Monday, January 25, 2016

Nicholas I and Russia's First Railroads

Nicholas IRussia is a huge country sometimes resistant of change, even new technologies, like railroad, had numerous skeptics until the Tsar himself approved its construction. Explore how Tsar Nicholas I oversaw the construction of Russia’s first railroads.

Railroads revolutionized transportation and communication. It speed up the flow of goods and services. And in case of Russia, railroads proved to be useful in managing such a vast territory. And Russia’s Tsar Nicholas intended to use this new technology for the benefit of his empire.

Russia’s Territory

At the dawn of the 1800’s, Russia was the largest Empire in the world. Its territories ran from Poland in Europe to Alaska in the Americas and from the Arctic in the North down to the Caucasus and the deserts of Central Asia in the south. But to rule over this vast empire proved to be a difficult task for every Tsar. The power of the Tsar over all Russia was only theoretical as most of his laws were not carried out in the most far flung areas of the Empire. As a result, many localities exercised great autonomy. But then one man, Tsar Nicholas I wanted to centralized and consolidate power. And he planned to succeed by improving connectivity with railroads.

Tsar Nicholas I

Tsar Nicholas I (July 6, 1796 – March 2, 1855 New Style) was the man behind the construction of Russia’s first major railroads. Born on July 6, 1796, he was the third son of Tsar Paul I. In the line of succession, he was third behind his older brothers Alexander and Constantine. Nonetheless, he received good education worthy of a prince. Unlike his brother Alexander, he did not developed great interest in humanities, but rather he loved military affairs and engineering.

He also travelled widely. In 1816, he visited various localities across the empire and notice the state of local administration and the lack of control by the central government. In the following year, he visited England during the time of its Industrial Revolution. As he visits the center of industrialization, he saw the newest technology that Britain developed, including railroad technology. This new development fascinated him and he never forget it.

In 1825, Alexander suddenly passed away leaving the throne to his brother, Constantine. But Constantine renounced his claim and ultimately giving it to Nicholas. As a Tsar, Nicholas ruled as an autocrat and a great reactionary, stumping down against dissent and opposition. Although he crashed any calls for social and political changes, he was open to new scientific and technological advancements.

Railroads in Russia

Railroads had already been used in Russia even before Nicholas I’s reign. In 1806, Peter Frovlov laid down a railroad line in the mines in the Urals. But the lines laid down differed from the traditional railroad system. Instead of humans, it mostly hauled ores. Instead of steam powered locomotives, horses pulled the railroad carts. Nevertheless, interest in the railroads grew over the decades.

In the late 1810’s and early 1820’s, an institute of transportation engineering began to study the principles of a railroad. In 1833, Miron Cheripanov along with his sons, build Russia’s first steam locomotive. However, it gained little attention and never largely manufactured. In 1835, the feasibility of railroads for Russia was made in the Russian language with the publication of the Information of Russian Iron Roads written by Pavel Melnikov, a member of Corps of Transportation of Engineers.

What truly convinced the Tsar to authorize the construction of a railroad line for passenger use was brought by an Austrian engineer named Franz Anton von Gerstner.

Franz Anton von Gerstner

Von Gerstner proposed to the Tsar the construction of Russia’s first railroad as a means of transportation. Franz von Gerstner arrived in Russia in August of 1834. In the following year he proposed to the Tsarist government the creation of a railroad line that would connect St. Petersburg, Moscow, and the southern cities in the Black Sea like Odessa or Taganrog.

He, however, requested huge concessions for the project, such as a 20-year monopoly in the line’s operation. Tax exemption that would last for 50 years. His audacity, the project’s huge cost and the pessimism of Russian officials led to the rejection of the plan. However, Tsar Nicholas did not want to waste von Gerstner’s efforts. Instead of a line between St. Petersburg and Moscow, Nicholas wanted von Gerstner to build a line that connected St. Petersburg and his vacation residence outside the capital in Tsarkoye Selo. It meant to impress and show other officials first the usefulness and the advancement that railroads can offer.

Tsarkoye Selo-St. Petersburg Line

The line between Tsarkoye Selo and St. Petersburg took about a year and a half before completion. The project began on December 21, 1835 with Nicholas giving generous concessions for the project – tax free importation of supplies and approval to acquire lands needed for the project with proper compensation to the owners. Besides the Tsar and the state, other wealthy Russians helped to finance the project, men such as Count Alexsei Bobrinsky, who later became the minister for transport of Russia.

