Development of modern imperial Russia and of the Soviet Union depended almost entirely upon its railroad system. In a modern industrial society, where great distances separate resources from markets, transportation is extremely important. Compared with the problems faced in road construction and in river transportation, railroad construction problems were relatively slight. There were shortages of ballast stone for track beds and trees for railroad ties on the steppes. Still, these problems, as well as moving sands in central Asia and permafrost in Siberia, failed to hinder the development of an integrated railroad system. The first public railroad was constructed in 1837.
It ran from St. Petersburg to the Imperial Palace (14 miles; 23 kilometers). Major railroad lines followed. They connected St. Petersburg to Moscow in 1851 and to Warsaw in 1861. Lines connected Moscow to Saratov in 1870, to Warsaw in 1871, and to the Crimea in 1875. By 1892, western imperial Russia enjoyed a functioning network of interconnected railroad lines. The tsar next decided that Siberia should be connected to Moscow. Construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad began in 1892. By 1899, the railroad had reached Lake Baikal in southern Siberia. An all-Russian route to Vladivostok was not completed until 1916, but more railroad lines were constructed during the first Five-Year Plan. By 1939, the Trans-Siberian and many other existing lines had double tracks.
After World War II, railroad equipment improved considerably. Diesel and electric railroad engines were added. Major railroad routes were electrified. In 1960, railroads hauled more than 75 percent of Soviet freight. Almost 75 percent of passenger service was by rail. Despite the dominant role of railroads in the Soviet economic system, the rail network was not dense. Areas were unequally served. Very little railroad construction has taken place since the completion of the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) in 1984.
Railroads are critical to Russia's current struggle for economic recovery. No other modern nation depends as heavily upon railroads to move goods and people as does Russia. Distances from production centers to consumers are enormous. Distances from mineral deposits and energy fields to international markets are equally large. The Russian rail system needs a complete upgrading, but many problems continue to reduce the efficiency of railroad transportation.However, understanding the strategic importance of the country's network, the national railway companies recently began an ambitious program of reconstruction. Foreign investors are willing to invest in modernization of established routes, Moscow to St. Petersburg in particular. Various Western companies are also in the process of financing the creation of new routes for transportation of people and goods. In 2005, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development brought additional credibility to the future of Russian railways by providing millions of dollars in investments. By 2020, Russia is expected to have a well-developed network of modern railroads. Much of the development will be in European parts of the country, but there also will be links to China and its booming economy.