Trans-Siberian Transportation Problem
( Originally Published 1918 )
IT is easy to criticise the actions of a man or a group as regards their handling of the affairs of the community. It is much more difficult to try to understand and appreciate the real fundamental reasons for the action of such people. To know just what the Committee of Public Safety, the Council of Soldiers' and Workmen's Deputies in Vladivostok and Mayor Agarev, with his assistants in the municipal government, might have been expected to have been able to effect in connection with their efforts toward a government of the people, by the people and for the people in the Pri-Amur, it is necessary to glance at the picture which Vladivostok and Siberia presented when the revolution in Petrograd drifted out across the Steppes and into the Russian Far East.
Never in the history of the country had it known decent constructive government. Was it to have any better form of government under the revolutionary regime? If not, if the most conscientious efforts on the part of a group of really honest citizens could not bring order out of chaos, were they more to be deserving of condemnation or of sympathy?
Let us first see the conditions which they had to face when they took upon themselves the task of untangling the ravelled skein of political affairs and the absolute chaos of economic conditions, into which the Far Northeast had been plunged.
Never since the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway has its administration and operation been other than painfully inefficient.
The old bureaucratic Russia under the Romanoffs knew this well. Moreover, the bureaucrats knew the vital importance of the Trans-Siberian Railway to Russia in the great war that commenced in 1914, and no steps were taken to remedy a situation which must, by the very nature of things, have resulted sooner or later in an almost complete breakdown of the system.
Not only the general facts, but a great number of specific instances, may be cited to show that a pro-German element had a finger in the Trans-Siberian Railroad pie. All the disorganisation and all the delay was not to be put solely upon incompetency. Sometimes the sinister hand of some German operator behind the scenes might be discovered pulling wires that made the transportation of goods from Siberia to Russia more and more impossible as the war went on.
In spite of the fact that the administration of the Trans-Siberian road was inherently faulty during the first eighteen months of the war, the Siberian railway system, as a whole, proved more adequate to the demands that had been put upon it than one who knew the system might have anticipated.
The Russian railway employé of certain grades is by no means a bad railway man. The better type of railroad employé was working hard to try to achieve the maximum possible, and his efforts bore fruit.
Early in 1915 the immense amount of goods that were shipped to Vladivostok resulted in some congestion there. Efficient and capable local officials grappled with the trouble in a bold manner and in spite of Petrograd, rather than with its assistance, succeeded in temporarily cleaning up the difficulty.
When 1916 came, however, a very difficult situation had to be faced. In January of that year the railway was working at very high pressure. Its full capacity at that time allowed two hundred cars, carrying one thousand poods each, of through traffic goods to leave Vladivostok each day, in addition to which, in some of the early months of 1916 one hundred wagons left Vladivostok daily loaded with railway material.
Of the two hundred cars which left for the West daily, one hundred and sixty were set aside for goods and materials which were the property of the government, leaving a remaining forty for the goods of private firms and shippers.
This distinction between government goods and the goods of business houses was not an important one, for the reason that the latter included metals, machinery, leather, rubber, tanning extract, chemicals and such commodities which-were, for the most part, consigned to factories which were busy with government work or to indispensable industries.
Vladivostok has had dumped upon it, since the beginning of the war, an amount of cargo far in excess of the capacity of the port, but the proportion of the material which could be described as useless toward the prosecution of the war is a negligible quantity. Few luxuries or articles that were not necessary to the life of the nation or the life of the people have passed over the Trans-Siberian Railway during the World War.
The end of January, 1916, saw the beginning of a congestion in the Port of Vladivostok which was to reach proportions beyond the imagination of any one in Siberia. At that time exclusive of government materials, some six-teen thousand tons of privately owned goods had been gathered in the port, mostly consisting of tea and cotton. No sooner had the spring of 1916 opened than the steamers began to crowd the quays and anchorages all about. They came laden for the most part with cotton, saltpetre, powder and barbed wire. The last day of February saw the government goods still moving out of Vladivostok toward the West, but the privately owned goods were piling up fast and warehouse accommodation was soon threatened.
During March the last of the go-down space was filled. First cotton, then gunnies, then rub-ber in great quantities began to be stored in the open. There was no other place to put it. Mid-March saw fifty thousand tons of private cargo safely landed but with no prospect of being shipped over the railway. By the 1st of June there were eighty thousand tons of private cargo and much more of government goods. The amount grew steadily until the early part of 1917, when there was a slight temporary diminution in the tonnage.
