UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Railroads - 1917-1939 - Early Soviet Period

Railroads were the most important component of the Soviet transportation system. They carried freight over great distances, and historically they have contributed to the economic development of the Soviet Union as efficient carriers of materials between producers and users, both domestic and foreign.

In 1918, following the Bolshevik Revolution, the new regime nationalized the railroads. During the Civil War (1918-21), the railroads played a strategic role in the Bolshevik government's struggle against both White forces and invading foreign armies but suffered serious losses and damage in tracks, locomotives, rolling stock, yards, and stations. In 1920 Vladimir I. Lenin directed the first plan for nationwide development of the economy, which created the State Commission on the Electrification of Russia (Gosudarstvennaia komissiia po elektrifikatsii Rossii - Goelro). It called for the electrification of the country over a ten- to fifteen-year period, the development of eight economic areas, and the reconstruction of the transportation network. Railroads were assigned the task of linking the economic areas and of transporting raw materials to industrial producers and finished goods to users. To that end, the regime provided for the electrification of the most important main lines and the construction of new lines.

During the 1920s and 1930s, transportation, and in particular the railroads, played a leading economic role and experienced rapid development. Feliks E. Dzerzhinskii, the chairman of the dreaded Vecheka) and the commissar of internal affairs, was also named the commissar of railways. Because of his first two positions, Dzerzhinskii ensured a rapid development of the railroads. New rail lines were built between the eastern regions and the industrial areas in the west. By 1925 some 4,000 kilometers of new lines had been laid in both the European and the Asian portions of the Soviet Union, including the first electrified line, an industrial spur from Baku to Surakhany completed in 1926.

During the First Five-Year Plan (1928-32), the railroad network was repaired, improved, and expanded. The plan recognized that industrial complexes (see Glossary), such as the Ural-Kuznetsk coal and iron complex, needed transportation links. Plans called for connecting the Siberian and Central Asian areas, rich in natural or agricultural resources--ores, timber, coal, cotton, and wheat--to manufacturers and consumers in the western portions of the country. Thus the Turkestan-Siberian Railway, 1,450 kilometers long, was built, along with the Central Kazakhstan and the Caucasus railroads, among other lines. The European portion of the country also saw new lines laid, connecting industrial areas with their sources of raw materials.

In the 1930s, the railroads introduced new rolling stock and locomotives that contributed to better performance. In the mid1930s , diesel-electric locomotives began to be used. Although more costly to produce and to maintain than the electric locomotives and also less powerful and slower, diesel-electric locomotives had several advantages over the steam locomotives in use, particularly under existing operating conditions. Fuel-efficient, dieselelectric locomotives covered long distances between refuelings, required minimal maintenance between runs, sustained good speeds, damaged tracks less, used standardized spare parts, and offered operating flexibility. In contrast to the United States and Canada, two countries also employing railroads to cover vast expanses, the change from steam to diesel-electric traction in the Soviet Union was initially very slow, in large measure because of a scarcity of trained manpower, maintenance facilities, and spare parts.

During the Second Five-Year Plan (1933-37), new rolling stock, including freight cars of new design, was also produced. Although most freight cars were still of the two-axle type with a payload varying between twenty and sixty tons, specialized four-axle cars, such as hoppers and tippers of up to seventy tons, began to enter service. The new rolling stock was equipped with safety and labor saving devices, such as automatic braking and automatic couplings, which increased safety and allowed more efficient train handling at classification yards. The higher speeds and heavier train weights made possible by more modern traction and rolling stock in turn required heavier rails, improved cross ties, and ballast. The automatic block signal system and centralized traffic control increased the operating efficiency of trains.

Despite the modernization program, Soviet railroads lagged behind the performance levels set by the plans. Ineffective management, labor problems, such as poor work attitudes, and a high accident rate contributed to the failures. On the average, railcars and locomotives were idle about 71 percent and 53 percent of their operational time, respectively. Yet industrialization efforts placed increasing demands on the railroads. The military authorities were also concerned about the poor performance of the railroads, fearing their inability to support national defense requirements.

From 1928 to 1940, the length of operating lines grew from 76,900 kilometers to 106,100 kilometers and included 1,900 kilometers of electrified lines. Freight traffic more than quadrupled from 93.4 billion ton-kilometers to 420.7 billion tonkilometers . Passenger traffic also increased in the same period, from 24.5 billion passenger-kilometers to 100.4 billion passengerkilometers . This growth in freight and passenger traffic was made possible by track improvements, new rolling stock, locomotives, signaling and control equipment and procedures, and new and more efficient classification yards.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list