Europe and its Russian gauge tracks

30/06/2022 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling and freelance copywriter – Suscribe my blog
(Version en français)
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The troubled 150-year history of the eastern side of Europe, including Finland and the Baltic States, is the reason why we find 1,520mm Russian gauge track in this vast area. But in Poland and Slovakia there are still some Russian gauge lines. Let’s take a trip to Eastern Europe to see what it’s like.

From the Russian Empire to the USSR

The capital Warsaw had its first railway connections as early as 1845 with the Warsaw-Vienna line. In the following years, several other lines were put into operation in the « Russian » Poland of the time: Warsaw-St. Petersburg in 1862; Warsaw-Moscow in 1867 via Terespol; Peripheral Railway (Kolej Obwodowa), in 1876, linking the Warsaw-Vienna and Warsaw-Terespol lines and in 1877, the Mława-Warsaw-Lublin-Kovel line. Characteristic of these railway developments: all of them were built with 1,524mm wide gauge, the gauge adopted by the Russian Empire.

These railway lines provided connections between two great Empires: the Russian Empire and the Habsburg Empire.

From the First World War onwards, the German railways took over almost 3,000 kilometres of broad gauge and converted it to the standard 1,435mm gauge. They also replaced the wooden sleepers with concrete sleepers because the German trains were heavier. In 1944, when they withdrew, the Nazi armies used a Schwellenpflug to destroy the railway infrastructure and make it inoperable to the Russians. Photos can be seen at this link.

The back of the Russians troops in January 1945 in Poland has allowed to save the Upper Silesian railway network and part of the Lower Silesian lines from destruction, converted to 1.435mm. Thus, despite the new Soviet yoke, the tracks were not converted any more, but rebuilt to UIC 1.435mm standard.

On the Baltic side
Railway construction in Finland started relatively late, in 1862, in what was then a very poor country. As Finland was an autonomous Grand Duchy under Russian rule, the country adopted the Empire’s gauge, but with the dimension of 1,524 mm instead of Russia’s 1,524 mm, which had no technical consequences. The railway link from Helsinki to St. Petersburg via Riihimäki and Vyborg was opened in 1870.

Finland, an independent country since 1917, kept after the two world wars a network entirely built with the 1.524mm gauge, which is the standard today. This is ultimately only a problem with the border with Sweden, which is very far from Helsinki.

This explains why today the connections between Finland and Europe are mainly maritime.

The three Baltic States have had much the same history as Poland. They were also part of the Russian Empire in the 19th century. Railway developments started with the construction of the Warsaw-St. Petersburg line, which crossed all three countries. The gauge adopted was logically that of Russia, 1.520mm. The part between Vilnius and Warsaw was rebuilt to the UIC standard gauge in the 1920s when this area belonged to Poland. 

Historically, however, all three Baltic States have had conversions to UIC 1.435mm gauge in their turbulent history, as well as an extensive 750mm narrow gauge network.

The incorporation of the three Baltic States into the Soviet Union in 1940 put an end to this diversity and the Baltic railways became part of the USSR railway network. Railway operations were reorganised according to USSR procedures and the tracks were converted to the official Russian width of 1,524mm on a large scale. While German troops occupied the three Baltic States in 1941, some railway sections were again converted to the standard European gauge of 1,435 mm. At the end of the Second World War, the Baltic railway workers switched back to the Russian gauge of 1.524 mm.

Nothing was changed since then, even after the fall of the Wall in 1989 and the regained independence of the three Baltic States. This is why rail transit is now a major handicap between the three Baltic States and Poland.

After 1945

Although Eastern Europe was once again under the yoke of the Soviet bloc, there was no longer a plan to convert the rail network to the Russian 1.524mm gauge. The Baltic States already had it and the other Warsaw Pact countries kept the 1.435mm gauge. Finland, spared by the Red Army, also kept its gauge at 1.524mm. In the 1960s, the Russian gauge was further reduced to 1.520mm for reasons of tolerances and rolling stability, but there is still some debates today as to the precise origin of this decision, which had no impact on the bogies of the rolling stock. The 1,520mm gauge is the official gauge to this day in Russia, while Finland made no such change.

