The Trans-Siberian Railway – no obstacle is insurmountable

The Trans-Siberian Railway – no obstacle is insurmountable

15 April 2019
engineering history innovation Rail transportation
Read the article

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.

Share :

THIS ARTICLE IS PART OF THE FILE :
Mobility

Something to say ?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Assystem

in collaboration with Silex Id

Our vacancies
##INCREDIBLENGINEERS

Learn more

Related articles

When I grow up, I want to be an engineer!

Engineering schools are still as popular as ever. Why? Do we really know what an engineer is? Their backgrounds? Their daily lives? To answer this, we met up with three of them to find out more about ...

How digital tools are transforming the engineer's profession

The digital revolution is not only bringing changes to the first nuclear power stations that began to be constructed as from the mid-twentieth century, but is also significantly impacting the current ...

Jugaad innovation - Frugal engineering

The economic environment has become increasingly unsettled and even for large corporations the future is uncertain. In order to survive, businesses need to innovate, but 50% of company leaders worldwi...

Stories of the craziest projects of all time

Twenty thousand leagues under the sea For centuries, the idea of a vessel that could navigate underwater fed people’s imagination and scores of engineers have worked on submarine travel througho...

NASA’s taking nuclear energy into space

The conquest of space is more than ever at the centre of public attention, with projects like SpaceX and The Stealth Space Company, but who better than NASA to fulfil this dream that has existed for t...

Big Data Automation

It’s no secret that data is the lifeblood of more and more companies. While it brings many benefits for those who use it wisely, it creates just as many constraints for those who don’t. Ma...

Saudi, land of oil… and engineers

In Saudi, being an engineer is more than any profession. With “Saudi Vision 2030” plan to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil and diversify its economy, Saudi engineers are becoming a rare c...

Being a woman engineer in the land of the Corcovado mountain

Happiness seems to be the watchword in the home of samba and the caipirinha. But the cool and carefree image that Brazilians present to the world is juxtaposed against a very different reality. The re...

Engineers – Eternal apprentices?

From steam locomotives to high-speed trains powered by hydrogen, from manual calculators to super-computers, from a one-dimensional view of building sites to augmented reality, the objects designed by...

Electric cars and energy transition – is there a glitch?

At the end of 2018, only 200,000 electric and hybrid vehicles were registered in France out of a total automobile fleet of around 40 million. But questions are now being asked due to recent sharp incr...

Being an engineer in the UK

So close to Europe yet isolated by seas, the UK has its own way of doing business. From the most obvious cultural differences to small tips that can make a difference, Fanny Fouin, a French engineer w...

A world tour of the latest rail innovations

While waiting for Hyperloop – the ultra-high-speed train dreamed up by the South African entrepreneur Elon Musk – rail sector companies haven’t given up on the race for innovation. Locomotives that ar...

Digitalised mobility – a turning point for engineers

Digital transformation is reshaping all modes of transport, from design through to use. The objective is to create smooth traffic flows, enhance user comfort and safety, anticipate maintenance and, ul...

What are the origins of nuclear energy?

In 2018, 10.3% of the world’s electricity needs were covered by nuclear power. The International Energy Agency has forecast that nuclear energy production will increase by around 50% between now and 2...

The Hyperloop – a new era for mobility

It’s 2060. Environmental concerns and high petrol prices have gradually turned people away from carbon transport systems, and high tech has picked up the baton. Dreamed up half a century earlier...

Are engineers has-beens when they hit 60?

At 61 years old, Claude Bernard doesn’t code and social media doesn’t do much for him. But he can run a marathon in three and a half hours, has moved house 32 times in 40 years, and agreed...