The Trans-Siberian Railway
And the Lake Baikal Branch

Harbor view with warships
Click here for a detailed map of the Manchurian route.


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Replacing the ancient horse and sleigh tracks across the vast plains of Siberia, the Trans-Siberian Railroad was constructed over a thirteen-year period beginning in 1892, at a cost of US $320,000,000. It is said the road was an inspiration of Tsar Alexander III, realized by his son, Nicholas II; but surely with the example of the American transcontinental railroad and the large railroad-building enterprises throughout the British Empire, the idea had come to many thinkers simultaneously. Like America's transcontinental railroad, it proved instrumental in nation-building and conquest. The efforts of the Russian Empire -- often depicted in contemporary cartoons as a greedy octopus -- were turned to takeover and exploitation in Manchuria during the period under study. With its branch line through Russia's occupied territory in Liaodong to Port Arthur, the Trans-Siberian line played a key rôle again: shuttling troops and equipment, naval personnel, parts and supplies from Europe to the furthest outposts of empire.

Steam train on the Trans-Siberian mainlineThe line stretches 9,289 km (5,772 mi) across the tundra and permafrost of southern Siberia, from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. It crosses two continents and seven time zones, stopping at 295 stations. Duration of a trip today, using electric and diesel locomotives, is seven days. Like most major railways in Russia, it was constructed in a 3.8m or 5-foot wide gauge, 3.5 in wider than U.S. standard gauge, originally using 24-lb rail laid on an 18" thick ballasted roadbed. The rolling stock in the early years appears to have been wood-burning locomotives with square headlamps and prominent diamond stacks: the cone of the "diamond" contained spark-arresting gear to prevent the escape of embers. The troops traveled in two-bogey boxcars, one supposes as seen in the film Dr. Zhivago, sleeping in tight-packed rows of bunks with a woodstove for heat and a bubbling samovar for fortitude. Following the extortion of a treaty from the decadent Qing dowager empress, Cu Xi, the Chinese section of the line was begun in 1896, along with strenuous efforts to drum up foreign investment to finance the venture. The construction of the line was a vast industrial undertaking in its own right, spawning feeder industries along the right-of-way: lumber mills to produce crossties; mines and foundries to supply coal and other raw materials; even a dynamite works to supply the blasting powder to reshape the landscape.

Steam locomotive driversThe line was largely completed at the opening of the Russo-Japanese War in early 1904, but one especially difficult sector was still under construction until the end of 1905: the area around Lake Baikal, whose terrain mandated a large number of tunnels, bridges, viaducts and cuts. Indeed, this section of the line, the 266-km Circum-Baikal Leg, is considered the greatest monument to Russian engineering of the time. It is still in use as a mainline, and doubles as a quite magnificent tourist route, with ever-changing views of the greatest fresh-water lake on Earth. While the Baikal Leg was under construction, trains went across the 30-mile-wide lake on a railroad car ferry, the Baikal, built in Britain for the purpose. Equipped with three tracks on deck and an icebreaker prow, the ship was brought overland in sections by rail, reassembled on the lakeshore, and launched in 1899. The Baikal operated through 1905 as the main link between the railheads on either shore. During the winter months, the ice was too thick for the Baikal's hull to penetrate; so thick indeed it would support a locomotive and railcars. Light rails were laid directly on the ice in the winters of 1901-1904; troops could march alongside or ride across. This could be chancy, as you can see below.

Steam train on the Baikal Leg, 1950sThe Trans-Siberian line formally opened as a through route from Moscow to Vladivostok in Sept. 1904. Because of its exceptional scenic and engineering interest, the Baikal Leg is featured extensively on this page. The terminus for the ferry, as for Baikal rail excursions to this day, was Irkutsk, with its vast railyard on the southwest end of the lake.

To double-track the line all the way and complete construction of alternate and feeder routes took until 1916; the line we have today is essentially that of 1916, with electrification and track upgrades added since. Steam excursions run in the touristy Baikal region through the summer. All-steam special trains run bimonthly on the main line as the "Golden Eagle Express", consisting of deluxe coaches drawn by Bichikakov IXb 4-8-4 Mountain engines. The soubriquet derives from the Trans-Siberian's original logo, a two-headed Tsarist eagle with a locomotive driving wheel substituted for the heraldic shield on its breast.

BBB's photo tour is departing below on Track No. 9¾ -- All aboard! Click on any thumbnail or the text below it for pictures from the time:  Actual photos and eyewitness illustrations of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1900-1905, and more recently.

