The Beginnings of Railways in Russia

by Kevin Fink

History 155 - Russia to 1917

Prof. Davis

December 1991

Due in large part to Russia's large land area and harsh conditions, transportation has always been a major problem for its people and government. In early times, waterways provided the majority of transportation for goods and passengers. Some roads were also built, but they were only usable at certain times of the year due to the weather, and were not good even then. Railroads, although experiencing a slow start, proved to be more efficient for transportation than either waterways or roads.

Prior to the reign of Nicholas I, very little consideration had been given to railroads in Russia. A few mines and factories in the Urals used tramways to move ore or products but they used horses or men to pull the carts over short distances. Several proposals were made to build railways, but none were accepted until the Austrian engineer Franz Anton von Gerstner pushed through his proposal to build the St. Petersburg-Tsarskoe Selo Railway in 1836. This inaugurated the start of railways in Russia, and set the pattern for subsequent government attitudes about and policies on railway development.

The early history of Russia was dominated by the river system. The rivers provided the fastest and most reliable means of transportation throughout the summer months, when roads were impassibly muddy. The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were the golden age of river transport in Russia. Extensive canal systems were built, starting as early as 1709 with the Upper Volga waterway system. Peter the Great built the Vyshnii Volochek System to unite Moscow with St. Petersburg and give the interior the advantage of the access to the Baltic Sea. Paul I started the Mariinskii and Tikhvinskii Systems to further link St. Petersburg to the interior. These were finished in 1810 and 1811, respectively, under Alexander I.

Although these systems were a great improvement to transportation, the movement of goods was still slow and uncertain. The trip from Rybinsk to St. Petersburg took 3 months via the Vyshnii Volochek System, 2 months via the Mariinskii, and 1 month via the Tikhvinskii. Although much faster, the Tikhvinskii route was narrow and treacherous, so that only small barges could travel.

A big disadvantage of the river systems was that they could only be used when the rivers were not frozen. In southern Russia, the rivers froze from three to four months per year. In northern Russia, they froze from six to seven months per year. In addition, some of the routes, especially those around Moscow, were too shallow in the summer months for barges. These systems were thus only usable from four to six months per year. Traffic which didn't reach its destination in time would either spoil or have to be stockpiled until the next season. The complete voyage from Astrakhan and the Lower Volga to St. Petersburg often took two years to complete.

The road system of the time was even worse. Those few roads that existed were too muddy to use much of the year, and often had broken bridges blocking them. Most roads were made with sand on top of dirt. These became swampy in wet weather and the sand formed drifts many feet high in dry, windy weather.

The first real roads were started by Alexander I, who in 1817 started construction of the St. Petersburg-Moscow Chaussee, the country's first hard- surface road. This was finished in 1834, allowing travel from Moscow to St. Petersburg in only 10 days. However, this road was only suitable for expensive, nonbulky goods, since all traffic was in small carts which could carry less than 1000 pounds each. "As V.P. Gur'ev remarked, it was very inefficient to have 3 million carters going on trips in winter lasting sometimes as much as seventy days, each carter having a sledge carrying only 25 poods" (Haywood, 1969, p. 37).

In 1833, Nicholas I formed a committee to study long-range plans for roads. "By a law of March 24, 1833, a general plan for building a network of major roads was promulgated. All the roads of the empire were to be divided into five classes and improved gradually be the central, provincial, and local authorities as funds and labor became available" (Haywood, 1969, p. 24). However, due to a lack of funds, engineers, and labor, nothing much happened.

Despite the great problems with transportation, railways were not embraced by Russian leaders immediately. In fact, many members of the nobility raised vehement objections to the government's support of railways. Prominent among these were Count Kankrin, the Minister of Finance, and Count K. F. Toll, the Director of Ways and Communications. "Kankrin was an economist who considered that the welfare of the people would not benefit from the diversion into railway-building of capital which could be used to improve agriculture" (Westwood, 1964, p. 23). Toll's reasons weren't explicated, but probably involved the influence of one of his subordinates, Destrem, who was an ardent supporter of improved canal systems.

