The Trans-Siberian Railway – no obstacle is insurmountable

The Trans-Siberian Railway – no obstacle is insurmountable

15 April 2019
engineering history innovation Rail transportation
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The Trans-Siberian is the longest railway in the world. It has over 9,000 km of track – mostly built between 1891 and 1916 – and stretches across the enormous expanse of Russia, from Moscow to Vladivostok. The project to build this railway – which was initiated by Tsar Alexander III – was above all an incredible feat of engineering. Because in order for the Trans-Siberian to come into being, numerous logistical problems had to be solved, including finding ways to deviate rivers, lay thousands of kilometres of track in the middle of harsh environments (such as the Ural region, Siberia and around Lake Baikal), and build hundreds of bridges. The task seemed impossible, but engineers achieved it!

The Trans-Siberian may be over a hundred years old but it is as impressive as ever, just like the Eiffel Tower in France or the Great Wall of China. And yet not many people know the history of its construction or the innovations required for its creation.

As an introduction to this epic story, it’s important to remember that a first section of what is the Trans-Siberian Railway of today – connecting Moscow to Tyumen – had already been built in the late 1870s and early 1880s. But when we talk about the construction of this gigantic network, the date cited for the start of the works is 1891. It was then that the major work began, which didn’t stop until 1916. The objective was to connect up western Russia with the most eastern part of the empire, via a train link – the fastest and most innovative means of transport at the time.

Historians recount that this project led to a real combat between engineers, all competing to offer their technologies, schedules and recommended routes.

The first obstacles – the weather and terrain

So the major construction work was launched in 1891, with several phases beginning simultaneously in the east and west of the country. Engineers and labourers quickly realised how the difficult climate and terrain were going to pose complications for carrying out this monumental engineering work.

Not only did they have to deal with the below-zero temperatures in Siberia, but also, and above all, the state of the natural terrain, which complicated their tasks in terms of engineering, plotting the network’s route and actually laying the rails. For example, they had to solve the problem of crossing marshlands in the Taiga region, as well as having to deviate or cross rivers, get round Lake Baikal, break up huge rocks to make the tracks safe, and lay rails on frozen ground. All of these extreme conditions meant the Russian engineers had to use specific techniques and be highly innovative to accomplish their work.

Engineering prowess: the most striking achievements

The most complex stage of the project was unquestionably the Lake Baikal area. Built between 1899 and 1904, the “Circum-Baikal” section delayed the start-up of the whole line linking Moscow in the west to Vladivostok in the east, as highly-specific structures needed to be built to get around the 635 kilometre-long lake. A total of 582 civil engineering structures were constructed, including 39 tunnels and 14 km of retaining walls to support the weight of the trains. Not to mention the additional work carried out between 1911 and 1914 to open a second track, and the use of a new material – reinforced concrete – to build the bridges and other requisite structures.

The Russian engineer, Lavr Proskouriakov, had already used reinforced concrete for another amazing Trans-Siberian structure – the bridge over the Yenisei. Awarded the gold medal at Paris’s Universal Exposition in 1900, this railway bridge was built between 1896 and 1899 and spans a 1 km-wide section of this enormous Russian river. It was Russia’s longest bridge at the time, and the second longest in Europe after the bridge over the river Lek in the Netherlands.

Lavr Proskouriakov therefore led the way for the construction of many of the Trans-Siberian iron bridges, including Khabarovsk Bridge, which was built in 1916 to cross the Amur, the fourth-longest river in Asia. Stretching 2,590 metres, this bridge marked the completion of the Trans-Siberian, whose last section between Chita and Vladivostok had been delayed by the start of the First World War.

In all, over 3,500 civil engineering structures were built to bring the Trans-Siberian Railway into being.            

Over the top?

Even today, the engineering talents needed to build the Trans-Siberian Railway seem amazing. And the figures show how enormous it really was: 100 million cubic metres of earth and rubble moved, over one million tonnes of tracks laid, some 100 kilometres of bridges, tunnels and retaining walls built, and 16 rivers and 87 towns crossed.

Unfortunately, the working conditions at the time also left a heavy human toll, which has not been quantified, but which many writers and specialists describe as “deplorable” or “horrendous”.

But for all that, the Trans-Siberian Railway remains a monument, which enabled Siberia to develop both economically and demographically. And it still attracts thousands of passengers each year who are amazed by its immense scale and who no doubt are grateful to the engineers of yesteryear for opening up the mysteries of Russia’s outer reaches.

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