The Trans-Siberian Railway, the World’s Longest: History and Talking Points

Everyone has heard of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The longest railway in the world, this striking line connects Moscow with Vladivostok, covering a distance of 9,198 kilometres. One of the boldest construction works of modern times, it took more than twenty-five years and great effort to build. No wonder it is a symbol of Russian pride and tenacity. Construction was a high priority: the Trans-Siberian Railway was hailed not just as being of vital importance, but “the most precious gem in the imperial crown”. We delve back into the railway’s history, entering a world completely different from our own, during the final years of the Tsars’ empire. Let’s find out about the circumstances leading up to construction of the world’s longest railway, how the work was done, and the Trans-Siberian Railway’s status today.

The Run-up to Building the Trans-Siberian Railway

Many of us dream of one day taking a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway, discovering its many stages one after another. What today is perceived as a fabulous tourist trip was in fact the culmination of decades of debate within the Tsarist empire. In the mid-nineteenth century, Russia’s governors realized how difficult it would be to run such a huge country without a rapid link to the wild, uninhabited Siberian lands.

Nikolay Muravyov-Amursky, Governor of Eastern Siberia, was the first person to officially call for building the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1857. The Tsarist government didn’t seriously consider the proposal until 1880, when initial designs were drafted, backed by a number of Western industrialists who thought this extra-long railway line would be a sound investment. The Tsar, however, chose to build the railway line himself, without seeking external funds.

In 1887, three separate expeditions set off for Siberia to map out potential routes across the region. This survey stage lasted nearly four years, until February 1891. Data in hand, the decision was made to start two large construction sites for the railway, one in the West, in Chelyabinsk at the foot of the Urals, the other in the far east of the empire, Vladivostok, on the Pacific, hard by the Chinese border.

Construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway

The ceremony marking the start of construction work on the Trans-Siberian Railway (a.k.a. the Transsib or the Great Siberian Railway) took place on 31 May 1891 near Vladivostok. Nicholas II of Russia, who would become Tsar three years later, hauled the first symbolic wheelbarrow of gravel. However, work had actually begun that March, on the Chelyabinsk side. Construction immediately proved to be tough, even inhuman. However, Tsar Alexander III saw construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway as a crucial objective for the empire, making it possible to take advantage of all the strategic and commercial advantages of rapid links with the Pacific.

It is worth noting that some sections had already been built during the nineteenth century as stand-alone projects, including the 1,700-kilometre section from Moscow to Chelyabinsk. In 1896, work was completed on the first western section, from Chelyabinsk to Ob. The following year, the first eastern section, between Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, began operation. Despite great difficulties, at the turn of the century, work reached Lake Baikal, and then the city of Sretensk, along the border with Manchuria. In 1904, a section was built to the south of Lake Baikal. At this point, work on the Trans-Siberian Railway could be considered complete, thanks to a section of the Chinese Eastern Railway.

However, war between Russia and Japan changed that: China withdrew its permission to use its section of the railway. Tsar Nicholas II therefore had to commence work on a new stretch of track to connect the two sections, an endeavour that took from 1907 to 1917. The resulting all-Russian railway was around 550 kilometres longer than the originally planned route.

Costs and Labour

For the most part, construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway took place under difficult or even extreme environmental and climatic conditions. The territories it traversed, crossing rivers, lakes, swamps and permafrost, were almost completely uninhabited. Sourcing manpower was probably the single biggest challenge. Not only was it hard to attract skilled workers, it was really tough to find a sufficiently high number of labourers. International calls went out for expert workers beyond the empire’s borders. A group of Italian workers from Friuli, specialized in building track-beds and bridges, went to work on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The bulk of the workforce, however, consisted of exiled soldiers and prisoners, supplemented by a constant influx of peasants from Siberia and European Russia. During the first few years, it is estimated that nearly 10,000 people worked on the project; this figure rose to 85,000 between 1884 and 1889.

The economic cost of completing the Trans-Siberian Railway was huge: the Committee for Construction of the Siberian Railway budgeted some 350 million gold roubles. It should be noted that, both to cut down time and reduce costs, in some cases the construction standards were revised downwards, for instance by reducing track-bed thickness and the number of sleepers.

The Trans-Siberian Railway Today

The Trans-Siberian Railway crosses two continents, eighty-seven cities and thousands of bridges. Siberia’s rising population is ascribable to construction of this formidable railroad. Today, having been prolonged from Vladivostok to Nakhodka, extending its length to 9,441 kilometres, the railway is longer than ever. Compared to the original single-track construction (in the early days, it took up to thirty days to travel east-to-west), for the most part it is largely a double-track railway. It is electrified too – electrification work took almost forty years, and was completed only in 2002. Thanks to these successive improvements, it is now possible to travel from Moscow to Vladivostok by train in seven days.