In order to move from these countries to the USSR without changing trains, bogie changing workshops were installed at certain border points (in red on the map). These workshops are for changing bogies and not for changing axle gauges like the Talgo system. These workshops have tracks with both 1,520mm and 1,435mm gauges. The cars are lifted one by one and their bogies are exchanged. These workshops have dozens of UIC and Russian bogies in reserve to exchange between different trains. The whole operation can take about two hours. One detail: the passengers remain on board the cars and contemplate the spectacle…

The covered workshop in Brest, a border town in Belarus, gives access to Poland via Terespol. This workshop is located on the main Warsaw-Minsk-Moscow axis:

Chop is a border station in Ukraine, giving access to both Slovakia (Kosice) and Hungary (Zahony). This bogie replacement workshop is done outdoors:

Extract from doc7austin’s DreamlinerCentral video

The same kind of outside area bogies exchange can be found in Ungheni, on the border of present-day Moldavia with Romania.

Ungheni, a border town in Moldova, with this Chisinau-Bucharest train whose bogies are changed to enter the Romanian network with 1.435mm… (photo Simiprof via wikipedia)

So far, six European countries have a 1,520mm wide gauge railway network: Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Moldova and Ukraine. If you want to classify today’s Belarus as a « European country », that’s up to you…

Russian gauge tracks into the 1.435mm network

What is most interesting are those broad gauge lines that are still in operation or have been planned in Europe, in countries where the 1.435mm gauge prevails.

A broad gauge track for steel industry in Poland
It is a great unknown, a great project carried out during the time of the Polish People’s Republic. It is a 394 km long non-electrified broad gauge line, originally called the Hrubieszów-Huta-Katowice line. Built in 1976-1979, it runs from the border station of Hrubieszów (close to Ukraine), to the station of Sławków Południowy in the middle of Silesia. This project dates back to the great era of Soviet industrialisation, when large quantities of ore were to be imported from the Krzywy site in Ukraine to the huge Huta Katowice complex in Poland. On the return journey, the train carried out sulphur mined near Staszów and coal mined in Silesia.

In the years 1990-2000, long-distance passenger trains from Russia and Ukraine ran sporadically on this route. Passenger platforms were even built at some stations. In 2001, the line was acquired by PKP LHS. Transfer terminals are located at the end of the line and along the route. Currently, they are used for unloading all kinds of goods imported into Poland from Ukraine and could be considered as a link of the Chinese Silk Roads. Today, this « Russian » track means that Ukraine is well connected by a « wide » railway to the centre of Poland.

Near Kozłów, this container train from Ukraine. You can’t really see it, but it runs on the « Russian » 1.520mm track alongside the Polish 1.435mm network (photo Paul Smith via flickr – See his photo galerry))

Another Polish broad gauge track
After the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1944, Lviv became a permanent part of the Soviet Union, and in 1944-46 there was an exchange of population between Poland and Soviet Ukraine. Poland lost a significant part of its historical territory. The reason why we are talking about this city is that Lviv is connected to the Polish territory by a 1,520 mm wide gauge line that reaches the Polish station of Przemyśl. This Polish city is now the terminus for trains from all over Poland… and also from Ukraine!

Until now little known to Europeans, the splendid Przemyśl station has become the obligatory meeting place for all the prime ministers and presidents of Europe, in order to reach Kiev by luxury train, following the closure of Ukraine’s airspace due to the Russian invasion. These illustrious travellers therefore travel on a broad-gauge line on the Polish territory.

One of the South Korean Hyundai Rotem trainsets at Przemyśl station, a Polish town near the Ukrainian border, here in 2019. You can see that this is the 1,520mm wide gauge (photo Maksim Kozlenko via wikipedia)

Two ‘Russian’ lines in Slovakia
The major industrial programmes of the Soviet era also brought the 1.520mm gauge to the east of what was then Czechoslovakia, now Slovakia.

The Uzhhorod-Haniska freight line, also known as the broad gauge line (or ŠRT), is an 87km 1,520mm gauge line connecting the Ukrainian railway network to the Haniska ironworks south of Košice. The line has been used exclusively for freight transport since 1966 and a complete electrification to 3kV has taken place. The vast majority of trains on the line are operated by two-part electric locomotives of the 125.8 series of the operator ZSCS.