The first railways in Russia were built by and for the mining and metallurgical industries. The first was an ore-carrying tramway built from 1763 to 1765 by K. D. Frolov at the Zmeinogorsk mine of the Kolyvano-Voskresenskie factories in the Altai. The next was a factory tramway built by A. S. Yartsev, head of the Olonets factories in Petrozavodsk in 1788, with the help of Scottish engineer Charles Gascoyne. The tramway was 500 feet long and carried cannon and other products from one part of the factory to the other.

P. K. Frolov, son of K. D. Frolov, was trained in the Institute of Mining (Gornyi Kadetskii Korpus) and in 1793 entered the service of the Kolyvano- Voskresenskie factories. In March of 1806 he proposed two plans for improving transportation between the Zmeinogorsk Mine and the factories nearby. One involved a canal, the other a railway. Both plans were approved, and Frolov chose the railway, which was finished in 1810. It ran 6000 feet over very rugged terrain. This required extensive constructions to allow a level track. The railway only operated during the summer, but was a tremendous improvement over the old system. "One horse could pull three wagons loaded with 500 poods of ore each, doing the work which twenty-five horses had done" (Haywood, 1969, p. 48). The railway paid itself off in 15 years.

The first two steam railway locomotives built in Russia were made by E. A. Cherepanov and his son M. E. Cherepanov, both of whom were serf mechanics at the Demidov factories in the Urals at Nizhnii Tagil in Perm Province. They had previously built steam engines for pumping water in the mines, and M. E. Cherepanov was sent to England to learn more about "road steam engines" (sukhoputnye parokhody). Between 1833 and 1835 he and his father built two, one for use in the factory and the other to be sent to St. Petersburg. In 1836 Cherepanov finished a railway from the Vyskii Factory to the Mednyi Mine, a distance of about two miles. This was the first steam railway in Russia.

Although the Cherepanov's locomotives worked and were proven successful in actual use, later railways used locomotives built outside of Russia. Not until 1857, when the "Maximilian" joined the St. Petersburg - Tsarskoye Selo Railway, did a Russian-built locomotive find use outside of a factory. This was due, at least in part, to the Demidov factory administration's disinterest in new inventions not directly profitable to them, and thus their keeping of the Cherepanovs busy with other, more immediate, duties.

In the early 1830's, the Russian government had little conception of how important the railways would be in the 1860's. They had not yet adopted a role or attitude towards railroad construction. Railroads seemed just another innovation in transportation, posing many of the same questions as earlier introductions such as steamboats and diligences. It was assumed at the outset that private companies should take the financial risk involved in the new enterprise. As with the steamboat and diligences, the government intended to wait until it was clear that the enterprise would be profitable. However, it soon became clear that the high start-up costs necessitated government assistance. The government attempted to meet this need by offering to cede land, give extended freedom from taxation, and grant exemptions from import duties on iron.

The main problem in deciding whether to allow the building of railways was always financial, not political. The fear of political and social upheavals was raised by the press and occasionally by some officials, but the Tsar and most of his high officials did not consider that a problem. Nicholas I thought that the introduction of technological innovations from abroad would strengthen the existing order, not weaken it. Because of the scarcity of capital and the large amount required for railway construction, the success or failure of these ventures would have a large effect on the Russian state. Thus the tsar and his paternalistic government were much more cautious about economic effects of railways than other countries.

On January 6, 1835, an Austrian engineer by the name of Franz Anton von Gerstner sent a letter to Nicholas I proposing to provide Russia with an extensive railway system. "This was the first concrete proposal ever made to provide Russia with such a system" (Haywood, 1969, p. 74). Von Gestner gave his qualifications as the engineer of the first public railway on the European continent (the Danube-Moldavia line) and cited the advantages which railway construction had brought to other countries, including England, France, Germany, and America. He cited the Liverpool-Manchester Railway, which had helped British trade as well as providing a fast and inexpensive transport system for travelers. He also mentioned the help which it had provided in troop movements to quell disorders in Ireland, a point well-taken by Nicholas I.

