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Railroads - 1839-1917 - Imperial Russia

In the early 19th Century, Russian engineering was saved from complete disintegration by the very same circumstances that had revived it from time in the past. Building ports, roads, canal, fortifications and public buildings was too complex an undertaking for untrained martinets and a mob of half-enslaved laborers.

Michel Chevalier, as early as 1831, as editor of the St. Simonian Le Globe was already campaigning for a European wide rail network from Cadiz to St. Petersburg that would resolve the major political questions of his time. Linking east and west the railroads would bring Russia into the mainstream of European civilization, eliminate its fear of isolation, end its search for an outlet to the Mediterranean that fueled the Eastern Question, and usher in a period of universal peace. In his eyes Russia had the most to gain from the technocratic solution. Extensive domestic construction of railroads, particularly a direct north-south line between Astrakhan and Odessa through Moscow with a branch line to St. Petersburg would unify the country and join its most productive regions. But at this point Chevalier still had to pass through the ordeal of arrest, trail and imprisonment as part of the Ménilmontant scandal.

The first Russian railway, built by the Viennese engineer, Franz Anton Ritter von Gerstner, was a short experimental line of about 50km from St.Petersburg to Pavlovsk. established by Imperial decree of 21st March, 1836, and carried into execution by a company of shareholders in Russia, England and Germany with a 6ft gauge, the line opened throughout in 1839. The railway was experimental only in the sense that it was not clear at the time if either the line or the locomotives would be able to stand up to the Russian winter for Gerstner had always envisaged it as the first section of a much wider network linking Moscow and St.Petersburg and connecting the manufacturing centres of the country. Construction of the St.Petersburg-Moscow railway, begun in 1843, was entrusted to a Russian engineer and the capital raised in Russia. This railroad connected the city with Moscow in 1851. St. Petersburg became a major Russian railroad junction, serving as the end port of the system of inland waterways which snaked their way through European Russia's north-western region.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, Russia underwent a period of extensive rail development that culminated in the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Akin to the great railways to the Pacific in both the United States and Canada, Russia's transcontinental line was intended to supply and populate Siberia as well as deliver raw materials to the burgeoning industries west of the Urals. Working against an ambitious timetable and under severe conditions of climate and terrain, the Russians effectively united the European and Asian parts of the empire by completing this herculean project.

Plans to build a railway across Siberia had circulated within the highest levels of the Russian bureaucracy for years before construction finally began in 1891. The project had strong backing from Emperor Aleksandr III and other notables. The heir apparent, Grand Duke Nicholas, served as chairman of the Siberian Railroad Committee and performed a variety of ceremonial duties connected with the project, including turning the first spadeful of earth near Vladivostok to start the construction. The real force behind the project, however, was Sergei Witte, the indomitable minister of finance to both Aleksandr and later Nicholas.

In order to begin rail operations on parts of the line as soon as possible, Witte set firm deadlines for the completion of various sections of the project. With the schedule under constant threat of slippage from the difficult working conditions and remoteness of Siberia, Witte insisted on adhering to his plans and cajoled subordinates to maintain the pace. This pressure contributed to accidents, as well as supply and equipment breakdowns. As disease and exposure took their toll on the labor force, the state turned to prisoners in great numbers to finish the job. The costs of construction eventually reached over $250 million, twice the original estimate. Witte remained resolute in his goal, however, recalling in his memoirs, "I devoted myself body and soul to the task."

Like other rail lines throughout the empire, the track used on the Trans-Siberian was wider than the standard European gauge-5 feet 3.5 inches as opposed to 4 feet 8.5 inches. The engineering plans provided for the sequential construction of six basic segments. In order of completion, these branches were the West Siberian line from Cheliabinsk to Novonikolaevsk (the future city of Novosibirsk) on the Ob River; the Ussuri line from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok; the mid-Siberian line from Novonikolaevsk to Innokentievskaia near Irkutsk, with a spur line to Tomsk; the circum-Baikal line from Irkutsk to the eastern side of Lake Baikal; and the trans-Baikal line from Lake Baikal to Sretensk. A sixth section, the Amur line from Sretensk to Khabarovsk, was not completed until 1916. Before its completion, Russia was able to establish a link to the Pacific by negotiating an agreement with China to run track across Manchuria via the Chinese Eastern Railway.

