HomeHeritageHistory of Russian Railways: Part 1 - The Tsars

History of Russian Railways: Part 1 – The Tsars

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Russia has one sixth of the world’s landmass and has more water than any other country within its borders. With the construction of various canals – the first in 1709, by the early 19th century, its capital, St Petersburg, had three water routes to the interior. However, it took several months for lower Volga grain to reach the city as frozen rivers halted boats in winter.

The attraction of railways seemed obvious. However, in the first of a three-part series on the growth of railways in Russia, David Shirres reports on the shaky start to what became one of the most impressive networks in the world.

After steam railways were built in Europe, their use in Russia was initially resisted as they were considered unsuitable for a country with long distances and harsh winters. However, in 1836 an Austrian engineer, Franz von Gerstner, convinced Tsar Nicholas I to authorise a demonstration line between the capital and his summer palace at Tsarskoe Selo.

This was 23 km long and built to six-foot gauge. The line took 17 months to build and opened on 30 October, 1837. It showed a steam railway to be a practicable proposition in Russia and carried 726,000 passengers in its first year but had little freight traffic.

The Tsar approved Russia’s second railway for military reasons. This was a standard gauge line from Warsaw to the Austrian-Hungarian frontier. Construction started in 1839 but ceased in 1842 due to lack of funds. After the Treasury took over the line, it opened in 1848. Its first use was to carry troops to crush an uprising in Hungary.

The first useful railway

St Petersburg to Moscow was the obvious route for Russia’s first commercially useful railway. At 644 km, it was also to be the world’s then longest double-track railway. For a barely industrialised country, this was a huge project for which Nicholas I set up a special committee to be chaired by his future heir, Alexander II. He felt the benefits of the line justified state funding.

Construction of the railway started in 1843. It required extensive earthworks and 190 bridges. The Tsar wished the line to be a Russian enterprise. As engineers were scarce in Russia, almost all the graduates from the Imperial School of Engineering were drafted to the railway. An American engineer, George Whistler, was appointed a technical adviser. Fifty thousand serfs worked on the railway. For negligible pay, they worked long hours and were badly fed and housed. Several thousand died during construction.

To establish a Russian locomotive industry, an American company re-equipped the Alexandrovsk State Factory, near St Petersburg. This produced the 162 25-tonne engines, 2,500 freight wagons and 70 passenger coaches needed for the line. The company also trained Russian craftsmen and engine drivers.


Unlike future railways, the line was well built. The Tsar took a close interest in its construction and wished no expense to be spared. It had a maximum 1 in 125 gradient and was almost a straight line, being less than 1 per cent longer than the straight- line distance between the two cities. England supplied almost 1.1 million tonnes of rails for the line. Russian industry could only supply 10,000 tonnes.

It opened on 1 November, 1851, after funding difficulties delayed its completion. Its first passenger train left St Petersburg at 11.15 and arrived in Moscow at 09.00 the next day, achieving an average speed of 18.5 mph. Traffic exceeded expectations, with 693,000 passengers in the first year. In 1856, it carried 1.2 million passengers despite the Tsarist regime requiring everyone to have permission to travel. The 168,000 tonnes of freight carried in 1852 rose to 380,000 tonnes by 1856.

The question of gauge

This was the first railway built to the Russian five-foot gauge. It seems that Whistler successfully advocated a five- foot (1524 mm) gauge as he considered the Tsarskoe Selo railway’s six-foot gauge to be expensive and unnecessary. At the time, it was not clear that British standard gauge would become widely accepted and there were five-foot gauge railways in America.

One theory for the adoption of Russian gauge is that it makes it difficult for invading armies to use the Russian railway network. Whilst this was certainly the case in WW2, it is doubtful that Whistler considered this an issue.

In 1970 the USSR adjusted its gauge to 1520 mm. Worldwide, there is now 227,000 km of 1520 mm gauge – essentially former Soviet Union countries – and 720,000 km of standard gauge.

The next railway ordered by the Tsar was from St Petersburg to Warsaw. This was another railway built for military reasons. Work started in 1852 but funding problems delayed completion until 1863 when it was used by troops who crushed the Polish rebellion.