In order to forestall possible arguments, von Gestner gave the examples of American railways and the Linz-Budweis Railway to show that they could operate under severe winter weather conditions. He also stated that no other country could benefit from railways as much as Russia, due to its geography. The relatively flat terrain made railways easy to build and the large distances needed to be crossed made them efficient to operate.

Although his proposal spoke of a "whole system (set') of railways," it gave concrete proposals for a railway between St. Petersburg and Moscow, with eventual extensions to Nizhnii Novgorod or Kazan. It also spoke of an experimental line to prove the concept. This line, from St. Petersburg to Tsarskoe Selo. This line, once built, was the first public railway in Russia.

Von Gestner requested extensive concessions for his work, including a twenty- year monopoly on railway-building in Russia, the creation of a stock company which would be ceded land for inns on a strip a mile wide bordering the lines, and land for factories four miles wide. These lands, along with everything built on them, would be exempt from taxation for fifty years. These concessions were negotiated down through a committee appointed by Nicholas I.

The proposal was next submitted to a more distinguished council, composed of some members of Nicholas' state council, the ministers of war, finance, and the interior, and the minister of the imperial court and appanages, along with Nicholas himself as the chairman. The committee only met once, on Feb 28, 1835. It considered two questions; the usefulness of railways in general and whether or not to accept von Gerstner's proposal. The first was easily decided. Opposition to railways had not yet formed, and most of those present agreed that they were useful. The second question was not so easily addressed.

The council was worried about the financial feasibility of von Gerstner's proposal. In response, "Nicholas I ... laid down a principle which was to continue to determine the attitude of the Russian government toward private railway ventures. He stated that such a gigantic undertaking as railway construction, affecting the whole empire and bound up with the general interest of the state, went far beyond the interests of the private investor. Therefore the state should not allow any railway venture without being assured in advance that it would be profitable and would not ruin the stockholders" (Haywood, 1969, p. 83). This statement was to guide the government's position on the railway question until the authorization of the St. Peterburg-Moscow Railway in January of 1842.

The meeting closed with the appointment of a special committee composed of four members: Count Toll (chair), Count Speransky, Count Novosil'tsev, and Baron Korf. They were to conduct further negotiations with von Gerstner and investigate his claims more fully. Count Toll was to send one of his officers to inspect the Linz-Budweis Railway and Count Kankrin was to send agents to inspect the benefits to trade and commerce in Austria. During the next year, the committee focussed more and more on the question of a railway from St. Petersburg to Tsarskoe Selo, rather than the original goal of St. Petersburg to Moscow. Also during this time opposition grew stronger, as Count Toll and Count Kankrin became more opposed to railways.

In the meantime, von Gerstner submitted a plan to form a stock company and attempted to raise capital to do so. However, he was unable to raise sufficient capital for the St. Petersburg to Moscow line, and had to abandon that in favor of the shorter line to Tsarskoe Selo. Von Gerstner was able to raise sufficient capital for this line, mostly through a few large investors including Count A. A. Bobrinskii (an enlightened landowner interested in science and technology), Benedict Kramer (director of the Russian American Company), and Johann Plitt (consul of the Free City of Frankfurt am Main).

The proposed route for the railway started in a large square near the center of St. Petersburg near the junction of the Fontanka and Vedenskii canals. It traveled along the Vedenskii Canal at street level to the Obvodnyi Canal, which would be crossed by a substantial bridge. Then a short curve (the only one on the entire route) would lead to a straight, fairly flat line to the Apollon Church in Pavlovsk Park.

On March 21, 1836 the plan was approved, and von Gerstner began construction immediately. He had promised that it would be completed by October 1, 1836. Much of the heavy equipment needed had to be bought abroad, and that would delay the finish, but the initial construction of earthworks and bridges was started immediately. Also, the remainder of the stock of the company had to be sold. This was accomplished easily, with the majority of stockholders of the noble class, but many of the new merchant class. Although a minority in number, foreign stockholders held large blocks of stock, nearly 50 per cent of the capital.

