The Shiny Irons from (Baltic) Sea to Shining Sea (of Japan)

The Shiny Irons from (Baltic) Sea to Shining Sea (of Japan)

In the early to mid-19th Century, the Russian Empire began to expand into Siberia. Already a nominally Russian territory from Tsarist expansion in the 17th and 18th Centuries, the Industrial Revolution brought a new interest in the wealth of natural resources in this vast expanse of land. Two issues became clear immediately, the resource base was extremely enticing, and getting to the resources was very hard – getting them out was impossible. As we who ride the Shiny Irons have known for two centuries, where there’s a will, we have a way. By 1858, the Empire had a port city on its western shores. Vladivostok is on the Sea of Japan, and anything in the Siberian interior could be shipped from there. Clearly, a railroad across the Eurasian mainland was called for. In 1880, the design process was initiated, and almost immediately, construction began. Stretching the Irons across a country which today spans 9 time zones was an undertaking of mammoth proportions and so was divided into seven separate sections. Each of these was under construction simultaneously. In the spring of 1897, the rail link to the village of Novosibirsk was completed. A 2.83 kilometer cantilever bridge across the mighty Ob River announced the beginning of a new level of engineering challenge… construction of the Trans-Baikal Railway had begun.

The intrepid Russian railroader attempting to build from Moscow (more properly from St. Petersburg) to Vladivostok will hug the southern border as much as possible, as it gets pretty cold as you go north onto the Siberian tundra. Lay enough rails along this course and you’ll find yourself in the city of Irkutsk, on the Angara River. Just past Irkutsk, you will come to a large (very large… really, very large) rift lake. In this huge granite bowl is 1/5 of all the fresh water on earth. This is the “Eye of Siberia”, Lake Baikal. Even the accomplished builders of the Tsar’s team could not bridge this troubled water. At 1400 meters depth, Lake Baikal defies bridge pilings, and the lake is over 50 kilometers across at the outlet of the Angara.

Lake Baikal/Angara River mouth at Irkutsk

After the completion of the railroad to from Novosibirsk to Irkutsk, the problem of crossing the lake was solved in an age-old fashion. A pair of ships were purchased from the U.K., taken apart nut by bolt and re-assembled on the lake. Each was large enough to carry several rail cars which were pushed onto the decks of the ships on the Angara River at Irkutsk, carried to the other side of the lake and pushed back onto the rail line! The geology south of the Angara river outlet on the lake is a huge granite escarpment cut by numerous eroded valleys. The engineering of the rail line at Lake Baikal was, at the time, the epitome of “I’ve got some bad news and… some more bad news.” As noted, bridging the lake is simply not possible, and the two steamers were not a good long-term solution. Going around the lake to the north is daunting, as the lake is 400 miles long, while going around the south requires laying the track on the side of a granite cliff. It was decided that the last was the best of several bad choices, and construction of the Circum-Baikal Rail Line began with surveying in 1894. The first of leg was built from Irkutsk to the lake at Port Baikal. The first leg was the easy one. Next, the railway turned west to follow the north shore of the lake. As noted, this is basically a granite cliff rising from the lake shore, eroded into a series of granite saw-tooth hills. The 84 kilometers of Gritty Irons running from Port Baikal to Kultuk, on the western tip of the lake…

… comprises 424 different engineered features, including 39 tunnels (total length under tunnel is 8.994 kilometers), 200 bridges, and 14 kilometers of supporting walls both under the tracks and beside the tracks. Remember, all this roadbed engineering is in a stretch of track a little over 50 miles long!

The Circum-Baikal section of railroad is called the “Golden Buckle” of the Transcontinental Railroad. “Buckle” because it connects the Far Eastern Railroad to the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and “Golden” because the cost to build the 84 kilometers was more than the cost of all other railroads in Russia at the time, combined!!! Upon completion of the Circum-Baikal line in 1905, the railroad turned east along the southern shore of the lake to the port city of Mysovaya where the ships carrying the rail cars docked. Then, it was “eastward, ‘Ho!’, on to China”!! Excuse me, did I say “China”?? The original route of the transcontinental railroad took it through a sizable chunk of what is now China. The reason has to do with some tortured cartography in the region. Once the Irons made it to the east side of Lake Baikal, it would seem to be a straight shot to Vladivostok. Unfortunately, China is in the way. Two provinces in northeastern China, Hulunbuir and Heilongjiang form a Texas-sized barrier to anyone building a railroad to Vladivostok. The late 19th and early 20th Century was a time of great turmoil in this area, and political intrigue combined with military force resulted in Russian control of much of Manchuria. This allowed the railroad to push from Chita to Harbin in Manchuria (China), and on to Vladivostok. The Trans-Baikal leg of the railroad made possible a journey from St Petersburg on the Baltic Sea all the way across the continent to Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan without leaving the Shiny Irons. Not coincidentally, this opened what was at the time the largest untapped resource base in the world for exploitation. Mineral wealth in abundance was there, wildlife, common and exotic, timber and other building materials, coal and later oil and gas, a treasury which made Russia a player on the economic front as well as on the geographic and military scene. The railroad had a few small details to tidy up, but one major hurdle remained… that section of track across Manchuria was not viable, either politically or militarily, in the long run.

