The construction of Russia's railways began towards the end of the XVIII century, when the first timber tracks were laid at ironworks and mines. The first cast iron tracks, the Zmeinogorskaya Railway, were laid in the Altai in 1808-10 by the mine foreman P. K. Frolov. At a factory owned by the Demidov noble and merchant family in Nizhny Tagil, the father and son team E.A. and M. E. Cherepanov completed the construction of the first Russian steam locomotive in 1834. The engine was capable of hauling a load of 3.3 tons and reach a speed of 15 versts an hour (nearly 10 mph) along a specially built track.
The construction of the Tsarskoe Selo Railway marked the beginning of Russia's railway network. At 12:30 on 30 October 1837, the first public train left Saint Petersburg for Tsarskoye Selo, a disance of 25 versts or 26.3 km.
A number of artificial structures were built on the Tsarskoye Selo Railway, including bridges, of which the longest, which spanned the Obvodny Canal , was 25.6 metres. Seven locomotives and crews for various trains were purchased abroad: closed coaches with 40 seats, open chaises, waggonettes with soft seats and coaches ("Berlins"). In 1838, the St. Petersburg Institute of Technology built the "Provorny" (Agile) railway locomotive for the Tsarskoye Selo Railway.
Tsarskoye Selo Railway carried 2.5 million passengers from 1837 to 1841 and in that period earned a net income of 360,000 roubles for the Treasury.
The Tsarskoye Selo Railway was significant because the experience gained during its construction and operation proved in practice that rail transport could operate smoothly in Russia's climatic conditions in all seasons. The commercial operation of the railway also demonstrated the profitability and feasibility of the new mode of transport. This first experience in organising rail transportation in Russia thus lent a major impetus to the widespread development of railways in the country.
In the 1820s and 1830s, an immediate solution was demanded regarding connections between St. Petersburg and Russia's central regions by means of reliable railway lines. On 1 February 1842, Nicholas I signed a decree on the construction of the first Russian main line railway between St. Petersburg - Moscow.
Construction work began in summer 1843. The line was built on sound engineering principles to ensure ensured both economic feasibility and sufficient capacity to meet future needs. At the insistence of P. P. Melnikov, the track gauge was set at 5 feet or 1524mm, which has become the standard gauge for all Russian railways.
Russian engineers selected broad gauge track from the very beginning of railway construction in the country. On the Petersburg - Moscow line, rails manufactured at the Lyudinovo plant were laid. Subsequently, this track profile spread to all railways in the world.
The first rails were generally made of cast iron. However, it was found that steel rails were subject to less wear and could be made more evenly than cast iron, which was soon discarded for use on railways. The rail profile has changed little over the past 140 years, although its weight has increased from 20-24 per metre to 75-77 kg, and even during the construction of the St. Petersburg - Moscow line, the sleepers were impregnated under pressure. On most of the early railways, unimpregnated railway sleepers were laid, but their timber wore out after 8-12 years.
Bologoe Station, Nikolaevsky Railway
The basis for the traction management and operation of locomotives on Russia's railways were laid in 1851 when Nikolaev Railway (now October Railways) began serving the public.
The line from St. Petersburg to Moscow was divided into eight traction sections (traction shoulders). The length of each section was based on the distance between the "big locomotive stops," which were later renamed "main" or "root" depots. Freight and passenger locomotives were sent to the depots for repairs and maintenance.
In between the "big locomotive stops" were placed "small stops", where back-up locomotives were kept in the event that passing trains broke down.
The first traction shoulders for freight traffic were approximately 80 km long and passenger shoulders about 160 km. As the railways underwent further development, the length of the traction shoulders was increased. By the early 1880s, they had increased to 120 km or more for freight locomotives and on some lines had even reached 260 km.
On 1 November 1851, the St. Petersburg-Moscow railway line was officially opened. Locomotives built at the Alexander factory in St. Petersburg hauled the trains and could cover the 650 kilometres between St. Petersburg and Moscow in just 12 hours. The amount of traffic grew rapidly: as early as 1852, the railway carried 719,000 passengers and 164,000 tons of freight.
The Alexander factory in St. Petersburg also built Russia's first domestic passenger carriages during 1850-54.
Serial production of the first freight cars in Russia began in 1846. They were built with four axles on two twin-axle bogies. However, due to the fact that the frame and body of the first wagons were made of wood, they had a low loading capacity. Only in 1965 were twin-axle wagons withdrawn from the USSR's railways.
By 1860, Russia's railway network consisted of about 1,590 km of track. After the land reform of 1861 and the abolition of serfdom, the economy underwent various changes which contributed to the development of the financial and administrative arrangements that became the basis for a new railway policy. In particular, a "Railway Fund" was established which was formally separate from the state budget and which facilitated railway construction.
Periods of more intense construction occurred at the end of the 1860s and early 1970s, when on average more than 1,500 km were built ever year, and again during the 1890s, when over 2,500 km were laid annually. By 1875, more than 20,000 km had been laid, while by the end of the 19th century the total length of Russia's railway network had increased to 53,200 km. During the early 1900s, another 22,600 km were built.