Russian commemorative stamp, 2002


When we think of snowy train journeys a romantic view of snow laden dales and trains steaming through drifts appears. However, the reality can be rather different. Perhaps no other route epitomises this battle between climate and engineering better than the Trans-Siberia Railway. In 1860 Russia’s railway network extended to 1,000 miles, by 1917 it was 45,000 miles. This huge increase was partly down to the completion of this awesome rail project. The Railway was a feat of engineering, being the longest railroad ever constructed and stretching from Moscow to Vladivostok. It also represented the triumph of engineering and construction over the environment, the route crosses extremely hostile conditions.

In 1857 Murav’yov-Amurskiy, general governor of the Eastern Siberia region, introduced the concept of establishing a railway in order to develop and populate the region. The military engineer D. Romanov was engaged to research and survey construction from the Amur River to De-Kastri Bay. Count Sergei Witte, minister of transport, wanted to see the rapid industrialisation of Russia and so persuaded Czar Alexander III to make his heir, the future Nicholas II, chairman of a Siberian Railway Committee. This meant guaranteed royal support and a lowering of bureaucratic delays and obstacles. Appointed finance minister in 1892, Witte paid for the railway by raising loans, increasing taxes and printing roubles.

The Czar launched the “Great Siberian Way” and official construction began 1891. Construction proceeded so fast that track sections were not always properly surveyed and green timber was often used. Higher grade materials were abandoned, foundations were narrowed, the layer of ballast decreased, lighter rails used and the number of sleepers per mile reduced. Bridges that were planned to be built from iron and steel were instead constructed from wood. As a result of this cost-cutting construction was difficult for the few qualified engineers hired. Lack of labour forced the Russians to import workers, including convicts; around 90,000 men had to be kept fed and supplied. The hostile weather also meant progress was often halted. Large rivers had to be bridged and many areas were either waterlogged or solidified by permafrost.

Almost all the work along the route was completed by hand using axes, saws, shovels, miner hacks, and wheelbarrows. Mechanical aids were few. The construction resulted in 100 million cubic meters of rock being moved, more than 12 million railroad sleepers being constructed, more than 1 million tons of rails laid, and more than 62 miles of bridges and tunnels built. About 50 protection galleries against landslides were built, 39 tunnels were made and support walls were created from concrete and hydraulic mixture. Yaroslavl Station in Moscow was opened in 1902 and the first passenger trains ran from the summer of 1903, though a ferry was needed across Lake Baikal until the track round the southern edge of the lake was completed in 1904.

In Eastern Siberia, the railway was partly intended to further Russia’s imperial ambitions in the Far East and the final stretches were built through Manchuria on land leased from the Chinese. This enabled the Russians to build the line directly across Manchuria from the Transbaikal region to Vladivostok. This trans-Manchurian line was completed in 1901. Politics shifted and introduced new challenges. The Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) broke out and troops could be moved east by rail. Russia feared that Japan would take over Manchuria and so after the War, the Amur line was built to provide a route entirely through Russian territory. This route was much longer and much more difficult to construct. It was finished in 1916.

The War highlighted issues with using cheap materials and methods. Due to high War demand the Railway frequently broke down, and it wasn’t until the early 1920’s that all the deficiencies were rectified, this was further frustrated by the Russian Civil War (1917-1922). Once opened to passengers the corner cutting caused frequent delays which meant travellers had to develop a patience unknown to the modern traveller. Electrification of the rail line began in 1929 but was not completed until 2002.

Despite all these difficulties and challenges, some manmade and others not, the Railway was completed across the endless steppes, over rivers and through forests and swamps in the face of extremes of temperature, permafrost, and attacks by bandits and even tigers. The original train had marble-tiled bathrooms, a grand piano in the music room, a library and a gym, as well as caviar and sturgeon in the first-class dining room. The third-class carriages, by comparison, were crammed and uncomfortable. It was conceived to proceed at a stately pace of around 20mph and took nearly four weeks for the journey to be completed. However, today it is considered one the World’s great railway journeys and stands as a testimony to its engineers and workers.

Archive, Institution of Mechanical Engineers


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