Text Sophie Ibbotson Photos Annie Ling
Orient Express has the literary cache, and India’s Palace on Wheels has the opulence, but the greatest train journey on Earth is without doubt the Trans- Siberian Railway. For more than 100 years, locomotives – first steam trains, then diesel and electric engines – have run the 9,289 kilometres between Moscow and Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan. The world’s longest railway crosses seven time zones and the journey takes at least a week to complete.
Those yet to travel through Siberia might think of the route as bleak, but as one fortunate to have ridden the rails the full length of the line, I know it to be a place of stark natural beauty and unexpected geographical diversity. Looking back on the TransSiberian’s first century, its construction required vision, determination, and a gamble that technology would catch up fast enough to enable the project’s completion. It is one of the world’s great masterpieces of engineering, a tribute to the men and women who conceived, designed, and built it.
The Origins of the TRANS-SIBERIAN
The history of railways in Russia dates back to 1837, just eight years after George Stephenson invented his Rocket. The first line linked Saint Petersburg and the imperial palace at Tsarskoye Selo, 16 kilometres away. Though it was seen as a something of a toy, it was quickly followed by lines from Saint Petersburg to Moscow, Warsaw and, on a more challenging scale, the Trans-caspian Railway, linking Russia with its newly gained territories in Central Asia.
In 1860, the Treaty of Beijing granted Russia land in the Far East, including what would become Vladivostok. The Russians were acutely aware, however, that they had no means of defending this territory should the Chinese decide to repossess it. The Great Highway only reached as far as Nerchinsk and was, in any case, impassable for at least five months of the year. Few of the rivers were navigable, even in summertime. A railway was the obvious solution. above The Khilok Station in Chita Oblast
Looking back on the TransSiberian’s first century, its construction required vision, determination, and a gamble that technology would catch up fast enough