on track

In ancient Egypt, India and the Ottoman Empire, rutways were built to facilitate transportation. They looked rather primitive − stones laid out in the form of parallel deep grooves. Many centuries later rails, by that timewooden, descended into mines, and they were replaced by cast iron plates with ruts. The history of railways is the history of the development of humankind, and, as in any good story, it has its fair share of antagonists.

№ 8 (September) 2018

Evident progress

The first prototypes of iron railways appeared in 1767 in England. R. Reynolds realised that if you cover the lateral beams with concave cast-iron strips, then the rolling surfaces will become firmer. Just a few years later, his fellow countryman J. Curr added rims to the design to keep the wheels on track. For durability it was decided to lay rails on sleepers made of stone, and later the blocks were replaced by wooden beams.

The rapid technological boom of the 18th century and the increasing importance of mining and metallurgical production pushed Russia to develop railways. Petrozavodsk engineer A.S. Yartsev was the first to optimise the process of moving heavy loads from workshop to workshop. This took place in 1788 at the Alexander cannon factory − it was here that the first castiron track appeared.

Almost 20 years later, engineer P.K. Frolov presented to the mining department a railway project in which a horse pulls a cart. The idea was proposed to be realised at the Altai silver smelting plant. The calculations were simple: every year 1,078 people were required to transport raw materials from the mine to the plant (a distance of 3 km), while according to his design, only a couple of horses and a couple of people would be needed. Moreover, the delivery time of the annual cargo volume would be reduced by half. The figures pleasantly surprised the department, and in the same year, the project was approved.

It was decided to make the track gauge 1067 mm, and the rails themselves 1.35 m long and 76 mm and 64 mm thick. The thicker ones were stacked on mounds, and the thin ones had grooves. If we represent the upper part of the rails in cross section, then it is an ellipse, created specifically for the concavity of the wheel. Such "curvatures" contributed to full fixation and smooth movement. In 1809 the workers finished the railway. Its length was 1,867 m. The surface had a difficult terrain, so in some places the maximum gradient reached 15%. Implementation of the project cost 13,700 rubles – that is, 7,600 rubles per 1 km of the railway, which was one-fifth of the cost of the English railways of that period.

Interestingly, the Russian engineer also came up with a way to optimise the loading and unloading of ore. Frolov located the beginning of the railway in the lowland under four bunkers, the volume of each bunker was equal to the volume of the hopper cars. They were called cabriolets. Boxes of 110 pounds were delivered to the bunkers. Their bottom opened mechanically, dropping the ore simultaneously into three or four cabriolets fastened together with iron rings and pulled by horses. The project did not last long, and after a while, the management of the plant stopped using such a method of moving cargo.

Russia’s first railroad along which a motor vehicle traveled was constructed in 1834 in Nizhny Tagil. The locomotive, like the railroad itself, was the result of the work of the Cherepanov family. For this idea and its implementation, the father and son received emancipation certificates. The locomotive was launched near Mount Vysokaya on an area between the mine and the smelting plant especially for industrial purposes.

Rails 2.13 m in length were laid on the railroad, which was 854 m long, with a 1645-mm gauge. The rails had a cross section in the shape of a mushroom and were terribly heavy: 1 meter weighed 30.6 kg.

Yefim CherepanovYefim Cherepanov

Miron CherepanovMiron Cherepanov

Confrontation of the century

By that time, the first sections of the railways appeared in England and the United States. Those engineers who saw them with their own eyes argued with ardor that the railways were also very necessary for Russia. They were opposed by a number of officials – transportation chief K.W. Toll, State Property Minister – Count Kiselev, Finance Minister E.F. Kankrin, War Minister − Count Chernyshev, Minister of the Imperial Court − Prince Volkonsky, Chairman of the State – Council Prince Vasilchikov, Minister of Internal Affairs L.A. Perovsky, Head of the Commission for Projects and Estimates of the Ministry of Railways M.G. Destrem, and others.