All this time the government cargo was being handled in some sort of way, although the number of the freight cars available was steadily dropping. In June, metals, lathes and Red Cross materials were piled high on the quay-side and in the fields adjacent to the ware-houses. Then came July with conditions growing worse daily.
The top had to be reached some time. Ship-ping was diverted and ordered stopped, but not before 674,000 tons of cargo was piled promiscuously here and there in the open spaces, and the fields around the Port of Vladivostok. Small imports cut this down in the latter part of 1917 and the work of the Stevens Railway Commission resulted in an increase of efficiency on the part of the railway service, which cleared up a proportion of the goods but the greater part of them still lie in Vladivostok today.
An inspection of the piles of goods and materials showed that an inevitable amount of loss and damage had resulted from the lack of protection which had been accorded the cargoes.
Railway material, nitrate of soda, barbed wire, tea, phosphates and munitions caused the greatest congestion. Next came metals, rice, cotton, machines and lathes, tanning extract, oils, rubber, tallow, gunnies and motor cars. It was pitiable to walk through those piles on piles of indispensable materials. The rolling stock of the railway had been allowed to get into dis-repair to an extent which made it certain that until the results of the recommendations of the Stevens Commission were felt—long months in the future—the available freight capacity would continue to be miserably inadequate.
It was inevitable that the state of things which existed in Vladivostok should have resulted in strenuous efforts on the part of interested parties to obtain preference of the ship-ment of the goods in which they were interested. Up to the end of 1916 the heads of the government departments and the Commandant of the Fortress of Vladivostok had control of the disposal of the railway wagons. Working as a committee they were guided by general instructions received from Petrograd, but full power as to the allotment of space was left in local hands. The forty cars daily which were set aside for private cargo were jealously watched, the Vladivostok Chamber of Commerce assisting the committee with its allotments. No favouritism, or at least very little, existed.
The difficulties increased when toward the autumn of 1916 the forty cars daily were reduced to twenty-five cars or less. Siberian merchants found themselves in a critical position. Most of them sought to pull wires of every sort to obtain car space. The usual method of gaining an advantage over a competitor was to conspire with minor railway officials. Go-betweens, rumour said, coined money in connection with such transactions. The Russian authorities made no little effort to catch offenders, but without any noticeable success. Every one knew that crooked work was the rule rather than the exception. One of the favourite de-vices of the merchants was to arrange with the railway employés to load unauthorised cargo at wayside stations in the vicinity of Vladivostok. Another common practice was for the merchant to obtain orders for forwarding a certain class of goods and despatch others in their place. Unutilised space in freight cars which contained bulky goods was snapped up with avidity.
This condition of things went on for months and was ample evidence of a bad organisation, both of the police in Vladivostok and the railway company itself. The rectification of abuses was continually proposed but never carried into effect. As regarded the prosecution of the war, the question of whether a private cargo or government cargo was forwarded was not of the greatest importance, however. When the total tonnage of goods shipped was taken into consideration, the amount of cargo that found its way over the railway was almost without exception destined for indispensable industries. Russia needed the goods, whether they were the property of the government or of outside firms.
At the end of December, 1916, an order came from Petrograd to Vladivostok that all wagons available should be utilised for the shipment of government materials. No other goods were to be forwarded unless a "naryad"—a des-patch order—from Petrograd had been obtain-ed. Two months before orders had come from Petrograd closing the Port of Vladivostok to private cargo unless it was shipped under special permits. Had this order been religiously obeyed—it was dated October 29th, 1916—a good end would have been served. For some reason it was not put into execution for months. Most of the private cargo that came in, if not all of it, subsequent to the issuance of this decree, came from Japan. Some feeling was caused in the Orient by the fact that the business houses of most of the Allies recognised that a difficult situation had arisen and co-operated to the fullest extent to assist. The Japanese were more interested in the profits that might be obtained than in assisting the Russian situation. This applied to the Japanese houses rather than to the Japanese government, which had always shown an inclination to play the game with Russia in the Far East during the war.
The coming of the Stevens Commission from America was the only ray of light on a very black horizon. The situation which was found by the American railway men was not hopeful.
