In the late 19th century, the development of Siberia was hampered by poor transport links within the region as well as between Siberia and the rest of the country. Aside from the Great Siberian Route, good roads suitable for wheeled transport were few and far between. For about five months of the year, rivers were the main means of transport; during the cold half of the year, cargo and passengers travelled by horse-drawn sleds over the winter roads, many of which were the same rivers, now ice-covered.
The first steamboat on the River Ob, Nikita Myasnikov’s Osnova, was launched in 1844; but the early beginnings were difficult, and it was not until 1857 that steamboat shipping started developing on the Ob system in a serious way. Steamboats started operating on the Yenisei in 1863, on the Lena and Amur in the 1870s.
Snow in the end of April, Nazivaevskaya (Называевская) station, Siberia.
While the comparative flatness of Western Siberia was at least fairly well served by the gigantic Ob–Irtysh–Tobol–Chulym river system, the mighty rivers of Eastern Siberia—the Yenisei, the upper course of the Angara River (the Angara below Bratsk was not easily navigable because of the rapids), and the Lena—were mostly navigable only in the north-south direction. An attempt to partially remedy the situation by building the Ob-Yenisei Canal was not particularly successful. Only a railway could be a real solution to the region’s transport problems.
The first railway projects in Siberia emerged after the completion of the Moscow-Saint Petersburg Railway in 1851. One of the first was the Irkutsk–Chita project, proposed by the American entrepreneur Perry Collins and supported by Transport Minister Constantine Possiet with a view toward connecting Moscow to the Amur River, and consequently, to the Pacific Ocean. Siberia’s governor, Nikolay Muravyov-Amursky, was anxious to advance the colonisation of the Russian Far East, but his plans could not materialise as long as the colonists had to import grain and other food from China and Korea. It was on Muravyov’s initiative that surveys for a railway in the Khabarovsk region were conducted.
Before 1880, the central government had virtually ignored these projects, because of the weakness of Siberian enterprises, a clumsy bureaucracy, and fear of financial risk. Financial minister Count Yegor Kankrin wrote:
“The idea of covering Russia with a railway network not just exceeds any possibility, but even building the railway from Petersburg to Kazan must be found untimely by several centuries”.
By 1880, there were a large number of rejected and upcoming applications for permission to construct railways to connect Siberia with the Pacific, but not eastern Russia. This worried the government and made connecting Siberia with central Russia a pressing concern. The design process lasted 10 years. Along with the route actually constructed, alternative projects were proposed:
Southern route: via Kazakhstan, Barnaul, Abakan and Mongolia.
Northern route: via Tyumen, Tobolsk, Tomsk, Yeniseysk and the modern Baikal Amur Mainline or even through Yakutsk.
Railwaymen fought against suggestions to save funds, for example, by installing ferryboats instead of bridges over the rivers until traffic increased. The designers insisted and secured the decision to construct an uninterrupted railway.
Unlike the rejected private projects that intended to connect the existing cities demanding transport, the Trans-Siberian did not have such a priority. Thus, to save money and avoid clashes with land owners, it was decided to lay the railway outside the existing cities. Tomsk was the largest city, and the most unfortunate, because the swampy banks of the Ob River near it were considered inappropriate for a bridge. The railway was laid 70 km to the south (instead crossing the Ob at Novonikolaevsk, later renamed Novosibirsk); just a blind branch line connected with Tomsk, depriving the city of the prospective transit railway traffic and trade.
The railway was instantly filled to its capacity with local traffic, mostly wheat. Together with low speed and low possible weights of trains, it upset the promised role as a transit route between Europe and East Asia. During the Russo-Japanese War, the military traffic to the east almost disrupted the flow of civil freight.