Let us quote the words of Minister of Finance E.F. Kankrin, who could not even entertain the idea of creating a network of railways in Russia, and the construction of just one line he considered to be an event that was far ahead of the time, capable of ruining the state: "Steam traction can in no circumstances be allowed on the railways, because due to the absence of coal in Russia, it will result in the destruction of forests. For the transportation of troops, railways are also considered unsatisfactory, since they must have a huge number of carts (wagons), which in ordinary times are not at all necessary. The duty-free import of cast iron and rails will entail the withdrawal of capital from the state, and, finally, the expropriation of lands under the roadbed and various structures will require enormous expenditures."

The transport operators’ guild opposed the innovations as well. Fragments of foreign press articles were spread by word of mouth. ‘‘Railways prevent cows from grazing, chickens stop carrying eggs, smoke-poisoned air will kill flying birds... houses near the railroad will burn... in the event of an explosion the locomotives will be torn to pieces along with all the passengers," wrote British newspapers. An indisputable argument was also put forward by a German medical company: ‘‘The speed of the movement must undoubtedly develop brain disease in the travelers... the audience... at the sight of a fastrunning locomotive can get the same brain disease."

All this was discussed for several years, and finally in the summer of 1826, the railway department first analysed this issue at its meeting. The result was rejection due to lack of economic benefits and the inevitable difficulties of maintenance in the winter.

The advert of railway transportation, the UK, 1857

The advert of railway transportation, the UK, 1857

"Railways prevent cows from grazing, chickens stop carrying eggs, smokepoisoned air will kill flying birds..," wrote British newspapers

A "modest" proposal

Five years later, in spite of the tabloid reports in newspapers about the dangers and inexpediency of railways, in England and the United States their mass construction began. Nicholas I (the Russian Emperor) was always interested in the development of neighboring countries. As early as 1813, when he was a prince, he saw a wondrous train on the Middleton coal line: the locomotive pulled 27 wagons at a speed of 5 km/h along cast iron rails. The spectacle so impressed the future emperor that he carefully followed this mode of transport, but did not undertake any significant attempts to develop it.

The main lobbyists for railways at that time were ministers and engineers of the mining department, who understood the profitability of investments for the industry. Therefore, in August 1834, knowing the interest of the sovereign, they invited famous Franz Anton Ritter von Gerstner, an Austrian engineer, professor of the Vienna Polytechnic Institute, to visit St. Petersburg. Nicholas I was genuinely interested in an expert foreign appraisal. So Gerstner went to explore Russia through Moscow to the Urals.

"...There is no such country in the world where railroads would be more beneficial and even necessary than in Russia, as they make it possible to cut long distances by increasing the speed of movement," he wrote to the emperor. He also included a request to give him a 20-year monopoly on the construction of railways on a joint-stock basis with transfer of the lines he would build into perpetual possession. In addition, he asked for the state privileges necessary to start construction.

The mining department found this request "very modest" and realised that they were being taken for savages who could not think. Despite the growing dissatisfaction with him in the higher circles, the Austrian made a proposal to the emperor for construction of a short section in the form of an experiment to look at the benefits of the railway and show by example the reliability of operation in winter.

Three months later Nicholas I, despite the discontent of the nobility, gave the resolution to the Austrian, but without a date. Thus historians are left without a date from which to count the birth of railways in Russia.

On the railroad from St. Petersburg to Tsarskoye Selo and Pavlovsk, 2,000 tons of iron rails were used. The maximum gradient was 2%, and the only curve was a radius of 448 m. The roadbed itself was located on a mound with a height of 3.7 m and a width of 5.3 m. These parameters, according to the Austrian engineer, could save it from snow drifts. The width of the gauge was 1829 mm.

The train speed could reach 60 km/h, and the estimated passenger traffic was 300,000 people a year. But here the Austrian miscalculated: in the first year of its launch more than 600,000 passengers traveled on the railroad. This was due to the convenience of this form of transport and the comfortable hotels specially opened at the stations of Tsarskoye Selo and Pavlovsk with entertainment in them. At that time, the word "vokzal" appeared in the Russian language as the designation of the final point, concerts were held there too, and at one of the stations even a racetrack was built.

