Taking railway lines across challenging terrain has meant incredible feats of engineering and produced some of the greatest railway journeys in the world. Find out more about how they were built and what these projects involved below.  

The Trans Siberian Railway 

The Trans-Siberian Railway is the longest uninterrupted railway line in the world, running for 5,772 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok in Russia.  

Planning & design 

One of the biggest railway infrastructure projects of all time, the line was conceived to link Western with Eastern Russia across the huge land expanse of Siberia. Instigated by Tsar Alexander III, it was intended to improve trade, migration and the movement of cargo, especially grain.  


Construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway began in 1891 and was completed in 1916. 62,000 people, some of them convicts, were employed simultaneously on the project, and they endured terrible conditions, working through the harsh Russian winters.   

Challenges faced during construction 

Apart from the sheer length of the line, one of the main obstacles was Lake Baikal, a 395-mile-long and 49-mile-wide lake in southern Siberia. While the stretch of track around the lake was being constructed, an icebreaker train ferry operated across the water to keep the line running. During the winter of 1903-4, when the ice was too solid, track was laid, and the carriages were pulled by animals.  

The outbreak of a war between Russia and Japan in 1904 sped up construction of the railway, as it became a vital way of transporting troops and supplies to the front.  

The Glacier Express, Switzerland

The Glacier Express is a 181-mile line through the Swiss Alps between the ski resorts of St Moritz and Zermatt. Although called an ‘express’, it is actually a leisurely 8-hour ride, taking in glorious mountain ranges, crossing dramatic viaducts and through Alpine tunnels.  

Challenges of building a railway through the Swiss Alps 

The Glacier Express is the result of pioneering work carried out by Swiss railway engineers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. A railway line in the Alps can only link together if tunnels are dug through mountains, gorges are spanned, and significant gradients climbed.  

The construction of tunnels & bridges 

This line passes through some of the greatest tunnels in the Swiss Alps. Some were excavated by hand, with pick, shovel and dynamite. They include the Albula Tunnel, one of the highest railway tunnels in Switzerland (1,820m above sea level) and the Furka Summit Tunnel, completed in 1925. The Landwasser Viaduct is the most spectacular on the Glacier Express, a sharply curved 213 foot high 6 arched limestone viaduct built into the cliff rock. It was constructed in 1901-2, incredibly without scaffolding.  

HS2, United Kingdom

What is HS2? 

The largest current infrastructure project in Europe, High Speed 2, is a high-speed rail line connecting London to the North West. Phase 1 of the rail project is expected to be completed between 2029 and 2033. Upon completion the journey time between Manchester and London will be 1 hour 11 minutes, less than half the current average travel time.  

Where will HS2 run? 

HS2 is split into three phases:  

  • Phase 1 – linking London to Birmingham and the West Midlands  
  • Phase 2a – linking the West Midlands with the North via Crewe  
  • Phase 2b – linking to Manchester, the East Midlands and Leeds  

The use of advanced technology during construction 

Ten tunnel boring machines (TBMs) are digging the 64 miles of tunnels on the HS2 line between London and the West Midlands. ‘Green tunnels’ will also form part of the network. These are low level tunnels that blend into the surrounding countryside and have less impact on natural wildlife habitats.  

Minimising disruption during construction 

HS2 is a controversial project. It is expensive, its benefits have been questioned and it affects the environment and communities in which construction work is happening. The team behind HS2 is trying to minimise the impact the project has on local residents with a range of measures, such as reducing operational noise and vibration with the use of silent generators and acoustic blankets, controlling ground movement, cutting emissions during construction and transporting excavated material by rail instead of road.  

Wherever work takes place, ecologists are on site to advise on wildlife impact, and HS2’s archaeologists have been able to excavate areas of historic interest before construction commences.  

Chuo Shinkansen, Japan

The Chuo Shinkansen is a super high speed Maglev train line currently under construction in Japan. It will link Tokyo and Nagoya and reduce the travel time between the two cities (350 km apart) to just 40 minutes.  

Planning & design 

Chuo Shinkansen is the culmination of Maglev train technology that has been in development in Japan since the 1970s. It was planned, designed and is being constructed by the Central Japan Railway Company. Construction started in 2014 and the line is due to be operational by 2027, with an extension of the line to Osaka planned for 2037.  

The use of Maglev technology in construction 

Maglev trains are a faster version of bullet trains, which have operated in Japan since the 1960s. Maglev trains can travel at speeds of over 500 kilometres per hour. This is due to a process known as magnetic repulsion, where magnets on the top of the track and bottom of the train repel each other and effectively lift the train off the track. This frictionless technology results in faster speeds.  

Benefits and drawbacks of the project 

The main advantage of the Chuo Shinkansen is the huge difference it will make to travel times between two of the most important cities in China. But it is a vastly expensive project, due to the amount of tunnelling the project involves in some of China’s most mountainous regions. Some of these tunnels will take 10 years to complete. There are also fears about tunnelling in areas sensitive to seismic activity, and disturbances to the water table causing leaks.   

Inspired by what you’ve read? Discover careers in rail construction

Working on major rail infrastructure projects like HS2 can be incredibly exciting for construction professionals with the right skills, experience and qualifications. As we have also seen, there are also opportunities in other careers, such as ecologists and archaeologists 

Find out more with our job profiles below: