The Trans-Siberian Railway – historically called the Great Siberian Route -, crossing entire Europe and Asia, celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2016.  Its construction started under Russian Tsar Alexander III in 1891, and the entire section was completed after 25 years’ of construction, in the twilight of Tsar Nicholas II’s reign, in October, 1916. Constructing the 9,288 km-long railway was not essential for Russia only, linking areas rich in raw materials with the circulation of the empire, and, in addition, serving important geopolitical and strategic goals, but the railway brought East Asia, conceived unreachable before, closer to Europe, merely a few weeks’ journey away.

The Trans-Siberian railway is by far the longest direct railway line of the world: the currently operated longest section between Moscow and Vladivostok is 9,288 km long. The trains on this line pass through eight time zones, 87 cities and cross 16 rivers.[1] The highest point of the railway is 1,040 metres. Annually, more than a hundred million tons of cargo are transported on the line on an annual basis. The European section of the railway amounts to 19.1% of the entire length; some 80.9% of the line run through Asia.[3] The railway has a special track gauge: it is 1,524 millimetres wide. Finland and Mongolia are the only countries that use the same gauge.


The line marked with red color is the original Transsiberian line completed in 1916. The line marked with green color is the Baykal-Amur branch of the railway, and was completed in the ’80-ies. Blue line part is the Manchurian railway, which was completed by 1904. Source:


In addition to obvious logistic and economic advantages, the Trans-Siberian Railway primarily served geopolitical purposes: due to the intensifying activities and influence of Western European powers in East Asia, the Russians were getting anxious about the safety of their Siberian territories. Until the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway, it had been extremely hard to access this vast part of Russia, rich in raw materials – and multiple times bigger than the European portion of the country. The Russian railways built until the end of the 19th century had not reached further than the Ural Mountains. On road, the journey from Moscow to the eastern part of the country could take up to 14th months – Siberia had been substantially defenseless against any military attack. The fastest way to reach the Pacific coast had been by ship, but it had meant a voyage of two to two and a half months, and again, had not provided a reassuring solution to military deployments.

Basically, Siberia had been separated from the rest of the country, and despite the fact that it had had rich raw material deposits, they had not been easily accessible; in addition, it had been a very sparsely populated area and had hardly had any inhabitants. Thus, as a direct consequence of the railway construction, more than three million people moved from the Western regions of Russia into the Eastern ones between 1906 and 1914.

The Trans-Siberian railway had a key role in connecting raw material deposits in Russia. The construction of the railway boosted several industries, such as gold and coal mining, logging, trapping, the petroleum industry, fishing, etc. 20 percent of Russia’s current crude oil extraction, 25 percent of its logging, and some 65 percent of its coal mining are pursued in areas adjoining the railway.

Furthermore, from a strategic viewpoint, logistic access to the Pacific and the continental linkage of the Russian ports was important. On top of all these, the Trans-Siberian Railway also served serious military purposes: a section of more than 2,000 kilometres was running across Manchuria, Northeast China. Russian political leadership had had ambitious plans concerning the strategically important, resource-rich areas: the military had planned the gradual pacification and the Russian repopulation of Manchuria, which had been allowed by the weakened Chinese central leadership of the time.

Russian map from beginning of XX. century. Dashed line shows the planned Manchurian part of the railway. Source: Brockhaus and Enfron Encyclopedia

During the Russian-Japanese War of 1904–05, the railways had a significant logistic role, but the line, in that condition, could not meet demands: only one carriage could run in most of the sections, and the railway bridges had not been built, either, thus compartments had been transported by ferries. By World War II, however, the line had gained invaluable strategic importance: it enabled a continuous supply of European Russia with raw materials, ammunition and soldiers. On the journey back to Siberia, machines, food and workforce were transported; passenger transport was reduced to the minimum in those days.

The unexpected attack by Nazi Germany on 22 June 1941 took Stalin by surprise, and since the German army occupied or destroyed most of the military production capacities of the Russians in Europe, the safest solution was to re-build the defence industry as far from the theatre of war as possible. Between July and November, 1941, 1,532 Russian companies of the defence industry were relocated in the Eastern regions. Implementation would have been significantly more difficult without the Trans-Siberian railway. It was again the Trans-Siberian railway with the help of which millions of military personnel and vehicles were deployed to the Eastern front after the fighting in the European battlefields had ended in May, 1945.