The second ŠRT line with a gauge of 1,520mm is considerably shorter – 10 km -, and runs from the Chop railway station in Ukraine via Čierná nad Tisou to the Dobrá container terminal in Slovakia.

Wide gauge locomotives 125.826 + 825 and 830 + 829 are heading back to Ukraine with an empty train early in the morning. The US Steel Košice ironworks can be seen in the mist in the background (photo Matijak via wikipedia)

Projects at a standstill
High hopes for a Russia more open to the West after 1989 gave rise to several ideas for better connecting the Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian network with that of Europe. An opening up in the form of tourism, for example, led to the launch of a Moscow-Nice night train via Vienna on 30 September 2010. Moscow also wanted to improve its relations with the West, especially Berlin. Thus, a Talgo night train was launched between Berlin and Moscow in December 2016.

All of this came to a halt with the 2020 pandemic and the hope of a return is now definitively buried with the invasion of Ukraine.

The Austrian project
Another amazing project has gone somewhat unnoticed. It was to connect Moscow to Vienna (and even Italy) by a wide-gauge line via… Ukraine.

In April 2008 in Vienna, RZD (the Russian railway company), together with the Austrian, Slovakian and Ukrainian railway companies, signed a protocol on the launch of the pre-project phase of research into the extension of the broad gauge railway network in Central Europe. The parties agreed to study the technical and financial possibilities of improving the attractiveness of the existing infrastructure, modernising it and building a new broad gauge railway line.

This new 450 km line was to be an extension of the 87 km 1520 mm ŠRT line opened in May 1966 from Užhorod in Ukraine to transport raw materials for a major new steel plant in Haniska, Slovakia, mentioned above. The line was electrified to 3kV DC in the early 1970s.

The aim of the project was also to expand and connect the Central European railway system with the regions on the Trans-Siberian route. According to the plans, the broad gauge track was to be extended from Košice (Slovakia) to Vienna (Austria).

The project to complete one of the branches of the Silk Road to Vienna (Extract from this document)

This project embodies our approach to the development of cooperation not only in the field of rail transport, but also in the harmonisation of transport rights and the deepening of integration, including between the CIS countries and the EU,’ said an enthusiastic Vladimir Yakunin…

It later became even more interesting with the possibility of connecting to the chinese Silk Roads initiative in order to increase the competitiveness of rail transport compared to sea and road transport. Becoming a hub from Asia was very appealing to Vienna…

The project to extend a Russian broad gauge railway line to Vienna, on the other hand, has caused growing concern in Poland, as it aims to build a transit route from the east that would bypass Poland. For Polish railway representatives, the project posed a threat to the LHS line.

Now Polish fears can be fully allayed. For two reasons.

Firstly, the Austrian elections in September 2019 brought the Greens as coalition partners of the Austrian People’s Party, which changed the level of support for the Russian plans. In April 2021, the Austrian Minister of Transport, Leonore Gewessler, informed the Parliament that there were no longer any plans to issue regulations for the planning of a Russian broad gauge line project on Austrian territory. In her statement, the minister cited the lack of progress in Slovakia and the uncertainty about the financing of the project.

The second reason is the geopolitical disorder that began in 2008 around the Black Sea (Georgia, Crimea, Donbass, etc.). This destroyed a little more the capital of trust that one was supposed to have towards Russia.

In May 2022, the Austrian railway company ÖBB officially withdrew from the joint venture responsible for the Kosice – Vienna project.

Turning one’s back on Russia has become a priority. And so much for Chinese dreams of the Silk Road! In the midst of the war, Ukraine announced in May a series of infrastructural and regulatory measures aimed at integrating Ukraine more closely into the EU’s transport networks with Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal declaring that Ukraine would begin the gradual construction of railways to European UIC 1.435mm standards.

Future events will tell us whether these plans to convert to UIC standards hold up in Ukraine, even between Lviv and Przemyśl. The reconstruction of Ukraine will be more urgent rather than the UIC conversion.

Apart from Rail Baltica, there are no plans to convert to UIC standards in the three Baltic countries or in Finland. The invasion of Ukraine on 24 February has definitively buried all dreams of peace and expansion of trade and the Silk Roads through a Russian 1,520mm network in Europe.


30/06/2022 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling
Suscribe my blog

(version en français)

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