battles between the two are legendary. Lately they have reached the point where trains are not running on certain sections because of higher tariffs charged by the construction ministry for passage along "its" tracks.

"Although they know how to join rails quickly and accurately, the BAM partners . . . cannot seem to join paragraphs {about tariff rates} and would appear to be at an impasse," wrote the Communist Party newspaper Pravda in June.

"Departmentalism" -- the curse of the Soviet Union's cumbersome centralized system -- even dogs future plans for the BAM, as Moscow's ministries debate who will pay for what. According to local economists, the high costs of labor and construction in the region are still a deterrent, despite the focus put on Far Eastern development by Gorbachev in a speech in Vladivostok a year ago.

"The construction industry has different interests than the transport industry. They want to build and move on . . . . In the process, the country may lose resources but {the builders} don't. Real contradictions exist, which come from a clash of real interests," said Valentin Moiseyenko, director of the Amur Integrated Research Institute in Blagoveshchensk. Moscow's 'Microsuburb'

Nowhere is "departmentalism" more visible than in Tynda, capital of the BAM -- a city that was planned to have 30,000 people but instead has 62,000.

Housing is the single biggest problem here, according to officials. About one-third of the city's families still live in temporary apartments, most often in single-story barracks. One-fifth live in construction trailers, according to a resident writing in the government newspaper Izvestia in April.

The temporary houses are divided up by building organizations, each of which runs its own minicity, complete with housing, stores and clinics. Conditions vary. While some of the temporary barracks look like shacks, the bridge builders' housing looks like a model village. Not surprisingly, being a bridge builder is considered one of the best jobs in town.

The city itself is called a "microsuburb" of Moscow, since it was built with labor and resources brought in by Moscow's main building organization. As a result, the buildings have the same design as Moscow buildings and the streets are named after Moscow streets. Even the chips in the bricks can be explained by the Moscow connection, since all materials for the building of Tynda were shipped in from the capital, 5,000 miles and two weeks away.

Overpowered by the ministries, Tynda is not really a city at all, but a federation of villages. A general plan for the city has been drawn up three times and thrown away each time. "We can't look ahead three years, let alone talk about the distant future," said one builder in a newspaper interview.

Tynda's problems are repeated throughout the BAM region, and in recent years the bitterness about neglect of basic living conditions has bubbled into the open. All told, 60,000 people on the BAM line are waiting for apartments. In some places, like the village of Mogot, what is built is already falling apart, due to inadequate preparations for permafrost construction.

Living conditions on the line vary. In Tynda, when the BAM had "hero" status, certain goods -- clothes, shoes -- were in better supply than in the rest of the country. That has changed somewhat recently, but on a Saturday last month, the main supermarket had meat to sell to a line of customers.

That is not the case elsewhere. According to Sovietskaya Rossiya, in the village of Novaya Chara, meat was available last year only on holidays and only with ration cards: 3.3 pounds per person. The list of elementary problems and basic shortages went on and on: lack of kindergartens, no hairdressers, no movie theater. The nearest dry cleaner is 435 miles away.

In planning for the BAM population, miscalculations were made all around. Planners anticipated a flood of single people: they overlooked the tendency of young people to get married and have children. Despite the cost of transporting and training new people, plans were drawn up for a largely transient population. But many of the original bamovtsi stayed and are now clamoring for a "normal life."

People came to the BAM for a variety of reasons -- some out of patriotism, some for the romance of life in the wilds, some for the money. The population here is richer than in most places in the Soviet Union. Monthly salaries can go as high 700 or 800 rubles, compared to the national average of 190. Many have kept apartments in the cities they came from, along with the cars they bought with their BAM money.

Whatever the reason for their coming, those who want to stay exude a spirit once shared by America's westward pioneers. "Here we can test our strength, our abilities," said one young man at an evening gathering at the first dormitory built in Tynda. "The most interesting thing about life here is that you can stand on your own feet," echoed a young woman.

But still, the flow of people in and out continues. One building organization calculated its turnover at about 30 percent. In School No. 5, teachers say about 150 out of 1,300 children leave each year, replaced by an equal number moving in.

Some of the problems peculiar to a city of young families have an impact on the school. People's average age is 32. The birth rate on the BAM is higher than in the rest of Russia, but so is the divorce rate. Babushkas -- Russian grandmothers who elsewhere help bring up their children's children -- are in short supply. Only 1,100 pensioners live in Tynda. "We have a lot more single parents, and here, getting parents involved in the school is more difficult because most people came here to work, and they work hard," said the 37-year-old principal, Anatoly Baranov.

The building of the BAM in the 1970s and 1980s required unusual efforts, just as the building of Magnitogorsk did in the 1930s. Billed as "heroic" projects, both drew heavily on the country's vast human and material resources. In both cases, much of these were squandered.

"The slogan, 'The railway first,' in effect turns into costs -- both social and economic. What is important is the person. And only then all the rest," cautioned Soviet economist Abel Aganbegyan, chairman of the BAM oversight commission, in 1979.

But the warning sounded by Aganbegyan apparently went unheeded. Today, the country is reaping the consequences. Not only is the BAM not finished, but it is estimated to require another 2 billion rubles -- money that the "restructuring" program advocated by Gorbachev cannot easily spare.

Here, as in Magnitogorsk, new ways of working have already appeared. Workers' councils have a greater role in setting the pace of work, and pay is closely linked to output. For the 40 members of the Moscow Construction Brigade, at work building apartment blocks in Tynda, the pace has picked up. A 15-story building that used to take nine months to put up now takes five to six months, said brigade leader Anatoly Gusev.

But something else worries people here on the BAM when they talk about the toll taken by the reckless way the railroad was planned and built. The "romance" is being dissipitated, replaced by a new impatience, even cynicism.

"Workers are already not satisfied with general talk about how everything with time will sort itself out," wrote Soviet sociologist Zh. Toshchenko, commenting on the problems voiced by bamovtsi. "People want their natural wishes to be taken into account -- an improvement in their own life, the life of their collective and in as short a time as possible."

Looking back, Soviet social scientists recognize the problem of relying too heavily on enthusiasm in building projects like the BAM. "There is a danger that in summoning people with calls like 'the motherland needs you,' in putting them to work in conditions they don't expect, what you are doing is in fact exploiting them. On the other hand, you want to have people working for motives other than money. It must be balanced," said sociologist Vladimir Dyachenko at the Amur institute.

As Gorbachev shifts the Soviet economy onto a new footing, one of his first tasks must be to redress the system's imbalances. Highlighted by a more critical press, these distortions -- between cost and quality, plan and practice -- are even more evident today than they were two years ago. People are now bombarded daily with stories about malfunctioning railroads, nationwide shortages and -- perhaps most disturbing of all to them -- the low level of such basic public services as health care and housing.

These revelations have added to an impatience, already fueled by the promises held out by restructuring. Yet so far, as interviewers in Leningrad were shocked to find in a recent random, on-the-street survey, people could say nothing at all when asked to give positive examples of the restructuring around them.

"They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work." This is one of the oldest Soviet jokes, which for years also summed up an implicit contract between the government and the governed. Now there is a perception that the contract has changed, but it is still not clear how.

"For years, we were working on enthusiasm alone. Then that dried up," said a young taxi driver in Moscow. "Now we are willing to work again -- but for money this time. The problem is whether that has dried up, too."