The plan of the “Great Siberian Route” was first devised in the middle of the 19th century – the idea of constructing a railway line was first mentioned in writing by the governor of East Siberia, Graf Nikolay  Muravyov-Amursky, in his letter to the Tsar. However, several decades elapsed until the plan was implemented. The project had several opponents, and the extremely harsh environmental conditions as well as the extremely high costs of the project impeded the construction. The opponents of the construction of the great railway claimed that, as a direct consequence, westerns traders would appear and exploit the population.  In addition, opponents anticipated that a logistic connection of such scale would corrupt the order in the east and it would be much easier for Siberian convict labourers or political exiles to escape. The importance and scale of the construction of the railway is well reflected by the fact that of the 14 Russian ministers of the time 8 were included in the special committee set up to discuss the issues around the railway construction. In 1885, a decision was made to construct the railway line between Samara and Ufa, due to their key artillery factories. The plan of the Trans-Siberian railway was finally approved in 1891.

‘’With this I lay upon you the establishing in Vladivostok the Ussuri section of the Great Siberian Railroad”  – read the missive dated 17 March 1891 from the Russian Tsar, Alexander III to his son, later Tsar Nicholas II.[9]

The project was completely financed by the state. Construction was simultaneously started at both ends – in the European areas (using the Russian lines already built by then) and in Vladivostok –, and implementation was divided into seven sections. The Tsarevich Nicholas travelled to East Asia in 1891, and personally loaded soil in a wheelbarrow, and laid it down, formally commencing construction.[10]

The engraving from the era showing the heir to the throne, the later Nicholas II, as he is taking a wheelbarrow ground with his own hands to the construction site of the railway in Vladivostok. Source: Archive of Russian Railway (RZHD)

The great railroad was going to be built in ten years (eventually, it took 25 years), with a calculated cost of 350 million roubles – in the end, the estimated total cost was several times larger (according to Soviet sources, the total cost might have amounted to one and a half billion Russian roubles). Tens of thousands of workers were working on the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway, at least 6,000 of them were members of the engineers’ team. In the busiest period, 89,000 workers were employed on the construction simultaneously. That was the only way to achieve a then remarkable result of building 500 to 600 kilometres of railway on an annual basis.  The construction of the railway line required tremendous engineering and logistic feat. Workers had to work under extremely harsh climatic conditions. Most of the work was done by hand, with ordinary axes, spades and handsaws. Since there was no other route to transport building materials and tools, most of them were transported to the site on sea. The region around Lake Baikal was the most difficult and the most expensive as well, where explosions and tunnels were required. Although the length of this section is merely 260km, construction took several years, and was substantially more expensive per kilometre than the rest of the Trans-Siberian Railway, owing to the difficulties. The circum-Baikal railway was finished in 1904, and was brought into permanent operation in 1905. Most of the railway built then, however, did not survive: about half a century later, in 1956, a large section of the railway was disassembled and flooded during the construction on the Irkutsk Hydroelectric Power Station, and a new section was built from Irkutsk to Lake Baikal.

Local workers during the construction.


Eventually, a section of the Trans-Siberian Railway of the time passed through Chinese Manchuria, due to financial and logistic reasons on the one hand (the Manchurian construction site was considerably less difficult), but the geopolitical reasons, referred to at the beginning of this article, were much more important. Strategically, the pacification of Manchuria had been long envisaged by Russian statesmen. The Tsar was eventually convinced by his minister of finance, who supported the plan of the “Chinese Eastern Railway”.  The Russio-Chinese part of the Trans-Siberian railway – as opposed to the rest of the line – was privately funded. In 1895, the Russio-Chinese Bank was established to finance the project, but more than 60 percent of the money was provided by French banks. The right to build the railway was granted by a treaty signed with China in 1896, which included a secret clause against Japan. The Chinese Eastern Railway Company, established thereby, gained the rights over the railway line for 80 years. The construction of the 1,529km-long railway was launched then.


