Project management inspiration from the Trans Siberian railway

Project management inspiration from the Trans Siberian railway


The Trans-Siberian railway is the longest railroad and train journey in the world. It was the most expensive, longest and difficult railroad ever constructed running  more than 9 000 Kms across Asia to the pacific. The Trans-Siberian railway crosses to some of the largest forests and rivers as well as one of the largest lakes in the world. And did you know that every mile was built by hand? So, let us explore its construction and see what it can teach us about project management.

The Trans-Siberian railway was the brainchild of Czar Alexandre III. He initiated the project because he wanted a reliable communication and transportation system between his empire and Siberia. In other words, he wanted to protect his empire by being able to move soldiers to and from the Russian hinterland and colonize Siberia which risked being taken over by then Asian powers. Also, a railway network would help populate the sparsely populated Siberia. We can say that he was the project sponsor.

So, he tasked the Committee of communication for planning the railroad. But the committee advised the Czar against it. Being determined he dissolved the committee. This can be the first project management lesson: a project manager should build a motivated and skilled team. And if the team is not determined it is better to disband it.

So finally, Czar Alexander III recruited Sergei Witte, a highly influential econometrician and politician, to build it. He was also the finance minister. We can say that he is the real project manager here. The construction started in 1891.

Its building was no easy task: the terrain and climate were treacherous, for example, in the winter it was dead cold and freezing while in the summer the terrain was swampy and infested with mosquitoes. Also, the costs were staggering! Furthermore, it was constructed during an era when Russia was poor and didn’t have advanced technological talent. There was a huge lack of labor force, no steel mills and coal mines in Siberia. On top of that, the Czar wanted to build it as quickly as possible and as cheaply as possible within a time line of 10 year! So how was this impossible engineering feat accomplished despite the Russian government’s lack of knowledge in project management?

Because of the time and cost constraints he decided to build it in 6 sections and all these 6 sections were built simultaneously to save time. Also, he scheduled the tunnel and bridge construction in winter when the laborers were not digging in the frozen cold. To cut the cost of the materials he built a single line with iron instead of a double track made of steel like most railroads of its time. Without any proper survey, digging was done by hand as there were no enough fund for dynamite or machines.

With regards to resource allocation and planning it was a disaster. It is a classic bad practice of project management! For example, the local native Siberian tribes refused to work. The government tried to recruit from major Russian cities but no one was willing to brave the harsh climate and low wages. So, the government decided to recruit Russian convicts and some freemen from China and turkey. Conditions were very difficult and dismal. Food and living conditions were very bad. The men slept in tents and the convicts were tied to a stone or pole to prevent escape. Everyone worked from dawn to dusk in the long summer days, until the winter when work was suspended. Even imperial soldiers were also ordered to work on the railroad, but they refused and went on strike because they were asked to work beside convicts. And finally, the government somehow recruited around 15 000 coolies from China. Remember for the success of your project you cannot force someone to work on it. Project management is all about people management. That is your team members should have good wages and decent working conditions.

On top of that, there were a lot of disruptions. For example, the surveyors did not properly survey the terrain due to lack of time and tools. Hence, they overlooked many geographical aspects and drew lines on paper. Therefore, the solid ice rivers when melted flooded the constructions. And then, in the height of summer the flooded area turned into swamps that spread diseases and mosquitoes, making it difficult to work. Midway into the project Czar Alexander III dies and Sergei Witte was fired by Nicholas II who became the new Czar. Hence there was no project manager and no project sponsor. When Czar Nicholas II (new project sponsor) came to power he ensured that the work was done and completed with new leadership. The Trans-Siberian Railway was finally completed in 1916 despite being destroyed a several points during the Russo-Japan wars.

This proves that times change, leaders come and go, but projects can be continued to completion and final delivery. In the realm of project management, one can measure the worth of a project manager or a project leader by how he manages changes and disruptions.

To conclude, even though the Trans-Siberian railway was a great engineering project it does not offer us good project management practices to implement. But does teach us important lessons on why advanced planning, proper preparation and efficient resource allocation is important in project management.  In a nut shell, it teaches us how things should not be done. Nevertheless, it is a great engineering marvel and achievement.