Golden Buckle: History of Circum-Baikal Railway

Golden Buckle: History of Circum-Baikal Railway

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The old round Baikal railway (Circum-Baikal) which the locals call “Krugobaikalka” is one of the few unique railway lines running through the territory of our vast country.

The engineering and technical solutions alone are things to consider, as they were quite sophisticated back at the beginning of the last century, and it is still amazing how everything was built (practically by hand without using complex machinery) in such a short period of time. But what is most impressive is that this monument of human technical thought became a part of a natural monument, so the uniqueness of the Great Lake is not disrupted by human intervention, but rather emphasized by it. The beauty of nature is complemented by the beauty of an artificial object designed to blend organically into the landscape.

To understand that the Circum-Baikal railway is not just a railway line (and a dead-end line at that) that runs along the southern shore of Lake Baikal, we need to start from the beginning.


The whole project started back in the second half of the nineteenth century, when the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway was initiated. It was the construction of the century – for over a quarter of it, a railroad bed was paved between Miass and Vladivostok (from the viewpoint of historical truth, it is this part that is called the Trans-Siberian Railway), creating a rail link between the west and the east of the enormous country.

The whole trackway was divided into seven sectors for the construction, and the Circum-Baikal railway was one of those. It will be later named “the golden buckle of TSR”. There is also a more poetic version – “the golden buckle on the steel belt of Russia”, which is correct in a sense that officially, the Circum-Baikal section of the railway originates in Irkutsk, and Irkutsk is called “the midst of the Earth” – so the buckle is exactly where one would expect it to be. The section ends on the eastern shore of Lake Baikal, the Mysovaya station (now the city of Babushkin). 

Initial groundwork was prepared in 1880, when engineers had to choose a location. At first, they considered the right bank of Angara, but the river showed its temper quite a few times during ice drifting, so any plans for unavoidable pontoon bridge construction eventually fell through, and it was decided to build the branch line along the left bank. The final decision of where and how the Circum-Baikal section would be constructed was made in the summer of 1901. It was also estimated that the construction of the CBR will cost 52.5 million rubles.

However, the “buckle” was not becoming “golden” simply because of the cost. The engineering solutions were what set the CBR apart from the other railways of Russia.

The first part of the road – from Irkutsk to cape Baranchik (Port Baikal) – was constructed for 4 years, from 1896 to 1900. On today’s maps this section does not exist anymore: in 1956, the road was dismantled and flooded when the Irkutsk Reservoir was filled during the construction of the Irkutsk Hydroelectric Power Station.

In 1899, another construction started – from Mysovaya to Tanchoi, and then to Slyudyanka. This part of the road was reportedly built by convicts and exiles – the inmates of the Aleksandrovsky prison. However, many foreign workers were also involved in the construction – particularly, around six hundred Italian tunnel constructors. One of the retaining walls was named accordingly – the “Italian” wall.

It was a grandiose and extremely complicated project. Initially, it was assumed that 33 tunnels would be built in the mountains, followed by retaining walls and viaducts. The construction was carried out right on the bank of the lake, so all the materials had to be transported by water – on barges or across the winter ice.

We should also keep in mind that it was just the beginning of the 20th century, and so the majority of the work was carried out manually.

The researchers provide the following figures: each kilometer of the CBR took up a wagon of explosives and 400 wagons of earth and road metal.

When the Russian-Japanese war broke out in 1904, the constructors were ordered to accelerate. 4500 more workers were hired for the construction (in addition to the 9000 already employed). The speed increased, and so did the difficulty of construction. However, on September 13, 1904, on the 123rd km and 18th tunnel of the CBR, the rails of the Trans-Siberian Railway were finally linked. The railway was managed by Transport Minister Mikhail Khilkov, who came up with a variety of ways to increase the capacity of the railway, including adding on passing tracks. The first train ran on the Circum-Baikal section on September 18, 1904, and a year later, the Circum-Baikal railway was brought into full operation.

In five years, the constructors built 260 km of railway, 41 tunnel (total length is 9.5 km), 15 stone and 3 concrete galleries, 270 retaining walls, 470 bridges and 6 viaducts...

For example, there is a unique well-preserved concrete bridge on the 147th km in Angasolka. Only three such bridges were built in Russia: on the Circum-Baikal railway, in St. Petersburg, and on the old Tuapsinka road near Stavropol. Today, only Angasolsky Circum-Baikal bridge remained intact.