The St. Petersburg-Tsarkoye Selo lined opened on October 30, 1837 to the great fanfare and curiosity of many Russians. The line was 16 miles long and its carts travelled with a speed of 30 miles per hour reaching the end point within 28 minutes. In 1838, the line was extended to Pavlosk, a favorite resort town for the residences of St. Petersburg, adding additional 16 miles of track. The line boasted 6 locomotives, 44 passenger coaches and 19 freight cars. Initially, horses pulled the cars along with locomotives. But with the arrival of more powerful locomotives, the horses disappeared.

The project, however, proved to be very costly and went extremely over budget. Von Grestner initially proposed that the line would cost 3.5 million rubles. But to the surprise of the finance minister, it cost around 5 million rubles, almost double of the projected cost. Nevertheless, it did not deter many from taking a ride of the railroad. Besides the Tsar, many affluent Russians who for the first time traveled by train felt ecstatic and flocked the line. Many even thought of it as a luxury and very classy. Between 1838 and 1839, the St. Petersburg-Pavlosk Line catered around 720,000 passengers.

St. Petersburg-Moscow Line

With the completion of St. Petersburg to Pavlosk line, Nicholas envisioned far with railroads. He saw it as a means to connect the far flung territories of Russia and the capital. By connecting the corners of the empire, a centralized government would function effectively. Not to mention, a railroad line would signal Russia’s progress like other European countries. Railroads could stimulate industrial growth, which could be translated to military power that Nicholas loved so much. And so in the 1840’s he approved the construction of the St. Petersburg-Moscow Railroad Line even to the displeasure of his minister who saw it as a huge expense.

The St. Petersburg-Moscow Line was an engineering feat at its opening. Its construction began in 1842 and lasted until 1851. At the end of the construction, it was the longest railroad line in the world during that time with a length of 400 miles in an almost straight line. A story even said that Nicholas drew the line in the map with a ruler. Nicholas became so much tied to the project that when it opened, it became known as the Nicholas Railroad Line. The line reduced travel between the two major cities from 2 to 3 days down to 20 hours. It boasted beautiful stations designed by a renowned Russian architect of his time - Konstantin Thon. But more than the stations and its direction, the railroad also had something peculiar that made it different from other railroads in Europe.

The gauge or width between the rails of the St. Petersburg-Moscow Line differed from the rest of Europe. The standard gauge or Stephenson gauge in Europe was around 4.85 inches. But in Russia, it was 5 inches, a 0.15 inch difference. It was said that Nicholas ordered the difference in order to prevent invading forces to use Russian railroads with their cars. But others said a more economic reason. The wider width of railroads allowed wider carts, which meant bigger haul for wider crates. Which in turn, meant more profits.

Passenger Condition

In terms of being a railroad passenger, however, it was difficult. In order to ride a train meant like travelling in another country, filled with bureaucratic red tape. Nicholas wanted to control the flow of people, because it meant spreading of ideas – like liberty - that he wanted to resist. And so, he mandated passengers to get internal passports in order to travel by rail across the country. This way, travel by rail was not allowed for people known for their subversive views. Local police clearance was also required for a traveler. Henceforth, travel in Russia got faster, but it remained to be difficult and for limited few only.

After the St. Petersburg-Moscow Line

After the opening of the Nicholas Line, new line projects were planned but put on hold. The Crimean War broke out. Russia fought the industrialized countries Great Britain and France. Russia could have fought better if it had placed railroads in vital parts of its territories earlier. But its development of railroad and its expansion came later after the war had ended badly for Russia in 1856. A year before the peace, Tsar Nicholas I who authorized Russia’s first railroads passed away due to pneumonia.

Summing Up

Russia’s first railroad marked Russia’s progress. From the St. Petersburg-Pavlosk and Moscow-St. Petersburg Line, Russia constructed more railroads that facilitated easier travel and commerce. Eventually, Russia’s achievement in the railroad industry became visible when the Trans-Siberian Railway, which traversed the whole of Russia, was completed in 1916 under another Nicholas – Tsar Nicholas II. This unbelievable feat began with a simple experimental line in St. Petersburg and the approval of Tsar Nicholas I.

Explore also:



Von Gerstner, Franz Anton Ritter. Early American Railroads. Stanford, Califronia: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Reichman, Henry. Railwaymen and Revolution: Russia, 1905. Los Angeles, University of Calironia Press, 1987.

Wolmar, Christian. The Iron Road: The Illustrated History of Railway. New York, New York: DK Publishing, 2014.


Williams, W. Mattieu. "Papers on Iron and Steel." The Railroad Gazette. (73 Broadway, New York), October 1, 1870.


Aprelenko, Maria. Prominent Russians: Nicholas I. Russiapedia (Get to Know Russia Better). Accessed November 30, 2015.

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