The International Steam Pages

To Siberia for (a little) Steam in 1995

Some time ago, Keith Chambers wrote a piece called 'To Europe for (a little) Steam in the 1960s'. This piece is one of an occasional series with the same core title, as Keith himself says "many of my own memories are of that variety. This is mainly because either the prime motive for travel to a certain place was not steam and I had to take what I could get, or I went somewhere specifically for steam but in its final days there." The pictures of 157-34 were added on 22nd December 2011.

A chance meeting with a group of Russians in London in 1994 led to me being invited to Chelyabinsk in Siberia the following year. I was to be the guest of school no. 121 which unbeknown to me at the time had an interesting connection in the city. My purpose was to make links between pupils in Russian schools and those in S.E. London where I was employed.

I left Heathrow Airport on 18th March 1995 bound for Moscow. My aircraft was almost empty and I was promptly moved into first class with two other passengers. We seemed to be the only people on the flight. After consuming as many first class meals as I could eat, I slept, and arrived in Moscow too late to get across the city to my connecting flight to Chelyabinsk from Sheremetyevo airport. This was entirely of my own doing as I had missed my intended flight at Heathrow. I have to say that once the staff at Domodedovo Airport understood my dilemma they could not have been more helpful and I spent the evening dining and then staying overnight at an airport hostel for aircrew free of charge.

The following morning I took a local and well worn bus into the centre of Moscow and then a taxi out to Sheremetyevo. Here I was totally confused as every sign was in Cyrillic script but again the intervention of very helpful and friendly Russians eventually led me to “the departure lounge for foreigners on internal flights” and some hours later I was winging my way on an Aeroflot internal flight to western Siberia.

The airport at Chelyabinsk was remarkable. It reminded me of a Hergé cartoon. The terminal building itself was built in a neo-classical style. It hopefully won’t be swept away in a wave of modernisation sometime soon. I was met there by Lyudmila who was to be my host for a week or so. I was driven off into the centre of what I later discovered has been called the most radioactively polluted city in the world. Chelyabinsk had also been a closed city until shortly before my visit and so foreigners like me were a rarity.

It was getting towards the end of a busy week meeting all sorts of people and visiting many fascinating places. Being a foreigner in a former closed city in the former USSR had been a free pass into any number of interesting places generally closed to the public, including on one occasion an army base! The complete opposite in fact to what I had expected. There had so far only been a couple of moments of railway interest. On my arrival at the flat where I was to stay for the week I walked onto a balcony which overlooked the “Railway Workers’ Palace of Culture”. Plinthed alongside was a 2-10-0 steam locomotive Ye class no. 350. Not far away I discovered that the nearby football ground was the home of ‘Locomotiv Chelyabinsk’. It was beginning to dawn on me that the city was among many other things, a ‘railway town’. A couple of days later, in one of my rare moments unescorted, I had wandered along to the main railway station, Chelyabinsk–Glavny. Fascinated by its bustle I sat and watched as people rushed by or waited in family groups. All the racial groups of Russia seemed to be there, an amazing mix of culture and colour and mostly unknown to this western visitor. However on my final day in the city I walked around with my patient host and we came across another plinthed steam locomotive. This was a narrow gauge 0-8-0 157-34. On the tender side a forest scene was painted with a small tender locomotive hauling a train of logs. This was presumably a reference to this locomotive’s former use. It stood outside what was clearly a railway works. There was the year 1905 in metal numerals over an entrance.

“Would you like to have a look inside this building?” Lyudmila asked out of the blue.
“Yes.” Came my reply. A quick conversation at the gate and we had our own guide to show us around. Apparently the school that I had been visiting for most of the week was sponsored by the railway works and I was ‘very welcome’.

It was quite a run down place but fairly busy. We went into an erecting shop and a number of diesel locos were under repair. There was scrapping going on too and wheel sets were piled in one area while a handful of diesels were being broken up elsewhere. Alongside the works were lines of electric locomotives, I think just stabled there.

But the best had waited until last. At the far end of the works area were piles of coal and of sand. Standing among these piles were three steam locomotives. They were Er class 0-10-0 numbers 760-38, 773-12, and 787-64. The former two still saw regular use as departmental shunters at the works while the latter was presumably a standby. I had never expected to see real working Russian steam but on that afternoon I did – just about. As I snapped away using 35mm roll film 773-12 chuffed a few hundred yards up the yard to give me a glimpse of a working Russian steam locomotive at the very end of its era.

As Keith says "The 'windows' show some architectural detail of a building close to the railway works. Presumably the corrugated iron cladding had once been wooden. The photos were all taken on 25th March 1995."

Er 787-64

Er 760-38 (left) and 773-12 (right and below)

Rob Dickinson