Trans-Aral Railway

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A view from the train while travelling along the path of the Trans-Aral Railway. Much of the railway cuts across the vast, rolling Kazakh Steppe.

The 1,520 mm (4 ft 11 2732 in) broad gauge Trans-Aral Railway (also known as the Tashkent Railway) was built in 1906 connecting Orenburg and Tashkent, then both in the Russian Empire.[1][2] For the first part of the 20th century it was the only railway connection between European Russia and Central Asia.

An extensive description of the newly built railway was published in 1910.[3]

Construction history[edit]

Railway station in Tashkent 1903

There were plans to construct the Orenburg-Tashkent line as early as 1874. Construction work did not start, however, until the autumn of 1900. The railway was simultaneously built from both ends toward a common junction. It opened in January 1906, linking the existing network of Russian and European railways to the Trans-Caspian Railway.

The Orenburg-Tashkent Railway was the first line to be built across the steppe, replacing the multiple routes once used by caravans with a single, steel path. It introduced the Kazakhs to industrial modernity and tied the distant Governor-Generalship of Turkestan more firmly to the Russian metropole, allowing troops to be rushed to Central Asia and raw cotton to be exported to Moscow’s textile mills.[4]

Economic impact[edit]

Cotton boll nearly ready for harvest

Because of the American Civil War, cotton shot up in price in the 1860s, becoming an increasingly important commodity in the region, although its cultivation was on a much lesser scale than during the Soviet period. The cotton trade led to the construction of these railroads. In the long term the development of a cotton monoculture would render Turkestan dependent on food imports from Western Siberia, and the Turkestan-Siberia Railway was already planned when the First World War broke out.[5]

Post-revolutionary period[edit]

After the revolution the line was blocked by Cossacks under the command of Ataman Dutov. Cut off from food supplies, and unable to sustain itself due to forced cotton cultivation, Russian Turkestan experienced an intense famine. The temporary loss of the Trans-Aral also allowed the Tashkent Soviet a degree of autonomy from Moscow during the period immediately following the Bolshevik takeover, which resulted in atrocities like the Kokand Massacre, in which between 5,000 and 14,000 people were killed.


The line passes through several notable cities in Kazakhstan, including Aral, Qyzylorda, Turkistan, and Shymkent. It connects at Arys with the Turkestan-Siberia rail line toward Almaty, eastern Kazakhstan, and south Siberia.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Coulibaly, S Deichmann, U et al (2012) Eurasian Cities: New Realities along the Silk Road, World Bank Publications, P26
  2. ^ "Desert & Steppe Conquests: Fortresses and Railways in the Sahara and Kazakhstan". University of Birmingham. Retrieved 29 August 2016.
  3. ^ Hamilton, Angus (1910). Afghanistan. Oriental series. Boston and Tokyo: J.B. Millet Company. Retrieved 2014-11-23.
  4. ^ Morrison, Alexander (28 March 2012). "Railways in Central Asia". CESMI Central Eurasian Scholars & Media Initiative. Retrieved 29 August 2016.
  5. ^ "History of Central Asia". McGill University. Retrieved 29 August 2016.


  • Hopkirk, Peter, (1984) Setting the East ablaze : Lenin's dream of an empire in Asia, 252 pp., London: John Murray