I have a previous question that led to this one. There is an article talking about German rail activities in Russia during WW2, and it also talks about the state of the Russian rail network to begin with.

Near the end of that article, it says:

Whereas German and most western rail bed construction methods contained a multi-tiered rock and gravel foundations - Soviet rails were almost always sitting only on a bed of sand covered occasionally with rocks to minimize the inevitable dust clouds. The western regions of the Soviet Union suffered a great rock shortage. Deutsche Reichsbahn - The German State Railway

I did not see a source for this or anything else in the article. I bolded the last part because I'm interested in it.

"Rock shortage" means a shortage of crushed rock ballast that's put underneath railroad tracks. These crushed rocks serve as a foundation.

I am not an expert on geology, but I have the read a little about these kinds of things and am led to believe that Limestone and Dolomite are basically "everywhere". I do not see how West Russia could have a shortage of them.

This could lead me to guess that the rock shortage, if it really existed, was artificial in nature. By that I mean that the industries in Russia were focusing on other things besides improving the rail network. But this would not be my first guess because Russia is an "Empire of Land" for lack of a better term, so you might tend to think the railways were prioritized.

I also note that the article explicitly said West Russia without further explanation. So I could guess that Siberia had all the rock, or I could guess that it's only West Russia because Germany never made it beyond West Russia... The article also does not put a date on the rock shortage, so it's hard to guess if it was 1920's, 30's, 40's, or maybe all that time.

So you can see I have many questions about this article, primarily because it doesn't have enough detail. What was the exact nature of this rock shortage, if it really existed? I suppose you could say that I'm also asking for an alternate/corroborating source.

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    I suspect the correct translation should be "gravel shortage". Making gravel, particularly uniform sized gravel, out of solid rock is expensive. In Southern Ontario, for instance, gravel is typically quarried from glacial till, of which there is an abundant quantity. Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 13:41
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    We had a joke - "What would happen if the USSR built Communism in the Sahara? Well first, there would be a shortage of sand..."
    – SPavel
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 13:51
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    There is also the costs of transporting it. Even in the US in the 1940s there were numerous, small ballast operations since ballast was bulky, heavy, and not a revenue load for the railroad.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 14:23
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    @DrZ214: (1) First three Laws of Thermodynamics - an expenditure of energy is necessary to overcome a tendency towards great randomness. (2) I don't know the geology or physical geography of Russia to know where the drumlins and moraines are. Southern Ontario has the Oak Hills Moraine running from end to end, chock full of glacial till, more or less sorted by size and 200 feet high. Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 14:26
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    Have you seen any other mentions of soviet 'rock shortages' from other sources? Part of me feels this claim is semi-tongue in cheek propaganda (somewhat like spavel's comment) as the line before your quote has " Again, poor Soviet construction standards played a key role in the German decision-making process.", like they are bashing the poor Russian railroad techniques more than they are trying to make a substantiated 'rock shortage' claim. I would guess the explicit "West Russia" is simply due to that being the area the Germans took and had to retool.
    – Twelfth
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 22:40

3 Answers 3


There might be some truth behind this as I've managed to find a couple references to it now. It should be noted that Stone Ballast is the material of choice for laying tracks upon (not gravel or sand) and it's pretty resource intensive as you need a lot of this ballast.

First - it is very true that the Russian rails were built mostly on gravel, sand, and dirt. This cause a lot of issues as the ground would shift under the weight of trains, causing the tracks to move and trains to derail. The Russians were quite aware this was happening apparently...a few links to google books on that:

Russian rails

More on lack of stone ballast

However the reasons for this are not well documented. I am able to find another source that repeats this 'rock was scarce' stance:


Since rock is scarce in Russia, few railroads had beds of crushed rock ballast. In lieu of rook, sand and gravel was widely used.

Lack of Stone Ballast reference

West Russia might be accurate here too as the lack is on the Russian Steppes.

All that being said...I don't think there was a 'shortage' per se.

The Railway Engineer vol 10

Here we see the reference that the stone was costly, so sand and gravel was used. I suspect this is more the reason...instead of there being a 'shortage', it was simply too expensive to harvest and use on rail lines. Does this qualify as a shortage, or simply an unwillingness to expend the money required to harvest it?

  • Useful link Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 19:52
  • @PieterGeerkens - y'know, to me that looks like gravel and I would describe it with the term 'gravel'. Apparently in needs to be non-uniform in shape.
    – Twelfth
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 20:06
  • The translation may be inaccurate. "Gravel" is a very vague term in English, covering basically everything larger than "sand" that is relatively uniform in size. The corresponding term(s) in other languages may be more size specific. However, size needs to be well controlled by level to maximize drainage and minimize settling. Sharp edges are important also to prevent settling; unlike the case for typical "road-gravel" I believe. unsuitable. Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 20:11
  • This is a very nice answer. I would call this an "artificial shortage". BTW, your last referenced book, The Railway Engineer vol 10... I can't find an author on the google books page. Very strange, but it does say it's from 1889. Do you know who the author is?
    – DrZ214
    Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 9:23
  • @DrZ214 - Appears to be a work for/from the University of California and likely a compilation of several authors. Top of the google book does show a publisher,but no author.
    – Twelfth
    Commented Jan 30, 2018 at 18:28
  • The Germans wouldn't know the conditions of Russia generally so the comment is limited to West Russia (which isn't mentioned in any source that I am familiar with.)

  • From The Soviet Economy and the Red Army, 1930-1945 it does looks like the main lines didn't have much gravel in their ballast. This cold war monograph mentions want of ballast as a factor but doesn't elaborate.

I don't know whether to blame this on a shortage or simply call it a relic of building things in the Soviet economy. Especially since there was massive expansion of the rail network in the first five year plan.


"Rock shortage" is clearly not a question of geology. It is a problem of transportation of the appropriate rock from the point where it is available to the point where it is needed. It is difficult to transport substantial amount of rocks when your infrastructure is not sufficiently developed. This was always a problem in Russia.

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    I was hoping for a source explaining it in more detail. "It is difficult to transport substantial amount of rocks when your infrastructure is not sufficiently developed." It's not difficult at all to load/unload rock any more than to load/unload coal. Russia had trains and used them to move all sorts of things. I highly doubt any rock shortage would exist everywhere. The Leningrad-Moscow trunk line, for example, might have been getting upgrades with crushed rock, while many spur lines were not. What we need is a source or else there's just guesswork.
    – DrZ214
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 8:08
  • Well, it could be that "secondary" considerations of maintenance/durability took a back seat to metrics of track KMs laid down. Soviet Russia, with its 5 year plans and bureaucratic directives, often did things in a hackneyed way and you wouldn't want to be blamed for holding up the glorious revolution by insisting on gravel beds. Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 2:00

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