There is another interesting bridge on the 10th km – above the Beryozovaya bay. Its load-bearing structure is 116 meters in length and 19 in height. The iron construction weighing 6500 tons was rolled from the track onto the piers using winches and jacks, and the middle of the bridge was supported by five barges with pontoons. This bridge is a brother of the Railway bridge over the Yenisei river, engineered by professor Lavr Proskuryakov. In 1990, this project was awarded the Grand Prix and Gold Medal at the World Exhibition in Paris "for architectural excellence and superior execution". The Beryozovskiy bridge was later moved to the Vydrino river.

The historians estimated that there is one engineering structure for each 100 meters of the Circum-Baikal Railway.

Initially, only one track of the CBR was built. A second track was constructed between 1911 and 1914. On the section from Slyudyanka to Baikal, ten stopping points were set up which later turned into small station towns.

The revolutionary events left their mark on the Circum-Baikal Railway. The Kirkidaysky tunnel (between Slyudyanka and Mysovaya) was blown up on July 23, 1918. The mass graves of people who died fighting against the regime can still be found along the road.

In the 1930s and up until the war, station towns and infrastructural facilities were actively developed. Around that time, it was decided to reinforce the track, but due to the beginning of the Second World War, the preparatory works were completed only by 1947. The engineers came up with an unexpected solution: it was cheaper to finish the bypass road from Irkutsk to Slyudyanka through the mountains and make it a full double-track electrified railway.

In the 1950s, the construction of the Irkutsk Hydroelectric Power Station turned Port Baikal into a dead-end. But as a result, it became a tourist attraction.

Today, the Circum-Baikal Railway is a single-track railroad that runs a distance of 89 km, starting in Slyudyanka and ending in Port Baikal. Four stations are currently in operation: Kultuk, Maritui, Ulanovo, and Baikal. The railway travels through 38 well-preserved tunnels, the longest of which goes through Polovinny Cape (777 meters); crosses 238 bridges and viaducts, as well as 268 retaining walls.
In the 1980s, the road was partially deconstructed: a new track was paved and the engineering structures were reinforced.

Currently, a single train runs on the Circum-Baikal Railway, consisting of a diesel locomotive and two cars. It travels the entire distance in 4 hours and 40 minutes. The local residents and numerous tourists fondly call this train “Motanya” (the closest word would be “line rider”, meaning that it rushes back and forth).  

Occasionally, a steam locomotive comes down the railroad with its characteristic choo choo sound, old wheels clacking over points on track...

In December 1982, the section of the Circum-Baikal railway from Port Baikal to Kultuk station was declared an architectural and landscape reserve and was taken under state protection. There is a lot to see here besides the road and the immediate vicinity of Lake Baikal. The Circum-Baikal area holds many natural monuments, including rocky ribs and outcrops... And in Maritui, you can find wooden houses from the early 20th century - a real art nouveau.


On the 106th km, the base of a nuclear research institute is located. A deep underwater neutrino telescope was installed here in 1993.

In 2005, when the track celebrated its 100th anniversary, the old station building in Port Baikal was rebuilt into a museum dedicated to the history of the Circum-Baikal Railway.

Currently, the main attractions of the CBR are:

Station building in Slyudyanka built from white and pink marble.

Old Angasolka station (149th km) where the most interesting part of the CBR starts, having many engineering structures. This is also where the unique stone arched viaduct named “Angasolsky” is located.

The Shabartuy Complex (130th km) consists of an iron bridge and a double-span vaulted concrete viaduct.

The Kirkireyski Complex (123th km) – two parallel tunnels were build here: №18 and №18-bis.

Polovinnaya Station (119th km). The picturesque valley of the Polovinnaya River. The longest and the shortest tunnels of the railroad pass through this part.

The “Italian” Retaining Wall (102th km) is one of the most beautiful places on the Circum-Baikal Railway. It was named in honor of the incredible arches that resemble the Italian architecture. This structure was developed by an immigrant from Italy named Ferrari. The Bolshaya Shumikhinskaya gallery is located on the same part of the railroad. It was built to protect the road from rockfalls.

And of course, the lake itself, which you can admire both from the train and during walks along one of the oldest and most beautiful railroads of the country.
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