On January 13,1904, Japan agreed to regard Manchuria as outside her sphere of influence, but required in exchange, as an irreducible minimum, that Russia should give a similar undertaking as to Korea. In view of Russian military movements actually in progress, on February 5, diplomatic relations with Russia were severed. On the next day, the first orders for mobilisation were issued in Japan. The Japanese statesmen and soldiers knew that for their purpose the measure of Russia's strength was not the vast array which impressed Europe, but the number of ships and soldiers which she could deliver and maintain in what was to be the theatre of war.

The rate at which the immense resources of European Russia in men and matSriel could be made available in the Far East was dependent upon the capacity of the Eastern Siberian Railway. The cost of laying the 5500 miles of line between Moscow and Vladivostok, and the extension of 600 miles from Harbin to Port Arthur, had caused the standard of construction to be the lowest which would meet the requirements of commerce. Neither the permanent way, nor the number and accommodation of stations and sidings, nor the quality and quantity of the rolling stock, was suited to the strain of the heavy traffic which the formation and maintenance of a great army would involve. But the chief difficulty was Lake Baikal.

There was, at the beginning of 1904, still a gap of more than 100 miles of mountainous country in the rail way which was being constructed round that lake, and, until this line was completed, everything had to be transported across thirty miles of inland sea. By January 27, 1904, the steamers which ordinarily performed this work were frozen in; all troops had to march across the ice, and until the end of February, when a light railway was constructed on the ice, all stores had to be hauled across on sleds. During the latter half of April traffic across the lake was almost at a standstill because of the thaw, and it was not until May 5 that the steamers were able to resume work. Most of the reservists, and much of the transport and materiel required to fit the troops already stationed east of Lake Baikal to take the field had to come from Europe.

At the same time, the rolling stock and railway personnel on the Manchurian railway had to be increased. Fortunately for Russia, the resources of Manchuria and of the neighbouring Chinese provinces made the importation of foodstuffs unnecessary;. but even with this advantage no very considerable reinforcements could be delivered in Manchuria before the end of April. Thus Japan could calculate that, even under the most favourable conditions, Russia would not for some months be able to put more than 80,000 troops in the field, and it was highly improbable that even this number could be concentrated on any one battlefield.

On the eve of World War I, imperial Russia had a rail network extending 58,500 kilometers. In 1913 it carried 132.4 million tons of freight over an average distance of 496 kilometers, and 184.8 million passengers boarded its trains.

Although initial plans for the Trans-Siberian Railroad envisioned a track running across Russian territory all the way to Vladivostok, difficulties in the construction eventually altered the route. East of Lake Baikal, the rugged landscape presented enormous complications for building the Amur section of the line from Sretensk to Khabarovsk according to the original timetable. In response, the Russian government temporarily shelved this part of the project and negotiated an agreement with China to run track through Manchuria from just east of Chita to Vladivostok. The alternate line, which was known as the Chinese Eastern Railway, shortened the route by five hundred kilometers and saved enormous costs.

In 1903, the first train from St. Petersburg arrived in Vladivostok: an additional branch of the China-East Railway was built from Harbin. There were no direct trains, by the way, from Moscow and St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, but there were three so-called coordinated trains when a passenger disembarked in Omsk or Harbin - and waited several hours for the next train in the right direction. The ticket was uniform. The travel time at first was 16 days, later it was reduced to 12. And the fare (in terms of modern money) is about 90 thousand rubles, about two average monthly salaries in the empire.

The problem with this solution, however, was that it made Russia's link to the Pacific vulnerable to political developments in China, which were increasingly affected by pressure from an assertive Japanese Empire. Defeat in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War weakened Russia's already tenuous foothold in Manchuria and threatened the integrity of the new railroad. The tsarist government thus was forced to revert to its original and far more expensive plan to build a line through the watershed of the great Amur River. Suspended in 1895 at an early stage of work, construction on the Amur line began anew in 1908. Establishment of the roadbed across the regional mountain chains and rivers made the completion of this branch highly problematic, a situation complicated by the outbreak of World War I and resultant supply and manpower shortages. By 1916, however, the Amur line was completed, for the first time allowing for an all-Russian route to Vladivostok.

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Page last modified: 12-12-2019 19:05:14 ZULU