The railway that won a war

By the start of the Crimean War in 1854, Russia had a relatively small rail network of 650 km. Afterwards, Russia’s defeat highlighted the need for more railways. This was evident by the success of Russia’s only railway close to the battle, one that was built by the British.

As the Crimean War concerned Russia’s control of the Black Sea, the British and their allies had to take the Black Sea fortress of Sebastopol. In September 1854, the British landed in Balaclava harbour, about 13 km south of the fort. From here, a track climbed steeply to a plateau where 26,000 besieging troops were camped.

As this track became impassable in winter, the troops received few supplies. Many died from cold, disease and malnutrition. When this became known, it was decided to build a railway. In February 1855, nine ships arrived in Balaclava with the required men and materials, seven weeks later the seven-mile railway was complete. Wagons were horse-drawn – until steam locomotives arrived in November – except for a winding engine on a section with 1 in 17 gradient. Once operational the railway carried 240 tonnes a day.

In April, this enabled an unprecedented intense bombardment of Sebastopol in which 47,000 shells were fired over 10 days. The railway also carried the first hospital train to transport wounded soldiers. Russia evacuated Sebastopol in August, leading to the end of the war in March 1856. Before leaving Crimea, the British showed their railway to Russian officers who were in no doubt that it cost them Sebastopol.

The railway boom

When Nicholas I died in 1855, his son, Alexander II, succeeded him. Unlike his father, he wanted to expand Russia’s railways with private capital. In 1856, the Main Company of Russian railways was set up. This was mainly financed by French and British investors who were guaranteed a yearly 4 per cent return on capital.

Within 10 years, it planned to build lines between the Baltic and Black Sea, Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod and complete the St Petersburg to Warsaw line.

It was not a success. Progress was slow and it soon exhausted its initial capital. However, railways were also built by other companies, including some to the Donets coal basin. Almost all these lines were ‘pioneer railways’ in which poor construction standards were accepted to speed construction with the intention of improving the railway later. Lightweight rails limited locomotive weight and hence the size of freight trains. This remained a problem until well into the Soviet era.

Railway Kings

Russia’s railway network was 5,147 km in 1866. In this year, the government set up a railway fund and produced an expansion plan based
on economic requirements. Railway proposals were not authorised unless they were part of this plan. This spurred a railway boom that was to treble the size of the network in the following decade.

This boom was used to encourage domestic production. Prior to 1866, 87 per cent of rails and 60 per cent of locomotives were imported. By 1899, after various government initiatives, there were 13 steel rail factories producing half a million tonnes per year and only 16 per cent of the 5,196 locomotives delivered were imported.



E - Tver Station on Moscow to St Petersburg Railway circa 1860 [online]

As elsewhere, this boom brought ‘Railway Kings’ who were more concerned with increasing their own wealth than operating efficient railways. In the 1870s, a special commission investigated the railway’s poor performance following the Turkish War. Its recommendation for through car working was mandated in 1879. Increasing government dissatisfaction with private railways was such that by 1883, it provided 80 per cent of all railway investment.

French connection

From 1866, this enormous investment came from the railway fund, initially created by the sale of Alaska and the St Petersburg to Moscow railway. In the 1880s, loans from France became the main source of funding as part of a relationship led to the 1894 Franco- Russian Alliance. This treaty and Russia’s financial dependency resulted in some railways being constructed to serve French strategic interests with little domestic benefit.

One such railway was a 1,688 km line to Tashkent that Tsar Nicholas II approved in 1901, despite objections from his ministers. Although there was already a railway to Tashkent from the Caspian Sea, this was not connected to the Russian network. Hence, the French required a line to be constructed from Orenburg in Russia to speed up troop movements to threaten the British in Afghanistan. Its construction took four years and was completed in 1905.

The original 1,850 km line to Tashkent from the Caspian Sea was built in two stages and completed in 1898.

It included a 150 km stretch through the shifting sands of the Kara Kum desert, leaving tracks hanging as the sand blew away until a continuous embankment solved this problem.

