The history of railroads in Russia in PHOTOS

Kira Lisitskaya (Photo: Universal Images Group/ Getty Images; Public domain)
Introducing railways was a risky undertaking, but it quickly changed the country beyond recognition.

The history of railroads in Russian began in 1834, when famous engineer Franz von Gerstner arrived in St. Petersburg. The foreign engineer, who thoroughly studied this emerging type of transportation in Europe, arrived in Russia to review mining plants in the Urals.

Franz von Gerstner.

After touring the vast country, Franz von Gerstner proposed building a network of railroads in the Russian Empire. In January 1835, he submitted a note drafted for Russian Emperor Nicholas I where he outlined the potential value of railway transportation for a country like Russia.

Georg von Bothmann:

“There is no country in the world where railroads would be more profitable and even necessary than in Russia, because they make it possible to shorten large distances by increasing the speed of travel,” the note said.

Back then, the idea of building a vast network of railroad was revolutionary and, therefore, was met with a dose of skepticism by many influential people within the government. The main concern was whether the railroads will be able to withstand the harsh conditions of Russian winter when snowstorms and frosts prevail. The other concern was the high cost of constructing railways and equipping those with expensive foreign-made steam trains.

Monument To The Creators Of Russian Railways in Moscow.

Nonetheless, proponents of the railways managed to convince Nicholas I that the railroads, albeit expensive, would eventually yield profit and also help connect distant parts of the country where transportation was usually hindered by poor road conditions and bad weather in any season, but summer.

On March 21, 1836, Emperor Nicholas I signed a decree that launched the construction of the first railroad in Russia, the Tsarskoselskaya railroad that connected Tsarskoselsky Station in St. Petersburg, Tsarskoye Selo, where the Russian Imperial family resided, and Pavlovsk.

The Tsarskoselskaya railroad.

The government planned to observe how this limited railway would endure the conditions of Russian winter and make a further assessment based on the results.

One of the first railroad bridges in the Russian Empire.

The fast-paced construction of the first railroad then began. By the end of September 1836, first test rides were conducted. However, horses were used instead of steam locomotives to pull the cars during the test rides. With the initial tests proving successful, the engineers moved on.

A model of the first train of the Tsarskoye Selo Railway.

The first locomotive was ordered in Britain and delivered to Russia by early November 1836. It was brought by sea from England to Kronstadt and then transported to the final destination on horses. In Tsarskoye Selo, it was assembled and tested. The first train in Russia consisted of a steam locomotive and eight cars that differed by comfort classes.

Engineer Franz von Gerstner required steam locomotives to have 40 horsepower and be able to carry several cars with up to three hundred passengers at a speed of 40 kilometers per hour.

In order to increase the capacity of the railroad, the Russian government ruled that the rail gauge in Russia would be 1,829 mm, wider than the 1,435 mm gauge that had been adopted as the norm in England.

The first railroad in Russia was solemnly launched on November 11, 1837. “The townspeople flocked to the old Regimental Church at the Semenovsky Platz. They knew that an unusual railroad was opening and that ‘a steel horse, carrying many, many carriages at once’ would set out for the first time,” reported a newspaper article at the time.

This hallmark event marked the beginning of a new era. Soon, the Russian Empire would be changed beyond recognition by the introduction of railroads on a mass scale.

On November 1, 1851, the 645 km-long Nikolaevskaya Railroad was launched, linking St. Petersburg and Moscow. Two identical railway stations were built in the two capitals.

The railway station in St. Petersburg.

The railway station in Moscow.

The railroad boom in Russia happened in the second half of the 19th century. Russia started producing its own locomotives. Private business joined the construction of railways, investing in what was considered a risky venture only a few years earlier. Not only did the railroads prove profitable, they also boosted the economic and infrastructural development of the Russian Empire.

By 1875, more than 20 thousand km of railroads had been laid and, by the end of the 19th century, the length of Russia’s railroad network was 53,200 km. In the early 1900s, another 22,600 km were added.

Perhaps the most famous railroad in the world, the Trans–Siberian Railway connecting Western Russia and the Russian Far East, was constructed between 1891 and 1916. Even today, it remains the longest railroad in the world, boasting a length of nearly 6,000 miles (9,500 kilometers).

Soviet railroad worker. 1920-30.

In the 20th century, railroad transportation became the main way goods and passengers moved in Russia. More than 70 percent of cargo traveled via railroads in the Soviet Union. At the end of the 1980s, the operational length of the railroad network in the USSR was about 145,000 km. The network included 32 railroads and over 11,000 railway stations. 

Khabarovsk, USSR (Russia), May 1969.
An aerial view of a railway terminal in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

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