First, the Siberian Railway was wasteful and inefficient in almost every particular. Never in peace times was rolling stock on the railway handled in the best way, and during the war the administration had become increasingly worse. While the government at Petrograd was inclined to blame Vladivostok to some extent for the congestion of the railway, it was not the inadequacy of the Port of Vladivostok itself which had been the primary cause of the trouble. Only a slight investigation was necessary to prove that ships that had come to Vladivostok had fairly good despatch all through, until those days had come when the railway had broken down and the ships continued to arrive in increasing numbers.
That no covered accommodation existed for the cargoes, that no tarpaulins were to be had, that goods had to be piled promiscuously on the quays, in the fields by the water's edge and all over the hillsides adjacent to the coast, that the ground all about the basin of the bay be-came strewn with all manner of stuff, that load-ed lighters were untouched for weeks and that steamers which after a long fight gained a berth alongside the quay could find no open place on which to deliver goods from their slings was the result of circumstances with which Vladivostok could not be expected to cope. There was little at fault so far as Vladivostok was concerned.
The Stevens Commission probed quickly to the heart of the matter and in very short time found the sore. It was not at Vladivostok.
Against the good working of the Siberian Railway stood the fundamental fact that the long line from Petrograd to Vladivostok—over 5,500 miles—was made up of five separate railways, each of which had its own independent administration and its own headquarters in Petrograd. This division of control had never been properly co-ordinated and overlapping was continuous. Each section was interested in itself only and had nothing to do with the other four sections.
The Chinese Eastern Railway was not badly handled. The part of the line from Vladivostok to Tchita, while it might be improved, was capable of much better work as it stood than were some other parts of the line. The weakest point of all was the Tomsk Railway. From the very beginning it had been absolutely unable to cope with the demand. In the centre of the great trans-continental system, its weakness was the weakness of the whole line. From the commencement of the war every head of the railway department in Petrograd must have known how rotten the Tomsk railway administration had become and he must have known too of the vital importance of the whole system to the conduct of the war. Yet examination of the orders issued by the Minister of Ways and Communications shows that they were so hopelessly bureaucratic that no prospect of reform was evident.
As an example of the manner in which this Minister made fatal errors, the coal traffic through Siberia into Russia had gone from east to west. With coal in plentiful quantities at various points along the line there was absolutely no excuse for this. Coal should have come from west to east in the empty wagons that were being hurried back to Vladivostok to come westward again loaded with war material.
The apparent keynote of the trouble on the Trans-Siberian Railway was shortage of rail-way wagons, locomotives and general railway rolling stock. Repair had been hampered since the beginning of the war and all railway property had gotten into a deplorable state. The first cars to come to Siberia from America were ordered by the Russian Commission before the arrival of the Stevens Commission in Russia. The Russian Commission had ordered less than two hundred engines and cars, but the demand for more was so evident at the outset that be-fore the Stevens Commission reached Russia, it ordered the construction of three times the number of engines and ten times the number of cars that had been ordered by the Russian Commission. Even this amount of rolling stock was only a drop in the bucket. The Russian railway people at Vladivostok expected that the arrival of this rolling stock from America under the orders placed in 1915, would be followed immediately by further consignments of wagons and locomotives. Further they never dreamed that so few freight cars would come back to them from Russia. That men in charge in Vladivostok were able to grasp the new situation and struggle strenuously with it was shown by the fact that when it became known in Siberia that the order for cars and engines to be built in America had not been supplemented by further orders and would not be until the Stevens Commission had investi-gated the matter at first hand, warehouses were at once started. In December, 1916, the Vladivostok authorities decided to build 82,000 square yards of new go-downs. This was too late, of course, to save some of the cargo from dam-age, but the work was proceeded with boldly and with considerable success. The work that has actually been performed in Vladivostok, considering the situation into which the officials there were thrust, reflects credit on those who had a hand in the job.
It was strange, indeed, that no fires of magnitude took place, when so many combustible piles of goods were spread about in the open. Four small fires did occur, the largest taking place in March, 1917. On that occasion piles of ammunition were lying in close proximity to a wharf where artillery supplies were being discharged. At the next berth were piles of nitrate. Close by great stacks of crated cotton caught fire. It was providential that the wind bore the flames and sparks away from the nitrate, the ammunition and the artillery supplies, otherwise an immense amount of devastation would have taken place.
The Port Commandant, realising the danger, lost no time in procuring three good motor fire engines and a number of tugboats equipped with powerful pumps.
