The Trans-Siberian Railway – the longest railway in the world

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At the Yaroslavl railway station in Moscow stands a commemorative marker with two figures – 0 and 9,298 – engraved on it. The marker is an exact copy of the early 20th century cast-iron mile stone, and it defines “kilometre zero” of the world’s longest railway – the Trans-Siberian, whose length stands at 9,298 kilometres.

In fact, the actual length of the Trans-Siberian Railway is a bit less than what’s stated on the marker. The marker in Vladivostok, which is the final point of the railway, says its length is 9,288.2 kilometers or 5,772 miles long. The marker in Moscow shows – accidentally or on purpose – what’s called the “tariff length” (the length used to calculate ticket prices), thus creating a slight mismatch between this figure and the real length of the road.

Whatever its length, the “Trans-Sib” – the short name Russians use to refer to the Trans-Siberian Railway – is the most extensive railroad on the planet. It’s impossible to underestimate its significance for Russia. This giant railway links the European part of Russia with the Ural region, Siberia and the Russian Far East. Putting things in a broader perspective, the railway connects Russia’s southern and western ports as well as the country’s European railways  (in Saint-Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Novorossiisk) with the Pacific ports and Asian railways (in Vladivostok, Nakhodka, Vanino, Zabaikalsk).

The Trans-Siberian Railway spans two continents, eight time zones, 5 federal districts and 87 cities in Russia. About 19% of the railway is located in Europe, while 81% is in Asia. The conventional boundary between Europe and Asia is drawn at the 1,778th kilometer of this seemingly endless transportation artery.



Railway bridge over the Kama River, 1911. Photo by S.M. Prokudin-Gorsky

Wheather to build the TSR was a burning question in Russia long before construction actually began. Having gained direct access to the Pacific Ocean, Russia was faced with a problem – the difficulty of traversing the country’s vast extent from east to west started to hinder its socio-economic development. It staggers belief, but getting from the capital to the eastern fringe of the country took about three years several centuries ago!

In Peter the Great’s reign, the pace of life increased, but even in the early 19th century a government courier spent 35 days covering the distance of 6,000 versts (about 9,600 kilometres) between Saint-Petersburg and Irkutsk.

Construction of the Trans-Siberian began on 19 May (31 May, by the old calendar) 1891, when during a stopover in Vladivostok on his way back from a round-the-world journey, the future Emperor Nicholas II laid the foundation stone of the Ussuriisk Railway, running to Khabarovsk. Later, this railroad became a section of the Great Siberian Railway, but at the moment its foundation was being laid nobody dared to dream that it would grow into such a large-scale undertaking.

This turned into an epoch-making construction project thanks to Count Sergey Witte, who, in a report addressed to Emperor Alexander III,  mentioned a dream of connecting the European part of Russia with the eastern port of Vladivostok. This ambitious idea struck a note with only a few high-ranking state officials, and only the personal support of the Emperor made the railway construction possible. A special Siberian Railway Committee was established, chaired, upon Witte’s recommendation, by Tsarevich Nicholas. This was a wise choice, for the future Emperor Nicholas II, who had crossed all Russia from the Pacific Ocean through Siberia, was well aware of the enormous size of the country and gave priority to the Russian Far East over the west and the south for geopolitical reasons.

As a result, the Committee’s resolution declared the Great Siberian Railway a worthy national cause, insisting that it be constructed by Russian people, with the use of Russian-produced materials.

Construction began simultaneously at both ends of the railway –in Chelyabinsk and in Vladivostok, and were conducted at several sectors at the same time. The speed of construction amazed contemporaries, especially given the dreadful conditions people had to work in. The railway was laid through undeveloped areas, mountain passes and permafrost territories, giving rise to numerous engineering challenges, such as the necessity of building bridges over wide Siberian rivers or digging tunnels. Don’t forget that construction tools used at that time were a far cry from modern, state-of-the art equipment. The only available tools were shovels, picks and wheelbarrows. No wonder  construction involved a huge number of people, including soldiers and prisoners who laboured at the most difficult sections of the railway. To understand the scale of the project, look at the following figure – in 1895-1896 about 90,000 people worked at various railway construction sites.

In 1898, the western line of the railway reached Irkutsk, nevertheless passengers had to use a ferry line to get across Lake Baikal for several more years.

In the winter, provisional rail-tracks were laid from the Baikal station right along the ice-covered terrain. But for all the difficulties, construction of the railway was a great economical achievement for Russia, as travel time from Moscow to Vladivostok was slashed from three months to just two weeks.

Interesting facts

From 1900 to 1904, trains were transported across Lake Baikal on a 4,000-ton ship Baikal. Carriages were put on the main deck, which had three rail tracks on it.

The ship represented something of a cross between a steamship, a cruise liner and an ice-breaker. The Baikal had been built in Newcastle and shipped to Russia in 7,000 containers. It had taken two years to assemble the ship.

An uninterrupted rail track between Saint-Petersburg and Vladivostok was constructed after the Round-Baikal Railroad became operational on 18 September (1 October, by the old calendar) 1904. This date is considered the birthday of the Trans-Siberian Railway, even though construction works continued for many more years (the second rail track was completed in 1938, by the Soviets).

Construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway was an extremely expensive undertaking. According to preliminary estimates of the Siberian Railway Committee, it cost 350 million gold rubles. In 1891-1892, in order to speed up construction and cut  costs, technical standards for the Ussuriisk branch of the railway were changed, based on the simplified standards of the Western-Siberian branch (stretching from Chelyabinsk to the Ob River). The width of the roadbed at embankments, ditches and mountainous sections was reduced, as was the width of the ballast bed. Lighter rail tracks and shorter sleepers supplanted the regular ones; the number of sleepers in one kilometer of railway was also reduced.

As a result, the Great Siberian Railway ranked second to none on the planet, in terms of the speed of its construction (12 years) and length (7,500 kilometres,) as well as the scale of construction and challenges faced by engineers. Authors of the Guinness Book of World Records would have to dedicate a separate chapter if they chose to enumerate all the distinctions of this record-breaking railway.

At present, the Trans-Siberian Railway is a modern two-track fully electrified railway. The most “rapid” train from Moscow to Vladivostok – Rossiya – completes a one-way journey in 6 days  and 2 hours.

Geographical confines of the Trans-Siberian Railway

  • The westernmost station – Moscow-3 (55о45′ north latitude, 37о34′ east longitude);
  • The easternmost station – Khabarovsk-2 (48о31′ north latitude., 135о10′ east longitude);
  • The southernmost station – Vladivostok (43о07′ north latitude, 131о53′ east longitude);
  • The northernmost station – Kirov (58о36′ north latitude, 49о38′ east longitude).

Russian text by Irina Yatskevich

Translation into English by Nadezhda Tsyba

Russian Geographical Society