Asia has many railways, but the Trans Siberian is the only line which links eastern Asia to western Russia without a change of gauge.

Although its potential to attract freight from ships has been recognised since the end of the Soviet era, the Trans Siberian Railway (known as the Transsib) carries only a tiny proportion of all cargo from eastern Asia to Europe.

This is now likely to change as Russian Railways (RZD) implements its plan to enhance the Transsib to create a “Landbridge” and attract freight from ships.

The multi-faceted plan includes infrastructure improvements, new lines, traction and rolling stock, port improvements and improvements to customs processes. It all sounds very interesting, so The Rail Engineer was sent to Siberia to learn more.

The world’s longest railway

The 5,772 mile long Transsib, running from Moscow to Vladivostok, is the world’s longest railway.

Its construction in just 13 years, from 1891 to 1904, was a remarkable achievement which included constructing bridges across many substantial rivers and the crossing of extensive mountain ranges, all in one of the coldest and most remote environments on earth.

There was no economic rationale for the railway at the time. It was built for political reasons to hold together a vast nation and protect its eastern borders. Indeed, when opened in 1904, it was soon used to move troops for the Russo-Japanese war.

Russia lost, one reason being the lack of capacity of the original single line railway. Since then the line has been progressively doubled and electrified. Electrification of the line commenced at 3,000V DC in the 1930s, and from the 1960s at 25kV AC with the final section completed in 2002.

As a result, 24% is still electrified at 3,000V DC and there are three locations where the voltage changes.

The 2,687 mile Baikal Amur Mainline (BAM) railway branches off the Transsib to the north terminating at the Pacific port of Sovetskaya Gavan. This line was started in the 1940s but was only fully completed in 1991.

It was built as a strategic alternative to the Transsib which runs close to the border with China. It is a largely single-track railway with only the 913 mile western section electrified, and most of its route is built over permafrost.

Other significant branches off the Transsib are the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian lines. The Trans-Mongolian crosses the Gobi Desert to the Chinese border where there is a rail link to Beijing, while the Trans-Manchurian also provides a route to China.

From 1901 to 1935 it was originally part of the Transsib with China agreeing to a route through Manchuria which reduced the distance to Vladivostok by 700 miles.

The Russian Transsib route, avoiding Manchuria, opened in 1916. Japan invaded Manchuria in 1935 and promptly changed the gauge to standard.

At the Chinese border both routes still change gauge from Russian 1520mm to 1435mm standard gauge.

Some say that Russia chose its broad gauge for defensive reasons. Indeed the break of gauge caused Hitler’s troops significant logistical problems. Today, however, it is a significant barrier to cross-border freight transit.


Ermak Locomotive. Photo: David Shirres

Transsib freight today

Transsib carries frequent 71-wagon, 6,000 tonne freight trains which are over a kilometre long. It is a crucial transport link which handles 50% of Russia’s imports and exports.

Its importance is highlighted by the fact that the Trans Siberian Highway was only fully paved in 2010. Domestic freight is primarily oil, coal and timber.

In 2010 the Transsib carried 748,544 TEU (Twenty Foot Equivalent Units) of container traffic with domestic, import, export and transit traffic being respectively 66.3%, 16.8%, 14.4% and 2.4%.

Although still a low percentage, transit traffic is 78% greater than it was in 2009 as a result of RZD’s initiatives to promote the Transsib as a Landbridge.

With a freight transit time of typically 15 days between eastern Asia and Europe, about half that by ship, RZD believe that Transsib freight is an attractive option.

As an example, since 2008 Globaltrans has been running four container trains a day from the port of Vostochny on the Sea of Japan with goods from Japan, China and Korean.

TransContainer, a subsidiary of RZD, operate further regular services between China and Europe over the Transsib.

Transsib vs. Container Ships

The 21,000 TEU transit traffic on the Transsib compares with 13.5 million TEU on ships from eastern Asia to Europe. The comparison table explains why Transsib container transport costs are higher than by ship.

The Transsib Landbridge is therefore best suited for time sensitive cargos, particularly since ocean carriers introduced extra-slow steaming to reduce fuel costs.

As an example, Transcontainer’s 2010 Annual report shows that 17% of RZD’s transit cargo is auto parts for which a reduction in transit time would reduce inventory costs.