A week after the authorization, von Gerstner left for Europe to place orders for locomotives, cars, rails, and other miscellaneous equipment. He also hired foreign engineers to oversee the work. He chose the best manufacturers and insisted on high quality despite added cost. He also increased the number of locomotives and other rolling stock he ordered, in the hopes that they could be used on other railways he hoped would be built soon. Although he advertised for both rails and undercarriages to be made in Russia, no manufacturers were set up to build the quantities he needed in the short time frame he allowed, and so von Gerstner was forced to buy it all from foreign manufacturers.

Work on the earthworks, bridges, and buildings necessary was well underway when von Gerstner returned. The acquisition and clearing of the land went easily, due to the majority being state or appanage land with no buildings. The forest on either side was cleared to 420 feet out, the swampy areas were drained, and embankments were built. These averaged 9 to 10 feet high, but ran up to 20 feet in some areas. These were built to facilitate snow removal and keep a uniform, gradual grade. Work began quickly, but slowed due to rain in July and August. The large bridge over the Obvodnyi Canal went up slowly, but the other 34 bridges were erected quickly and easily.

Stations at St. Petersburg, Moscow Chaussee, Tsarskoe Selo, and Pavlovsk were built, along with offices and living quarters for supervisory personnel and sheds and repair shops for locomotives and carriages were built. Barracks were built along the line every mile or so for snow removal workers. The stations were luxuriously appointed in order to induce the public to ride and respect the railway.

The equipment from foreign manufacturers was delivered starting in July and continuing on until the winter freeze stopped transportation. By the end of 1836, five miles of track were completed and several small sections were started. The track was solidly constructed with the heaviest rails and chairs available. The christs were treated with tar to preserve them and special measures were taken to ensure that the tracks would not be disturbed by winter freezes and thaws. Everything was done to the highest possible quality.

Although none of the locomotives had arrived by the October 1 deadline, von Gerstner demonstrated the line on Sunday, September 27. Horses were used to pull two trains of two carriages each along the two completed miles. Trials were also made on the two following Sundays with great success. By November, several locomotives had been delivered and were ready to be tested. On November 3, 1836, one of the locomotives pulled five carriages filled with onlookers and the royal family up and down the completed sections of the line. Several more runs were made so that other spectators could ride. Similar trials were made until the end of January, when they were suspended for the winter.

The formal opening of the Tsarskoe Selo Railway took place on October 30, 1837. Members of the State Council, the Committee of Ministers, and many other high officials, along with representatives from the Russian business and academic worlds and a crowd of curious onlookers attended. After the formal opening, service between St. Petersburg and Tsarskoe Selo was instituted. Some of this used horse power for economy, but after April 4, 1838, steam power was used exclusively. This is the date, then, on which full operation of the Tsarskoe Selo Railway began.

Following the success of the Tsarskoe Selo Railway, others were planned and built. The next major project was the St. Petersburg to Moscow line, completed in 1851. From 1866 to 1899 the length of the rail network increased from 5000 km to 53,200 km. In 1891 Tsar Nicholas inaugurated the construction of the Trans- Siberian Railway, the longest continuous railway on the earth. By 1916 Russia had an uninterrupted line from the Urals to Vladivostok.

Railways made possible the industrial growth of Russia in the pre-Revolution era. They permitted fast transport of heavy goods throughout the year. This was not possible with the previous methods of small carts on roads and barges in the water systems. Although Russian nationals started factory railways and built locomotives previous to 1835, the real start of railways in Russia depended on foreigners. Franz Anton von Gerstner from Austria built the first public railway in 1836, from St. Petersburg to Tsarskoe Selo. This inaugurated the age of the railroad in Russia.


Haywood, Richard Mowbray. (1969). The beginnings of railway development in Russia in the reign of Nicholas I, 1835-1842. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Mackenzie, David, and Curran, Michael W. (1977). A History of Russia and the Soviet Union. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Tupper, Harmon. (1965). To the Great Ocean: Siberia and the Trans-Siberian Railway. Boston: Little, Brown & Company.

Westwood, J. N. (1964). A History of Russian Railways. London: George Allen and Unwin LTD.

Kevin Fink's Home Page (