Material Marvels: Linking a nation

Materials World magazine
1 Apr 2018

In smaller countries, the links that connect communities rarely register. However, in vast landscapes, across numerous time zones, such as Russia, the importance of transport cannot be overlooked, as Gary Peters reports.

There are certain feats of engineering – think the Hoover Dam or the Golden Gate Bridge (see January and March editions of Materials World, respectively) – that seem to defy logic, at least in the sense of their scale and mission. These monuments to engineering habitually become monuments to the people who conceived them and those workers who built them. They stand the test of time, albeit with necessary tweaks here and there to keep them functional in the 21st century and beyond.

Of course, they vary in their purpose, but one that often captures imaginations is the railway. Why? To many, railways carry an almost unexplainable romanticism of bygone days, not so much today’s mass transit but more caviar and champagne on steam trains. It could also be down to scale, however. 

Lines of track stretching from one end of a country to the other, literally connecting people and economies. How about one that runs for 5,772 miles, from Moscow to Vladivostok, Russia, taking in vast landscapes and severe weather – the Trans-Siberian Railway. 

All in all, the Trans-Siberian Railway network encompasses three routes, including the Trans-Mongolian, the Trans-Manchurian (from Siberia to Beijing), and the Trans-Siberian itself, from Moscow to Vladivostok, as described.

This particular journey takes around seven days. That gives some sense of the vastness of the land that the population inhabits, and of the huge undertaking the rulers of Russia – including one who saw vast potential in Russia’s eastern regions – embarked upon in 1891.

Expanding east

Sergei Witte is a name unlikely to be familiar to many, even railway aficionados. However, Witte, a Russian statesman, born in 1849, played an important role in the germination of the Trans-Siberian Railway, advocating the improved economies that would emerge across Siberia and consequently the rest of the country from better transport links.

His ideas found favour with the ruling elite, including Tsar Alexander III and his son, and the wheels were truly set in motion in 1887 with the sending of three research expeditions to explore potential locations for the route. Construction, which was paid for through bonds, tax increases, and loans, began four years later, in 1891. Russian Railways estimates that, if converted to today’s prices, the cost of the project is approximately $75bln.

According to historian Alexey Volynets, in an article on the Russia Beyond website, one of the main considerations for the commencement of the railway was a fear of neighbouring countries attempting to expand in the region. Volynets writes that, in 1890, ‘The European part of Russia had a railway network that spanned almost 30,000km. [However], east of the Ural Mountains that separate Europe from Asia, there wasn’t even a single kilometre of railway tracks, even though Alexander III vouched for it. In 1886, he said, “the government still has done nothing to meet the needs of this rich, but frontier region.”’

Volynets adds that, initially, it was deemed difficult, if not impossible, to complete such a task. But, perseverance was the name of the game, and the rest, as they say, is history.  

In essence, the railway was a method in which to end the so-called isolation of Russia’s far east from its European territory, in turn ending any threat, expanding the economy into previously untapped areas.

In truth, the railway has two completion dates. First, in 1904, all sections from Moscow to Vladivostok were finished, but running through Manchuria for part of the journey. It wasn’t until 1916 when the main Trans-Siberian route ran wholly within Russian territory. Up to 90,000 people worked on the construction, according to estimates, creating a route that passes through cities and small towns, over 16 rivers, and eight time zones.

A hard day’s work

It all sounds very impressive, and the raw figures do certainly give an impression of grandeur and awe. However, considering the breadth of work necessary, construction was split into sections to make it feasible, first starting at Chelyabinsk, in the southern Urals. From 1892–1896, the western Siberian section of the route was completed, running for 1,440km. 

Simultaneously, work was ongoing on the Ussuri section, which started in Vladivostok, running 800km to Khabarovsk. According to reports, it was here that prisoners started their backbreaking work – estimates suggest up to 15,000 were ordered to work on the railway. Workers were also recruited from Korea and China.