A Note on One of our Sources

Our collection of Trans-Siberian images includes several natural-color photos by Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky, a favorite of Nicholas II, who roamed the Russian Empire from 1909 until 1916, documenting the Tsar's domains in color from a special train equipped with a state-of-the-art color darkroom, provided courtesy of the state. When the Tsar and Tsarina were in residence and the photographer was back from his wanderings, he would entertain the royal family and their inner circle with color slide shows at their palaces, dachas, and hunting lodges. Surely a photographer's dream gig!

For the historian or Russian folklorist, the Prokudin-Gorsky collection, meticulously preserved through the artist's long exile after the Revolution (he lived until 1944), provide a tantalizing glimpse into a vanished world. The photos have been invaluable to restorers refurbishing Russia's many desecrated churches and monasteries -- turned into granaries, coal bins, and stables by order of an atheist Comrade Stalin and now being recreated in a Russia ruled by a more religion-tolerant mafiocracy. In recent decades Prokudin-Gorsky's work has been recognized in the West as well, having been showcased in a large-format coffee table book, Photographs for the Tsar (1980); a Smithsonian exhibition (2001); and most recently in several compendious Web galleries. Thus, a hundred years later, the pioneering lensman's ambition of presenting the full sweep and grandeur of the Russian Empire has been realized, with all but universal access to the work. Prokudin's prodigious documentary has garnered widespread acclaim throughout the world, not merely from his rich and powerful patron. Like all of BBB's naval and political photos, the handful of Prokudin-Gorsky's photos presented here have been cleaned up and rebalanced by our resident photo ace, Ross "Radar" Radetzky. The authors of hope that our site's historic photos illuminate our field of inquiry with the same rigorous clarity that Prokudin-Gorsky brought to his long-ago subjects -- that brings them to life today for casual Web surfer and antiquity fancier alike.

Decorative band
Train crossing Lake Baikal on the ice
Train crosses Lake Baikal in winter of 1903, using tracks laid on the ice.
In March 1904 the tracks were sabotaged by Bazoku, mounted Manchurian guerrillas fighting with the Japanese.
The ice was shattered, train and coaches tumbled into the lake, drowning more than a hundred (below).
Train crossing Lake Baikal on the ice

Photos of the Trans-Baikal Division
of the Trans-Siberian Railway

Logo of the Trans Siberian Railway

First Train at Lk. Baikal, 1898

Governor General Khorvat

Chairman of the Line (CEL)

4-6-0 Locomotive
Trans-Baikal Division, c. 1910
Photo by S.M. Prokudin-Gorsky

Troops Detraining at Baikal

For Ferry Ride Across Lake

Baikal breaking the Baikal Ice

Loading the Baikal

Icebreaker Ferry Baikal

Built Northumberland, England 1898

Switchman on the Trans-
Line - by Prokudin-Gorsky

Japanese Troops Ambush Train

in Manchuria
From L'Illustration

Polish Troops
on Their
Way to the Front
Entraining West of Baikal

Old Irkutsk Souvenir Postcard

Featuring Rail Yard & Freight Station,
View of Lake Baikal

Decorative band

Siberian Stations of the Trans-Siberian Railway

Mostly built in a French Art Nouveau style, très chic in the Belle Époque.

Kazan Station

Irkutsk Station

Harbin Station

Actually a Manchurian station

Vladivostok Station

Terminus of the Line

Steam Operations at Baikal Today

Double-header steam excursions are staged for tourists. Mainline steam operates under the trade name "Golden Eagle Express."

Golden Eagle Express 4-8-4 Locomotive
at Irkutsk Station

Train on Shores
of Lake Baikal

Autumn Doubleheader Excusion
2-10-0 Decapod Locos

Baikal Branch Steamer

2004: Special edition of the Golden Eagle Express celebrates the centennial of the line's opening.

Ah, how silvery
Are the rails of Ural steel.
O main line! Main line!
-- Yevgeny Yevtushenko

The Farbergé Egg of 1900

Harbor view with warships

A Fabergé egg created for the Tsar to celebrate the imminent opening of the Trans-Siberian line, and the arrival of the new century. (Line officially opened in Sept. 1904; the Circum-Baikal Leg was not finished until the end of 1905.) As described in the PBS documentary Treasures of the World:
Etched on a belt of silver encircling the Trans-Siberian Railway egg (1900) is a map of the railway line, the stations marked in precious stones. And inside is a little train just one foot long.

"It's made out of gold and platinum, and its headlights are diamonds, and its rear lights are rubies, and the coaches are individually labeled for gentlemen, for smoking, for ladies. There was a restaurant car, and at the end there was the traveling church, which was appended to the Imperial train. It winds up, and I've tried it myself," says author Géza von Habsburg. "The mechanism is a bit rusty, and it moves slowly but it's like a[n] ... old dinky toy."

Relevant Webpages and Sites

Romanov Double Eagle