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Trans Siberian railway

ANALYSIS

At 2pm every other afternoon the Rossia Express leaves Moscow's Yaroslav Station for the world's most legendary train journey: the Trans-Siberian.

Stretching 10,000km, the line runs from Moscow to Vladivostock, passing through seven time zones.

When construction began, the desirability of a rail line to link Siberia and its natural wealth with the western regions of the Russian Empire had been under discussion for 30 years. But it was not until March 1891 that Alexander III issued a decree ordering the start of construction.

The route chosen followed the old carriage road, notwithstanding the legend that the Tsar simply placed a ruler on the map.

Despite the fabulous riches of the aristocracy the Russian state was far from wealthy, and raising funds for construction proved difficult.

It also meant that there had to be economies in construction of the line. Lightweight rails were used and the thickness of the ballast layer reduced from the usual 470mm to just 250mm.

Work began in July 1892 with construction split into six sections. It had been envisaged that a number of river crossings would be made by ferry, but the minister of communications lobbied for bridges, and so the plans were modified.

The difficulties of construction were immense. Apart from the terrain, labour was short in a thinly populated region and soldiers and convicts had to be drafted in. Local timber was often unsuitable and logs had to be imported from as far as 150km away. Rails were fabricated in the western regions of the empire and brought to site by rail and barge. A thousand tonnes of rail was imported from England.

By September 1894 the line ran as far as Omsk. Thirteen months later it was open as far as the River Ob which marked the boundary between the western and eastern regions of Siberia. A 782m long bridge crosses the Ob and the route continues east to Irkutsk some 80km from Lake Baikal.

Because of the difficult terrain around Baikal travellers were taken across the lake in a pair of British-built ice-breakers. In the winter of 1904 rails were laid across the ice of the lake.

Conditions for the construction of the final sections to Vladivostock were appalling. Floods in 1897 had caused landslides, and whole villages had been washed away as had timber stockpiled for bridge construction. The engineers also had to deal with permafrost, which in summer lay just 2m below the surface.

Labour and materials were desperately short. Convicts from Sakhalin Island were employed along with a large Chinese workforce. Despite these difficulties, by 1903 the line was in regular use. The completion of the line around Baikal in 1916 was the last link in the world's longest railway - finished in a world far removed from that in which construction had begun.

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