The Central Siberian section, from 1893–98, included mountainous terrain and difficult conditions, with frozen rivers thawing into mushy areas. More difficulties emerged in the Trans-Baikal section (1,072km) however, where heavy rain in 1897 destroyed track and bridges. Things did not get much easier, as workers next came up against Lake Baikal. This area caused plenty of head scratching, with the line eventually running along the edge of the lake. Lonely Planet reports that such was the feeling of accomplishment, it was nicknamed the Tsar’s Jewelled Buckle.

Incredibly, before the Lake Baikal section was completed, trains were carried on the ice-breaking train ferry, SS Baikal.

The Amur piece of the puzzle, at 2,080km long, used a mix of prisoners, soldiers, and Chinese workers. Construction spanned from 1907–1916. According to the Trans-Siberian Express website, despite the difficulties caused by the distance and the terrain, up to 600km of track was laid every year, up until the full completion on Russian soil in 1916.

A time of upheaval

The challenges were no doubt vast, and the working conditions likely wholly alien to what might be expected on a project of similar stature in 2018. 

The Trans-Siberian Express website reports that ‘the whole project was hampered by harsh climactic conditions’, spelling out that a majority of the route was ‘built through thinly-populated areas in the impassable taiga (forests)’.

This included additional challenges such as ‘large rivers that run through Siberia, many lakes, and districts that were either extremely waterlogged or filled with permafrost, [but] the most exceptional difficulties the builders experienced were in the Baikal region, where it was necessary to blow up mountains for the construction of railway tunnels as well as construct railway bridges to traverse the canyons of the many mountain rivers that flow into Lake Baikal’.

But, also throw into the mix that some of the work was done during the height of World War One. And so, as Russia battled to complete the line, it was also embroiled in the deadly conflict that savaged countries and their economies. 

However, what might often be forgotten is the railway’s part, both direct and indirect, in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.

As to be expected, the railway was a crucial link during hostilities, transporting people and goods – a sort of war-like heartbeat. However, it did not stop Russia succumbing to Japan, a victory that shocked the western world, in particular.  

Quoted on Vox, Eva-Maria Stolberg, from the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany, claims that the conflict ‘was the first significant outburst in the Russo-Japanese rivalry that started during the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway’, adding that the war as a whole has links to a perceived alarm on the Japanese side of Russia’s modernisation in the Siberian region. In effect, Japan was concerned that Russia was turning its attention away from the west to the east, in turn threatening its own ambitions.

‘Only with the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway by 1891 could Russian geopolitics in Northeast Asia be realised,’ Stolberg contends. 

In 1904, the Japanese launched their initial salvo against Russian ships at Port Arthur, Manchuria. Russia struggled to recover, eventually leading to Japan’s victory. As Stolberg explains, ‘After Russia’s disastrous debacle, Russian war minister Aleksei Kuropatkin recognised that the technological condition of the Trans-Siberian Railway contributed to Russia’s weak defence in Northeast Asia.’

What this demonstrates is that, while today large rail projects are on the whole associated with the good deeds of promoting growth and expansion, in the sense of people’s abilities to move from one place to another, back in Witte’s time, there were also serious geopolitical considerations on the table.

The railway in the 21st century

Today, the Trans-Siberian Railway receives many column inches, some ranging from the history of construction, others focusing on the best things to see while travelling on such a long route. 

In 2016, it was 100 years since full completion, but the work continues. Policymakers are, according to reports, keen to increase capacity. A statement on the Russian Railways website, from 2017, says a project to expand the Trans-Siberian and Baikal-Amur railways ‘will allow additional cargo volume, which will contribute to the development of industrial enterprises in the region, create new jobs, and the necessary economic conditions for effective and sustainable development of Siberia and the far east’.

Somewhat more ambitious is the idea of a rail route linking London and Tokyo. The 8,400-mile journey would start in the UK, before travelling across Eastern Europe, into Russia, connecting to the Trans-Siberian route and continuing onward to Japan, via a 28-mile bridge to allow trains to cross the East Sea.

It seems fanciful, likely to be binned in the ‘not to going to happen’ pile. However, there were probably similar doubts when Witte and Tsar Alexander III announced their determination to build a colossal railway, one that became the revered Trans-Siberian Railway.