Shipping Wonders of the World

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The “Lake Baikal”

This ship plies across Lake Baikal in connection with the Trans-Siberian Railway, serving as an ice-breaker as well



It plies across Lake Baikal, in connection with the trans-Siberian Railway. It is an ice-breaker as well.

WHEN the Russian Transcontinental Railway was driven across the steppes of Siberia, the advance of the engineers was disputed by Lake Baikal. The first proposal was to swing around the southern end of the lake, but the country was so forbiddingly mountainous, and the work of the engineers was certain to be so slow and tedious, that, in order to secure through railway communication with the East, it was decided to establish a floating railway section upon this inland sea. This was a somewhat startling proposal, seeing that the lake during the winter is completely and thickly frozen over, the low prevailing temperature keeping it firmly locked in this condition for about half the year. Thus it seemed at first sight as if the ferry service would have to be restricted to the summer months only, unless an icebreaker were provided as well, so as to plough the channel for the ferry. Thereupon a combination of the two types of vessels was evolved.

The contract for this ice-breaking ferry was awarded by the Russian Government to Sir W. G. Armstrong, Whitworth and Company. A special design was elaborated, the lines being of such a character as to offer the least resistance to the ice, and yet

at the same time to present the maximum smashing effect. The Lake Baikal, as she is called, is somewhat unique, and probably represents one of the strongest ships that ever has been built. She measures 290 feet in length by 57 feet in width, and under normal working conditions draws 181 feet of water. The hull is built throughout of steel, closely subdivided into watertight compartments, the result being that several compartments must be pierced before the safety of the vessel is imperilled, while the provision of a double bottom ensures greater security. In addition, there is a belt of 1-inch steel, 9 feet wide, extending from stem to stern at the waterline. The cars are run on to the main deck, and are secured by special devices to hold them steady during the journey of some 40 miles from bank to bank. The vessel is fitted with three screws, two at the stern, as usual, and one at the bow.

One of the most interesting features in connection with this craft was the fact that she had to be sent in pieces from the Tyne to the distant inland sea. To divide and pack up a vessel weighing 4,200 tons in this manner was no light task. The dismembered ferry was shipped in a steamer to St. Petersburg, where the load was transferred to railway trains and dispatched to the railhead in Siberia, which at the time was some distance from the lake shore. There the packages were transferred to sledges and hauled by horses over the snow-covered steppes to the water-side, where the parts, as they arrived, were reassembled, and the vessel in due course consigned to the bosom of the lake.

The ferry has given complete satisfaction, and has demonstrated her capacity to cope with the thickest and heaviest ice peculiar to this lake. The cars being run on at the stern and made fast, and the signal given to go ahead, the vessel steams slowly out of her dock. The nose of the vessel, owing to its peculiar shape, does not cut into the ice, but lifts as with a glancing blow, until it rests upon the surface. Simultaneously, the front screw in its revolutions displaces the water beneath the ice, so that the full weight and force of the hull press down heavily. The ice has to give way, being broken into huge masses, which are flung hither and thither in the open channel behind by the ferry’s wash. Although the railway since has been completed around the end of the lake, giving continuous railway communication, the floating section is still in operation, as the trip across the lake saves considerable time, and is accordingly used for the through fast mail traffic. The Lake Baikal has been in constant use since 1897, and even after some fifteen years’ battling with the winter and ice on this inland sea is as efficient as ever. It is a moot point, in view of the Lake Baikal's achievements, whether the ferry ever will disappear from the trans-Siberian railway service. It is more probable that, as the traffic develops, the system will be extended.

Another novel and large ferry steamer was built in 1895 by the creators of the Lake Baikal for service upon the River Volga, where some very arduous work has to be fulfilled. Not only is the current very swift, but the river rises and falls to a remarkable degree according to the season, the difference in level between winter and summer being no less than 45 feet. Under these conditions, a somewhat novel idea had to be incorporated.

The steamer is 252 feet long, by 55½ feet wide. On her decks four tracks are laid - converging into two at the fore end - capable of receiving twenty-four trucks. On the banks the rails are brought to the water’s edge by two levels, one being disposed 20 feet above the other. The latter is used when the river is low and the upper when it is in flood. But even in the first named instance there is a difference of 25 feet to overcome under the most disadvantageous conditions. This is met by the provision of a hoist in the front part of the vessel, which is operated hydraulic-ally. This hoist carries two cradles, which when lowered are flush with the deck. In loading, the cars, are run on to one of the bank landing-stages, and by means of a capstan are warped on to the cradle, to be lowered to the deck. In unloading the operation is reversed. While the method is somewhat involved as compared with the previous systems of train ferry, where the vehicles are run straight on and off the deck tracks, it offered the only solution of the peculiar conditions associated with the River Volga.

The railway ferry undoubtedly constitutes one of the most interesting features of railway operation. Seeing that the system is so successful in all parts of the world, the question may well be asked why it has not been adopted for the maintenance of through railway communication between England and France? In every instance where the idea has been introduced a wonderful increase in the volume of traffic has resulted, so that the floating railway possesses a far-reaching economic value.

[From Railway Wonders of the World by F A Talbot]

You can read more on “The Dover-Dunkirk Train Ferry”, “The Drottning Victoria” and “The Twickenham Ferry” on this website.

You can read more on “Train Ferries” in Railway Wonders of the World