The history of the Trans Siberian railroads is a fascinating one. Since I’m spending some time riding it, it’s the right moment to have a look at what happened over the past 125 years:
Trakt, before the real history of the Trans Siberian system
The Trakt was a system of postal stations between Moscow and Siberia. Along the road, at about every 40 to 50 kilometers, there was a relay. The drivers switched horses, and the post carriage made a stop. Very much like we know the Pony Express and the Diligences in the United States in the 19th century, the “Wild West.”
On this trajectory, however, the service used a sleigh in winter, rather than the horse-diligence. One of the main problems with this organization, according to the stories discussed in the many books describing its history, was drivers operating their vehicles drunk most of the time, and on top of that passengers bribed the drivers with vodka, to make detours or unauthorized stops.
Bears, wolves, and exiled criminals in search of a quick buck made the journey particularly dangerous.
Tsar Alexander III
Tsar Alexander III ordered the construction of the Trans Siberian Railroad in 1881. Between 1881 and 1891, his engineers prospected the land. They made and adjusted designs for this massive project. And the real construction could start. And so the real history of the Trans Siberian Railways.
The work was done mainly by immigrant workers from Turkey, Italy, and China. At four kilometer a day, the work advanced swiftly. The Tsar, however, had not foreseen an unlimited amount of money, so the engineers build the lines with a tight budget in mind. That resulted in avoiding the creation of tunnels and therefore going around mountains. It also made that the choice of construction materials wasn’t always the best.
The result was that, as soon as the line opened in 1898, a project to rebuild it had, started immediately. That would take till 1916. It didn’t stop companies from operating the Trans Siberian railways and to make (sometimes very exaggerated) publicity about it, most notably on the Paris Expo in 1889 (That’s the one with the Eiffel tower.) One of the companies that operated with success a concession on the line was the Belgian Compagnie International des Wagons-Lits. Passengers and journalists described the luxe on the trains as unseen. The kitchen was described as cordon bleu (excellent) while it had many of its plates on the menu never actually being available for guests (not much has changed).
Unrest in Siberia
The civil war in Siberia, between the end of the first world war and 1920, would make the Trans Siberian railroads the scene of a battle between the Bolsheviks and returning Czech, with the Japanese and American armies intervening at times. The Trans Siberian Railway was part of the reason both camps were seeking control of the area. The line between the East and the West became an important trade route.
1920 and later
After the end of the civil war in Siberia, the repairs on the Trans Siberian Railroad would take until 1939, just in time for the next world war. Russia would only be involved in that war in 1941. Russia moved many of its factories to Siberia (away from the Nazi threat in the West part of the country) adding even more weight and importance to the Trans Siberian connection.
By the end of the second world war, the railroad ran pretty much as I can see it today. The rise of tourism, and the fact that now a large part of Russians industrial system is in Siberia help.
Russia replaced the steam-powered trains on their trajectory have with electrified ones. Russia worked between 1927 and 2002 on the electrification of their part of the Trans Siberian route. If you take in to account that the Moscow-Vladivostok line has over 9000 kilometers of track, it’s easy to see why this took a while to complete. The Mongolian parts and the Chinese parts of the Trans Mongolian Railway and the Trans Manchurian Railway still have parts that lack electrification, so Diesel locomotives are used once the train leaves the Russian territory
The TRANS MANCHURIAN route goes from Moscow to Beijing, without passing into Mongolia. The TRANS MONGOLIAN path goes from Moscow to Beijing via Ulaanbaatar. For both trains, that includes an enormous operation when they enter China. The wheelbase in China is different from the wheelbase in Russia and Mongolia. The wheels are replaced on all carriages when the train crosses the border. When I crossed the Mongolian-Chinese border, the changing of the wheels took close to 4 hours to complete on our train.
The train has lived through the time of the Tsars. It saw the Russian Revolution. Two world wars happened. There was a war in Siberia. The USSR rose and fell. And there was all the unrest between Russia, Mongolia, and China. Tourism, as well as the ability to bring people relatively cheap over this long-distance, will hopefully allow the longest routes in the world to be here for a long time.
Update: In September 2017, Russia’s vice-premier Igor Shuvalov stated that the history of the Trans Siberian rail system would get an exciting new chapter in the future. The lines would connect London with Tokyo. Pretty much the trajectory I followed on my trip across Europe and Asia by train, but without having to transfer that much. Making me dream about some more train travel!
Koen Blanquart is a strategy consultant, journalist, and author.
Wanderlust is one of his driving factors, and he shares his travels here on Boarding Today. Koen is also the skipper of SV Bagabonda, a sailing vessel making a slow circumvention of the globe..
Koen recently published a book on how to manage a remote team: The Suitcase Office.