The heir to the Russian throne, the later Nicholas II, during his East-Asian trip, Japan, 1891. Source: wikimedia

In 1897, the Russian fleet deployed at China’s coast, took Port Arthur (now the city of Dalian), which was the terminus of the Chinese Eastern Railway. The Russian argued that they were protecting China from the Germans, and the weakened Chinese leadership could not step up against it. In 1898, an agreement was signed in Beijing, which granted the Russian Empire a 25-year lease on Dalian. The construction of fortifications to Port Arthur was promptly launched, transforming the Chinese town into the Russians’ second major naval port in the Pacific. The Boxer Rebellion, which took place in China between 1899 and 1901, provided Russia with further opportunities against China. The central government and the rebels – uprising against western influence in China – attacked the railway and the Russian workers working there. In response, Russia invaded Manchuria “to protect its workers”. The Russians planned to completely colonise the region, and intensively re-populate it with Russian civilians. Then Japan also presented its claim for Manchuria.

Surprisingly, Russia was not prepared for the Russo-Japanese war, erupting in 1904. On 27 January 1904, the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked Port Arthur without a declaration of war. Most of the Russian Far East Fleet sank, and the surviving ships were under Japanese siege in the bay. Only some 20 percent of the port’s fortification had been finished by that time; the fact that the city resisted the siege of the Japanese for 11 months before capitulating was something of a miracle. The Russian army was defeated, and was forced to make a humiliating peace with Japan, resulting in losing Port Arthur and their influence in Manchuria.

The port of Port Arthur and the Russian navy stationed there in the beginning of the XX. century. Source: wikimedia.

In the 1920s, China gradually extended its influence over the Eastern Chinese Railway, then, in 1931, it was transferred again to Japanese control. An agreement was made with Japan in 1934 about the concession railway line, under which the Russians sold their rights for 140 million yens. Subsequently, the railway track gauge was modified to meet the European standard. After World War II, in 1945, the railway again came under the joint control of the USSR for a short period, but the Soviet Union transferred (free of charge) all of its rights to the to the People’s Republic of China in 1952.

Port Arthur nowadays – Chinese city of Dalian. Source: wikimedia.


The “Great Siberian Railroad” was officially opened on 1st July, 1903; however, there were two problems: first, on the Circum-Baikal Railway trains were carried on ferries; and second, it passed through Chinese territory before reaching the Pacific Ocean. The Circum-Baikal Railway was completed on 18 September 1904; after that, rail transport was ferry-free from Saint Petersburg to Moscow and Port Arthur on the Pacific coast. In those days, the distance between Moscow and Port Arthur was covered by a normal train in 16 days and 14 hours, and 13 days and 4 hours by an express train.

Thus, the 100th anniversary of the Trans-Siberian Railway would as well have been celebrated 12 years ago, but control over the Chinese railway section was lost in 1905 as a consequence of the defeat by the Japanese. There was no other option than finishing the entire line of the railway on Russian land.

Subsequently, the decision to construct the 2,115.8km-long Amur section of the Trans-Siberian Railway was approved, and the section was built in 1907-1916. With this line being completed, there was the currently known form of the transcontinental line encompassing Europe and Asia.

For the construction of the railway, a track was marked in a distance of 15km to 130 km from the Amur River.  For the first time in Russia, trucks were used in railroad construction. Over the years, in different periods, 20,-54,000 people were simultaneously working on the construction. With the outbreak of World War I, building slowed down: many of the workers were drafted and replaced by forced labourers – prisoners and criminals. Nonetheless, the Amur section was basically completed in 1914, but lacked the railway bridge crossing the Amur River. Until it was built, compartments were transported by ferryboats on the river in summer, and by horses on the ice of the river in winter.

Forced labor workers during the construction of the Amur railway part. Source: wikimedia

The construction of the Amur railway bridge began in 1913. Around the clock, five thousand people were working on the construction. The steal spans of the bridge were made in Warsaw. The bridge was supposed to be finished in 1915, but in autumn 1914, the Russian merchant ship carrying the last two spans to East Asia was sunk in the Indian Ocean by a German cruiser. Russia had no other choice but urgently order the missing parts from Canada, and construction was delayed by more than a year and a half. The bridge was finally completed on 5 October 1916, and railway transport became continuous along the entire length of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

The bridge, having a length of 2,568 metres at completion, was called “Amur miracle” and was the longest bridge in Eurasia. However, the original railway bridge crossing the Amur was short-lived: in April, 1920, during the Russian Civil War, the bridge was detonated by Red partisans to hinder the logistic lines of White forces. After the Civil War, the bridge was reconstructed in 1925, and served until 1999.  Today, it is replaced by a new bridge, carrying automobile and rail traffic on two levels.