Building the Trans-Siberian

In the 1880s, there were proposals for a line through Siberia to the Pacific for protection against foreign powers and to develop the area. A railway would enable mass immigration from the overpopulated European Russia where there was frequent famines. Before the railway, there was some emigration to Siberia but around 20 per cent of those making this difficult overland journey perished.

The Trans-Siberian line was an epic project made possible by the enthusiasm of Tsar Alexander III and the organisational genius of his Minister of Finance, Sergei Witte.

He saw the railway as part of a bigger scheme involving emigration and economic development and co-ordinated railway construction with other projects such as building a line from the Urals for metal products and re-equipping waterways crossing the route to deliver materials.

Alexander III agreed to Witte’s proposal for a high-ranking committee to drive the project. This was chaired by his heir, Nicholas II, who in 1891, on a visit to Vladivostok, laid a stone to mark the start of work in the east. Work at the western end started in 1892. When the line reached the River Ob in 1895, the city of Novosibirsk was founded. This is now Russia’s third largest city. The seven-span 790-metre bridge over the river was completed in 1897. Prior to then rail ferries were used.

Greatest Challenge

Just east of Irkutsk, reached in 1898, was the greatest construction challenge – the cliffs along the southern tip of Lake Baikal. This 97 km section required 39 tunnels, 470 bridges / culverts, and 29 km of retaining walls. Until this was completed in 1904, two ice-breaking ferries, one of which carried trains, were required to cross the lake. These were built in Newcastle and dismantled for transport to Lake Baikal where they were rebuilt two- and-a-half years later.

Construction of the line from the eastern shore of Lake Baikal to Chita took from 1895 to 1900. From Chita, Vladivostok was reached by a railway through Chinese Manchuria that was started in 1897 and completed in 1902. This was 600 km shorter than a route through Russia and intended to extend Russian influence in China.

E - O class locomotive standard freight locomotive introduced in 1898 [online]

After Russia lost its war against Japan in 1904, it was decided to build the Amur Railway from Chita, as the line through Manchuria was vulnerable – after Japan invaded China in 1931 it was converted to standard gauge. This was a difficult line to build as floods prevented use of the valley floor. At Khabarovsk, it required a 22-span, 2.3 km bridge over the River Amur. Work started in 1908 and lasted eight years to complete the current 9,286 km Moscow to Vladivostok route.

The Trans-Siberian line was a ‘pioneer railway’, which resulted in frequent derailments and traffic backlogs. Yet it met its objective of developing Siberia.

In its first 10 years, it carried over three million immigrants to Siberia and carried a large amount of, mainly agricultural, freight traffic including high-value farm products. By 1911, trains with Siberian butter for Europe ran directly to the ports and Siberia supplied half the meat consumed in St Petersburg and Moscow.

Eve of the revolution

At the start of the 20th century, the government was increasingly concerned about the railway’s performance. Although traffic was increasing, they continued to lose money and there was an increasing freight backlog. In 1906, this was 210,000 carloads. There was inefficient management, corruption and supplier cartels. Nevertheless, Russia’s railways had supported a sevenfold increase in the country’s industrial output over the previous 40 years.

In 1913, Russia had 20,000 locomotives, 31,000 coaches and 475,000 wagons. Its railways carried 76.8 billion tonne/km of freight and 244 million passengers, in both cases almost double the 1903 figures. The main freight traffic was coal (22 per cent), grain and flour (13 per cent) and timber (9.5 per cent). The Donetz area accounted for 38 per cent of all freight. With a network of 70,500 km in 1913, Russia had almost twice as many railways as Britain. After a late start, by the eve of World War One it had become a significant industrial power. However, this had drawn hundreds of thousands of peasants to the cities where they were exploited, lived in appalling conditions and were clustered together. This, and the repressive Tsarist regime, triggered the abortive 1905 revolution. When combined with the horror of WW1, it was to lead to further revolution and civil war. The railways would play a significant role in this next part of Russia’s history.


  1. What role did the development of rail services in Russia have in standardising time – such as to enable the development of better signalling control etc


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