By 1966, noted Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa had tired of the domestic film industry and hankered for new scenery. Relocation to Hollywood promised new adventures. His first film in the new decor was to be shot in English, and set on the Shiny Irons. “Runaway Train” concerned a couple of convicts on the skip from an Alaskan prison with an out-of-control train providing the adrenaline. The film, however, ended up being canceled. That flick would eventually be made by a different director, and Kurosawa’s first non-Japanese endeavor would be filmed in Russian. “Dersu Uzula” was made in the Russian Far East, in very much the same location as the story takes place. Based on the memoirs of a Russian Army surveyor, Vladimir Arsenyev, the story takes place in the very early 20th century in the sub-arctic forest north of Vladivostok. Russians had arrived in this part of the Empire carrying the rails which would form the rail line around Manchuria.

The author of the memoir had been a captain and head of a survey party of Russian Army troops charting the area for the railroad engineers. This is the land of Siberian Tigers, so a small band of soldiers needed to be careful, their rifles notwithstanding. Either they’re well led, or the tiger’s well fed. The Irons were to be laid following the path of the Ussuri River from Khabarovsk to Vladivosk on the coast, and in addition to the surveying of the future road bed, Tsar Nicholas II wished to have a look-see at the rest of the area. In the course of their work, Arsenyev’s band was joined by a Goldi tribesman named Dersu Uzula. A hunter by trade, Dersu knew the area well and offered to guide the Russians in exchange for a prize beyond price; a stash of cartridges for his rifle. In addition to being a really good story, Dersu Uzula gives a glimpse into the trials faced by the survey crews, engineers and construction crews tasked with building a railroad through the Siberian wilderness in the early 20th century. Instead of running southeast into China, the new rail line ran north from Chita to Skovorodino, then east to Belogorsk and finally to Khabarovsk on the Ussuri and south into Dersu’s homeland. Running from the eastern shore of the Empire across farm and field, mountain and steppe, over the river and through the woods, and finally to the western shore, the railroad would seem to be complete…? Not quite.

The climate history of Earth is punctuated with “ice ages”, times when the average temperature drops and much more sea water becomes locked up in frozen glaciers. During these times, the Bering Strait disappears, exposing a land bridge between Alaska and Siberia. Having tackled the continent, having overcome the Manchurian problem, having subdued the Trans-Baikal, those intrepid engineers of the Russian transcontinental railroad (well, their great-grandkids, anyway…) now turn their attentions to recreating this land bridge. In 2007, reports surfaced of Russian government approval of $65billion to build a road/rail tunnel under the Bering Strait. This example of extreme engineering would link Siberia to Alaska. Details are sketchy, though as late as 2011, conversation about the project was still being overheard. No specific route for the tunnel has been determined, but the shortest distance would take it from Naukan on the very eastern tip of Siberia across the Strait to Wales, Alaska. This is a straight-line distance of about 60 kilometers, however, intrepid tunnel travelers could come up for air at the Diomede Islands, half-way across. In addition to the tunnel, the route would require about 3500 miles of Icy Irons on the Russian side and about 2/3 as much on the U.S. side to link to existing rail lines. This, across terrain that would challenge the engineers in many new and exciting ways. At this time, the InterBering project seems to be only a discussion point, however we have rode the Shiny Irons through very many landscapes which were considered impassible only a few decades ago. If completed, this rail link would allow the hardy to travel from London to New York the other direction, a train ride almost 3/4 of the way around the world!!

That’ll keep the rails shiny!! Thank you for joining us!!


Old Town Learns New Tricks… Modern Manufacturing in a Medieval Municipality
In the mid-2000s, a group of Russian investors set in motion a plan to build modern freight cars for the Russian rail industry. The plan included the refurbishment of an old tractor manufacturing facility on the southern outskirts of Tikhvin, Leningrad Oblast, Russia. Tikhvin, a city of about 60,000, is a very old cultural center about 200 kilometers east of St. Petersburg. The town was home to a Soviet-era heavy machinery factory known as Transmash. In the heyday of the Soviet industry, as many as 20,000 people were employed by the plant, but post-soviet economic problems reduced the workforce to less than 1000 by 2005. The ICT Group acquired the plant in 2001 and set to task building a world-class rail car production facility. At the time, the Russian rail industry rode on cars from the Soviet era, and most were tired and ready for replacement. New designs of four types of freight car were contracted from Starfire Engineering beginning in 2007, and designs were finalized and manufacturing documentation delivered by 2009. In January, 2012, the Tikhvin Freight Car Building Plant was launched, and the first of a new generation of freight cars was shipped that year.

In addition to the design of modern products, the investors ponied up the funds to build a state-of-the-art factory:


Equipment was purchased from industry leading manufacturers all over the world, and a facility and infrastructure was built to take full advantage of the capabilities. The result is a factory capable of output of 10,000 – 13,000 freight cars per year in addition to annual capacity for metal castings of 70,000 – 90,000 metric tons! The impact on the city of Tikhvin

Housing available for workers (

has been astounding, with the creation of thousands of jobs for highly skilled workers in a town which had been suffering from severe economic depression.


Play a Train Song

Antique balladeer John Fogerty sings about the Shiny Irons… “Southern Streamline”

From his 1997 album “Blue Moon Swamp”

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