Transsib in Seven Days

In 2009 RZD adopted the “Transsib in Seven Days” project as part of their strategic plan. This will require £1 billion to be spent on track improvements by 2015, and a further £900 million invested in the BAM and Transsib to:

  • reduce choke points in the eastern part of the Trans-Siberian to e.g. additional and longer loops,
  • develop railway freight hubs on the border with Mongolia, China and North Korea to increase throughput where there is a change of gauge,
  • upgrade rail infrastructure at ports of Nakhodka and Vostochny, close to Vladivostok,
  • modernise and upgrade container terminals to international standards,
  • reconstruct the Russian section of the Trans-Manchurian railway with a new border terminal at Zabaikalsk for the change of gauge with an annual capacity of 500,000 TEU.

In addition, port capacity is being enlarged. A recently completed project increased Vladivostok’s capacity to 600,000 TEU per year.

Currently, Transsib trains travel 700 miles a day at 50 mph, taking 9 days from Vladivostok to Russia’s border with Belarus. The trains require an inspection every 450 miles, 24 locomotive crew changes and 4 locomotive changes.

One planned operational improvement is changing wagon examination methodology so that the complete train receives a thorough examination at a wagon depot prior to departure, allowing train inspections to be done every 1750 miles.

This technique was used on a test train in 2009 which travelled from Vladivostok to Moscow in just less 7 days, covering 845 miles per day.

Freight trains are generally restricted to 50 mph on the heavily trafficked Transsib.

Another objective of the 7 day Transsib project is to increase daily travel distances to 940 miles by 2014 through improved operations, track renewals and better rolling stock permitting higher speeds to 62.5 mph.

Until recently, customs clearance, even for transit cargos, could take up to 5 days. RZD has developed new IT systems to facilitate customs inspections and give their customers real time consignment tracking.

Electronic goods declarations, together with customs agreements with trading partners, have reduced clearance times to a matter of hours.


Photo: Russian Railways.

The Ermak

Between 2008 and 2015, RZD plan to purchase 7,500 new locos and modernise a further 4,000.

For Transsib and BAM in 2010/11, this includes purchasing eleven T2M7A diesels, re-engining 56 diesels and the construction of 103 Ermak 3ES5K freight locomotives by Russian train-maker Transmashholding, Russia’s largest train builder employing 57,000 and with a turnover of £1.5 billion, which entered into a co-operation agreement with Alstom in 2009.

The Ermak is a 12,300 hp locomotive made up of 3 x 25kv Bo Bo AC locomotives that operate as a single unit with no pantograph on the middle unit.

It has regenerative braking, can operate in multiple with a locomotive at the rear of the train and has microprocessor traction drive that takes account of gradient profile to minimise shock load on couplers. Cab heating provides a constant temperature of 16o C even in Siberian winter conditions.

New Lines

The construction of new rail lines creates further opportunities for Transsib freight transits. In 2008, work started to reconstruct a 40 mile rail line from Hasan, near Vladivostok, to the North Korean port of Rajin where a new container terminal is being built.

Rajin is a North Korean Economic Special Zone and is leased to China, which otherwise has no other access to the Sea of Japan. Freight trains are expected to start running on this new line at the end of 2011.

In the West, Austria, Slovakia, Ukraine and Russia have agreed to undertake a feasibility study to build a 350 mile broad gauge line from Košice in Slovakia to a new international container terminal in Vienna.

This line is expected to be completed by 2016 at a cost of €4.7 billion and will eliminate the need for transhipment at the Russian border due to the change of gauge.

In 2009, a 195 mile line between Bam in Iran and Zahedan in Pakistan was opened to provide a rail link from Europe to India.

In 2013, this will be joined to a rail link between the Persian Gulf and the Baltic Sea with the completion of a 235 mile rail line between Astara and Qazvin on west side of Caspian Sea.

The new line is the result of an agreement between Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia, and will be connected to the Transsib.

A rail project still under consideration is extending the BAM railway to Sakhalin Island with a tunnel to Japan. Even more ambitious is the idea for a rail connection to the United States through a Bering Strait tunnel.

New rail links in Russia and Alaska could offer the intriguing possibility of a future train journey from London to New York via the Transsib.

Transsib’s bright future

It is always good to see more freight carried by rail, but few in the UK would consider rail capable of capturing traffic from ocean going ships. RZD expect to do just this.

Although almost all traffic between eastern Asia and Europe is currently carried by ship, RZD’s strategy is to make the Transsib Landbridge increasingly attractive for time sensitive cargos.

Implementation of this strategy will require significant investment in infrastructure, traction and rolling stock, so it will be interesting to see if this presents any opportunities for European and UK suppliers.

This article was written following press trip to Vladivostok and Irkutsk organised by Russian Railways (RZD) whose assistance in the preparation of this article is greatly appreciated.