Franz Anton Ritter von Gerstner was awarded state privileges, but considered that his merits were underestimated and went to seek happiness in America, where two years later he died.

Monument to Franz Anton Ritter von Gerstner at Vitebsk Rail Station in St. Petersburg

Monument to Franz Anton Ritter von Gerstner at Vitebsk Rail Station in St. Petersburg

To the neighbors for ideas

Even in spite of the success of the first passenger railway, some departments were still cautious about it. To overcome these fears, Lieutenant Colonel P.P. Melnikov and Captain S.V. Kerbedz were sent to Europe. In their reports to the Minister of Railways − Count Toll, they reported on the prospects and benefits of such railroads. However, Toll still remained in doubt about the idea and insisted on the alternative development of navigation along the rivers and seas of Russia. Only after an annual trip to America Lieutenant Colonel P.P. Melnikov and Colonel N.O. Kraft succeed in presenting the right arguments in favour of a railway connecting St. Petersburg and Moscow.

All through 1841, discussions were held about the feasibility of construction, and finally, in January of the following year, an affirmative decision was adopted at a special meeting. In addition, following the example of Belgium, the money was allocated by the state treasury, and as the main builders P.P. Melnikov and N.O. Kraft were appointed. Each was in charge of his own segment. Melnikov oversaw St. Petersburg – Bologoye, and Kraft was responsible for Bologoye – Moscow.

The first sleepers were laid in the summer of 1843. The railbed was laid for two simultaneously. American technology was used to speed the process. At a width of 1524 mm, the gauge was narrower than that of the Tsarskoye Selo Railway. For all subsequent railroads, the width of 1524 mm became the standard.

There are two explanations for the choice of this dimension. The first is that American engineers suggested 1524 mm to Melnikov and Kraft, and indeed such a gauge existed in the southern part of the United States. Another theory is that in calculations it is easier to use round numbers, that is, in this case, 5 feet (60 inches). In addition, Russian engineers were sure that the width of the thiner European did not provide for rapid movement of vehicles.

On 1 November 1851, on the railroad which four years later would be called Nikolaev, the first train from St. Petersburg to Moscow set off. In the next half-century, Russia, like the rest of the world, actively built steel railways.

The Tsarskoye Selo Railway, 1837

The Tsarskoye Selo Railway, 1837

Historians still can not find the engineer’s calculations that would explain the sizes of track gauges

Gauges are not all created equal

In Russia, the standard gauge width was established during the laying of the sleepers of the Nikolaev Railway. In the rest of the world, engineers were guided by their own calculations, and since the railways were mostly built by different investors, the track width was different everywhere. For example, it was common practice to use narrow gauge tracks in difficult areas with complex terrain or when laying railroads along towns and villages – wherever there were obstacles that could not be overcome by pickaxes or explosives.

A wide track at that time was considered an attribute of tranquility and reliability. However, a turning point for unification into one network of railroads was when the Europeans realised that a single standard was needed, since different gauges create enormous inconveniences in the transportation of goods and the changing of trains.

Therefore, the most common gauge in Europe – 4 feet 8.5 inches (1435 mm) – was chosen as the main standard. Such a standard is still used by most countries, including European ones. This width was chosen by George Stephenson in 1830 to launch his locomotive on the Liverpool – Manchester section. Historians still can not find the engineer’s calculations that would explain these figures, but legend has it that this width was observed between the axel part of the wheels of English carriages, the spare parts of which were used to construct the first steam engines.

The Russian standard is 1520 mm, or more precisely, 1524 mm. The difference is so small that train wheels do not need to be changed. This is exactly what happened in 1970. The USSR, the CIS countries and Mongolia began to use a width of 1520 mm.

Freight transportation on the Liverpool - Manchester rail sector in the 1830’s, the UK

Freight transportation on the Liverpool - Manchester rail sector in the 1830’s, the UK

Varvara Fufaeva