Interestingly, the tsar’s train was the permanent seat of the last Russian monarch, Nicholas II between 1915 and 1917. The tsar signed his abduction in one of the compartments on 2 March 1917. It is the irony of history that the tsar and his family were transported by Bolsheviks on the Trans-Siberian Railway, one of the most important legacies of the reign of Nicholas II, to Tiumen, the first city of Siberia next to Europe, then to Tobolsk in 1917, and to their final destination, Ekaterinburg in 1918, where the tsar’s entire family, including his five children, as well as their servants, were shot during the night of 16 July.

The train of Russian Tsar. Nicholas II. signed his abduction here on March 2, 1917. Source:

Russian engineers

Being a grandiose structure, the Trans-Siberian Railway was not designed and supervised by only one person, but different engineers were responsible for different sections. The bridges along the railway also required a tremendous engineering feat, again, accomplished by several different engineers.  The following lead engineers were engaged in the construction of the Trans-Siberian line: Orest Vyazemsky designed the Ussuri section of the railway, Nikolai Garin-Mikhailovsky designed the West Siberian section, Nikolai Mejeninov designed the Mid-Siberian line, while Alexander Liverovsky was responsible for the Circum-Baikal Railway.


In 1984, a new, practically independent branch was added to the railway – this is the so-called Baikal-Amur Mainline (“BAM”), which departs from the Trans-Siberian railway in the section before Lake Baikal, at Tayshet, runs north of and parallel to the Trans-Siberian railway, and reaches the Pacific Ocean at the Russian town of “Soviet Port” (Sovetskaya Gavan), populated by 25,000 people. Building the line came under consideration in the 1932, in order to exploit the natural resources in Siberia, and construction took nearly 50 years. The total cost of building the 4,287km-long railway amounted to 17,7 billion roubles, which, most probably, made it the most expensive project in the history of the Soviet Union.

The railway runs on severe terrain, passing through seven mountain ranges and crossing 11 major rivers, and a total of 2,230 bridges of various sizes had to be added. Ten tunnels – including Russia’s longest one, 15,343m-long Severomuysky Tunnel, completed only in 2003 -, were built during the construction. The cargo capacity of BAM is 12 million tons per year, planned to be expanded to 50 million tons per year by Russia’s leadership.


The Trans-Siberian Railway is currently subject to various transformations. In the 1990s, traffic volume was successfully increased, and the bridge over the River Amur was reconstructed. The electrification of the entire line was completed in 2002. Until 1917, the line did not start at Moscow but Saint Petersburg. Currently, the main route of the Trans-Siberian Railway is used by train Nos. 1 and 2 from Moscow to Vladivostok. The entire journey currently takes six days and one hour, at an average speed of 64 km/h.  Earlier, a line from Kiev to Vladivostok (10,259km), as well as a line from Kharkiv to Vladivostok (9,714km) existed; in the 1970s even the idea of an 11,967km-long line from Moscow to Hanoi, Vietnam was conceived, but this latter line was in service for a few times only, and the former two ones were closed in 2011.


Electric locomotives carrying goods are passing by Lake Baikal, on the Transsiberian railway. Source: Anton Romanov, Shutterstock.

On 11 January 2008, China, Mongolia, Russia, Belarus, Poland and Germany agreed to create a continuous line between Hamburg and Beijing, comprising the Trans-Siberian Railway. According to Russian records, some 15 million tons of cargo transited along the Trans-Siberian line after 2011. Chinese goods can reach Germany by rail in 11 to 15 days, while it would take 30 to 35 days by sea. In addition, the Trans-Siberian Railway forms an important part of One Belt, One Road, a new Chinese project announced in 2011, which would create all-encompassing continental links between Europe and Asia.

Whatever the future may bring, the Trans-Siberian Railway seems to have become a determining factor in the political and economic lives of the two continents, Europe and Asia, and, due to the increasing intensity of social and interstate relations, it will continue to be one in the next decades as well.

Author: Anton Bendarzsevszkij

The article was initially published In:, 2018.02.22.


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