The Stevens Commission had to face the fact that Vladivostok had seen 1,840,000 tons of cargo arrive in 1916. I checked over some of the railway figures in Vladivostok and tried to get an idea of how many sixteen-ton wagons actually left for the west each day. On one day in September, 1916, 103 cars left. Three days in October showed 166, 96 and 177, respectively. In November, one day saw 40 leave and an-other 108. Two checkings in December showed 90 and 71. An average day in January, 1917, saw but 31 depart, while three days in February gave the following figures, 51, 94, and 136. So they ran on. Two days in March showed 69 and 66. Two days in April, 51 and 70. Two in May, 81 and 139. Two in June, 118 and 103. Two in July 129 and 102 ; two in August, 49 and 38; two in September, 94 and 96.
Under the plans made by the Stevens Commission, three hundred wagons as a minimum were to leave Vladivostok daily and it was expected that the number would be increased to four hundred. The original plan was to supply many thousand wagons, thousands of locomotives and thousands of coal cars. Plans were made to erect these at Vladivostok, in numbers of hundreds per day. The scheme was an ambitious one and meant the arrival in Vladivostok of a million tons of cargo, including a half mil-lion tons of rails. This would necessitate the employment of three hundred steamers for six months, at the rate of fifty per month, allowing 16 to 19 days' time for discharge, and that very little else would come into Vladivostok for six months except railway material. The labour question presented all sorts of difficulties in this connection. The Chinese are the best available class of labour, and at first the Russians were not inclined to let the Chinese labour come in. This was gotten over somewhat, however, by the proposal of the Chinese to join the Russian labour union. I asked one of the American rail-way men, who was best qualified to judge, what he thought of the average Russian railway engineer.
"He is a good employé and a good workman and knows how to handle his engine," was the reply.
The Americans were somewhat amused at the system that obtained of one man to one engine. When the engineer slept, the engine slept. Thus, due to the fact that but one driver was allowed to handle one locomotive, the engine would only cover two thousand miles in the space of time in which it might be expected to travel three thousand. Examination of re-pair books and records showed that the percentages of "sick" engines were not high. This was evidence that the Russian railway engineer took good care of his machine.
When the American Railway Commission reached Petrograd, it sought to ascertain the theory upon which empties were sent back from Russia to Vladivostok, but no man could make much headway with the tangle into which things had gotten along this line. All Russian rail-ways were short of rolling stock, and the Trans-Siberian Railway had to suffer in consequence. A committee handled the disposition of the empties and gave orders for their despatch to various centres and over various roads. A Russian friend of mine spent all one night proving to me that this committee was actuated by pro-German sentiment, if in fact it was not paid by German gold. He could produce no little evidence of actions on the part of the committee which looked very much as though they were deliberately planned to hamper the efficient working of the railway. I could sympathise with his point of view, and whether or not the committee could be convicted of effort to help Germany, the Boche had the assistance, indirectly.
Stevens came to the conclusion that young American railway men as general superintendents, heads of the engineering departments and general managers, as well as chief despatchers and line superintendents would be invaluable to the Trans-Siberian Railway. The Russians seemed eager and anxious to Learn, and were only waiting for the coming of some one who could teach them. In spite of the shortage of railway men which the coming of the war would make inevitable in America, some three hundred picked men were sent from the United States to Vladivostok in 1917. For various reasons they were diverted temporarily to Japan instead of commencing their work of reorganisation in Siberia.
The outbreak of the Revolution in 1917 and the formation of the Committee of Public Safety in Vladivostok had but little effect at first on the railway situation. A new Commissioner from Petrograd was started eastward to take over the administration of the railway and control the despatch of goods from Vladivostok. This Commissioner, Petrograd decreed, was to be assisted by a committee formed from the heads of local departments and such public bodies as the Committee of Public Safety and the Council of Soldiers' and Workmen's Deputies. Pending the arrival of this Commissioner, the Commandant of the Fortress was in charge of all shipping matters and his chief assistance came from the transport section of the Committee of Public Safety. This sub-committee was formed by the main body solely to prevent abuses on the railway. Some of the Soldiers' and Workmen's Deputies who could be found advising matters relating to shipping and trans-port knew nothing whatever of the work in hand, and had no knowledge of either railway or steamship lines. Their interference was sometimes annoying, but for the most part they were content with seeing that matters were conducted in accordance with their idea of fairness and right.