History of the St. Petersburg to Moscow Railway
What was to become the world’s largest railway network system, able to circle the globe twice, began in the imagination of a teenager on holiday in England. The future Tsar Nicolas I marveled at the power of the locomotive. He was so excited by it, he even helped shovel the coal into the furnace himself during a visit.
Located at the epicenter of the Three Station Square stands a golden statue. It is not in the likeness of Nikolai, but of the engineer he sent to America to discover how to build this future railway. Pavel Petrovich Melnikov’s image is in a square Russians call Komsomolskaya. Three railways, Kazansky, Yaroslavsky and Leningradsky, converge on what some train enthusiasts call the center of their world. Let’s find out what all the excitement is about.
What was once ridiculed as a “toy” or an “amusement” of the Tsar, since the first rail line linked the empirial capital of St Petersburg with the Tsar’s summer palace in Tsarskoye Selo, is called the Tsarskoselskii Railway. The building of this so-called “toy” provided the impetus to spark real rail innovation. Since it was hard to transport cargo on ships through frozen Russian waters coupled with the fact that the British had already achieved success with the locomotive, it was reasonable to look at the rails as a real solution. When German businessman Franz Gerstner approached the tsar with the idea of building a railway between St Petersburg and Moscow, and then to Nizhny Novgorod, he had a receptive audience with the royal train lover. Intrigued by the idea, Nikolai agreed to set up a commission to study the future project.
The members of the commission weren’t thrilled with Gerstner's plan, since he demanded an exclusive deal to be the sole builder of Russian trains for the next 20 years. They didn’t trust his motives, so they reduced the plan to build only 27 kilometers of the line to Tsarskoye Selo instead of Moscow. This line opened in 1837.
After the tsar sent Melnikov, an enterprising Russian engineer, to America to study progress in the field, the commission revisited the topic of expanding the line. Upon his return, the engineer drew up a plan where he envisioned trains travelling from St Petersburg to Moscow at a staggering 37 km/h and at a cost of 43 million roubles. After seeing the project’s price tag, the commission denied his request. Still fearing the dangers of this new industry, the members preferred to lay tracks for old fashioned horsepower rather than for steam engines. Being the sovereign, the emperor discarded the commission’s recommendation and in 1842, put his stamp of approval on the expansion of the line.
It took less than a decade and frankly the cost of many lives to build just 644 kilometers of railway in the harsh Russian environs. In the autumn of 1851, Nicolai and his royal court personally went to observe the train lines. A combination of harsh winters and limited experience of track building, these workers hadn’t resolved all the line’s issues. Soldiers manned the railway for safety reasons during the royal visit. Workers deployed gimmicks such as sharply-dressed workers and beautiful gardens displayed to hide from the sovereign the line’s failures. In time, train fever caught on and the emperor endorsed the St. Petersburg to Moscow train line.
The Tracks Lain
The journey wasn’t over even after the railway project was completed. The first rail passengers suffered hellish conditions onboard. For a ride that lasted some 22 long hours, there was no food, heat or toilets provided. There were 12 hour pauses in service when the trains broke down. Passengers were wise to seek shelter in the nearest town, instead of getting sick remaining on a very cold train. Eventually, the train service improved and by the turn of the century, the trek was reduced to just 13 hours. It was only 8 hours by 1913! St Petersburg’s Varshavsky Railway Station Museum holds the original series C steam locomotive. Its horsepower reached a historic 100 km/h in its day.
The Ride Continues
Train fans today can still experience history as they ride the Red Arrow train overnight between St. Petersburg and Moscow. When the line was founded in 1931, its coaches had a blue livery because they were actually first-class tsarist railcars. The Soviets later added a new and improved class to the line and called it SV. The only time line stopped service was during the Second World War. At this time, Leningrad (modern-day St Petersburg) suffered a military blockade, fortunately without lasting damage to the railway. Trains have been entering and leaving St Petersburg’s Moskovsky Railway Station almost uninterruptedly for the last 170 years. Enthusiasts from the world over can still share in the tsar’s love for trains.