The Trans-Siberian Railway was a concept put forward by Tsar Alexander III to make travelling from west to east of the Russian Empire more accessible. Actual construction started in 1891, with tracks being laid from Moscow and Vladivostok with the goal to meet in the middle. This is much the same way that the American Trans-Continental Railway was constructed. The three longest train journeys available to this day, all use in part of or all of, the Trans-Siberian Railway. The longest journey available is from Petrograd (St. Petersburg) to Vladivostok, on the Eastern shores of Russia. The railway line opened up not just the eastern borders of the Russian Empire but also made access to China, Mongolia and North Korea much quicker and easier than the traditional sea journey.
Construction of the Railway
The total network of the Railway line was started in the latter part of the nineteenth century and took many years to complete. The workers had to content with year-round permafrost which made earth moving and digging a very arduous task. Many of the workers employed to build the track were either soldiers in the Russian Imperial Army and prisoners from Sakhalin Island, a large island in the Pacific which has been contested for the last few centuries by Japan and Russia. Possibly the biggest obstacle in the way of the track was Lake Baikal. This is the largest fresh water lake in the world at over four hundred miles long and fifty miles wide with a maximum depth of about a mile. Before the new Trans-Siberian railway, the trains used to stop at the shores of the lake and then embark onto a Train Ship. The train ships then ferried the trains across the lake to the other shore, where they could carry on with their journey. Due to the inhospitable climate the ships used were ice breakers as each year the lake is frozen from January until late May.
By 1904, the railway line to navigate around the lake was completed but due to some problems like mud slides and poor track trains were derailed, so the ice-breaking ships were held in reserve for another twelve years. The line from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok was completed in nineteen sixteen and from that day onwards has been the longest continual railway line in operation. There are various other route expansions which have been added since the original railway line conception. The Trans-Manchurian Railway was one of these expansions and was built as a link between the main line, and Harbin-Manzhouli Railway. Another addition was the Trans-Mongolian Railway, which started to be built in 1949. Until this point, Mongolians have had a little or no experience with trains as the only railway lines before this were two small tracks which were laid purely for industrial usage to deliver coal and other resources. This line joined the main Trans-Siberian route at Ulan Ude in Russia and went through Mongolia to the capital city of Ulan Bator and then on to the Chinese border with the final stop at Beijing.
Impact of the Railway
Improvements and line upgrades are constantly being implemented to the track with one of the most recent goals mentioned by the Russian government is to make the time of travel reduced to just a seven-day trip. The initial economic and social impact of the new Trans-Siberian track was huge. It helped to open up the Siberian agriculture industry as the exports were now shipped and moved reasonably quickly from Siberia to Western Russia and beyond. For the first decade or more, the Siberian region was able to export over half a million tons of food annually.
During the Second World War, the track was again of great importance as German and Japan used this to ship much needed materials like Rubber from Japan to the their Allies in Germany, this worked well until eventually when the Soviets declared war on Germany and Japan. Whilst fighting Nazi Germany, the track was used for moving industries away from the western edges of the Soviet Empire. These were moved to Siberia, where it would be safer from German bombers, and it was also an integral part of moving troops from Europe, after defeating Germany so that they could go and join the fight against the Japanese in Asia. As of 2008 the Russian, Chinese, Belarusian, Mongolian, Polish and German governments have agreed to a Cargo train service going from China to Hamburg in Germany. This cuts the normal sea voyage down by between 50 and 30 percent.
Loryli Janice Bell is an intrepid traveler and has traveled the Trans-Siberian Railway route many times. Loryli has written this article on behalf of The Trans-Siberian Travel Company as insight for would be travelers to how the railway has developed from the original conception to the modern railway network we know today.