Now mainly known as a beloved bucket list item for many (semi-)adventurous travellers, the Trans-Siberian Railway has a long, but interesting history. It was once known as ‘the fairest jewel in the crown of the Tsars’ (Richmond et al., 2009) and runs through some of Russia’s most geographically challenging federal subjects.
With a surface of 17 million square kilometres (Richmond et al., 2009), Russia is by far the largest country in the world in terms of territory, part of which is hard to reach, especially during the five-month-long winter* (Klimaatinfo, d.u.). The railway links the European city of Moscow with the Pacific port of Vladivostok over a distance of 9288 kilometres and seven time zones (Richmond et al., 2009), making it the longest railroad in the world. According to the website of the Russian Railways (RZD, 2016), the journey from Moscow to Vladivostok takes somewhere between 144 and 167 hours, depending on the train.
The Trans-Siberian Railway was built between 1891 and 1916, during the reign of tsar Alexander III and his son tsar Nicholas II (Meaking, 1970). Constructing the transcontinental railway was one of the largest-scale projects ever undertaken globally and involved over 100,000 labourers (Rusmania, d.u.).
It was partially paid for by selling securities, which in the end caused the railroads financial hardship. Step by step the nationalization of the Russian Railways became a fact and was completed after the Russian Revolution in 1917, but that is a story for another time.
There was only one track when the Trans-Siberian Railway was built and thus only allowed one train at a time. This caused difficulties in supplying the armed forces in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 as they could not move resources to and from the front as quickly as they would have wanted (Isitt, 2006).
The train line has had an impact on the daily lives of Russian and –between 1922 and 1991– Soviet citizens. If it was not for the Trans-Siberian Railway, about 4 million peasants (Dronin & Bellinger, 2005) from western regions of Russia and Ukraine would not have been able to migrate to Siberia (Subtelny, 2000) between 1906 and 1914 (Dronin & Bellinger, 2005).
It is the only overland route connecting the entire country, making it indispensable to the Russian economy (Paranyushkin, 2015).
Nowadays the train line is popular among tourists, but it is mainly used for both freight, as nearly 30% of Russian export is via rail (The Telegraph, 2016), and domestic travel. Russia aims to increase transit capacities and has made 50 billion rubbles (approximately €717.000.000) available for improvements to increase the maximum achievable speed (RZD, 2011).
Recently plans have been revealed to extend the original Trans-Siberian Railway from Khabarovsk to Japan –bypassing Vladivostok– by either a bridge or a tunnel. Other possibilities such as investing in newer, faster train units are being investigated (Schwartz, 2016).
Another plan that would excite many travellers, is a proposed high-speed railway through Siberia to Alaska, crossing the Bering Strait via a tunnel, that has been approved by Vladimir Putin. Unfortunately, as for now it seems it will only be for freight trains.
The Trans-Siberian Railway is not just a railroad: it is the backbone of a country. It is Russia’s greatest means to unify the country. After one hundred years it still serves its intended purpose: connecting Europe and Asia via rail (Rusmania, d.u.).
* By ‘five-month-long winter’ it is meant that there is a chance on winter conditions in Vladivostok, causing the rivers (used for transport in summer) to be frozen over. Vladivostok was chosen since it is the ending of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Dronin, N. M., & Bellinger, E. G. (2005). Climate Dependence and Food Problems in Russia, 1900-1990: The Interaction of Climate and Agricultural Policy and Their Effect on Food Problems. Budapest: Central European University Press.
Isitt, B. (2006). Mutiny from Victoria to Vladivostok, December 1918. The Canadian Historial Review, 87(2): 223-264.
Klimaatinfo (date unknown). Het klimaat van Vladivostok. Retrieved on 9 October 2016, from: http://www.klimaatinfo.nl/rusland/vladivostok.htm
Meakin, A. M. B. (1970). A ribbon of Iron. New York, NY: Arno Press.
Paranyushkin, D. (2015, 14 April). Trans-Siberian Railway History and Facts. Way to Russia. Retrieved from: http://waytorussia.net/TransSiberian/Facts-History.html
Richmond, S., Bennets, M., Di Duca, M., Kohn, M., Ragozin, L., Reid, R., & Vorhees, M. (2009). Trans-Siberian Railway. Victoria: Lonely Planet.
Rusmania (date unknown). Trans-Siberian Railway: History of Trans-Siberian Railway. Retrieved on 9 October 2016, from: http://rusmania.com/history-of-trans-siberian-railway
RZD (2011). Trans-Siberian Railway. Retrieved on 9 October 2016, from: https://web.archive.org/web/20111127112131/http://eng.rzd.ru/isvp/public/rzdeng?STRUCTURE_ID=87
RZD (2016). Timetable & Tickets. Retrieved on 9 October 2016, from: http://pass.rzd.ru/main-pass/public/en
Schwartz, K. (2016, 6 October). Trans-Siberian Railway could go all the way to Japan. News. Retrieved from: http://www.news.com.au/
Subtelny, O. (2000). Ukraine: A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
The Telegraph (2016, 5 October). The Trans-Siberian Railway: how long is it and how was it built 100 years ago? The Telegraph. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/