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Trans-Siberian Express approaching Ulaanbaatar
The Moscow to Beijing Trans-Siberian Express on the Khonkhor spiral loop approaching Ulaanbaatar.

The first railway line in Mongolia was a narrow gauge (750mm) line connecting the capital, Ulaanbaatar, with the coal mines of Nalaikh, some 33km distant. It opened in 1938.

During World War II, Japanese forces occupied Manchuria in northern China. The Soviet Union saw this as a threat and despite a non-agression pact signed between Russia and Japan in 1941, built up a strong military presence in eastern Mongolia, then effectively a satellite country of the Soviet Union. There were three bases at Sanbeis, Matad and Tamsagbulag. The bases were constructed in secret and much of their history was unknown until recently. Only in 2015 did a team of Japanese archaeologists confirm that the three bases were served by a railway. The Russian (1520mm) gauge railway diverged from the Manchurian branch of the Trans-Siberian Railway at Borzya and crossed into Mongolia to serve the bases. Its total length was around 400km, and it appears to have been completed in 1943. A section of the line as far as Choibasan was retained after the War, and appears to be still active today. From 1988 to 1993 there was a branch north from Choibasan serving a uranium mine at Mardai.

The most important line in Mongolia, the main line connecting Russian and China, passing through the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, did not arrive until later. The first section to Ulaanbaatar opened in 1950, its extension to the Chinese border in 1955. It was built to Russian gauge, necessitating a change of gauge at the border with China.

This international route remains highly significant to the country today. It carries considerable through passenger and freight traffic, and is popular with tourists. A number of branches serve various communities and mineral locations, although they do not reach the more remote parts of the country. There remain a few mineral lines in remote areas, some of which cross the Russian or Chinese border.

Around 2014, a proposal emerged for the Northern Railways from Erdenet, serving mines at Ovoot, and continuing to the Russian border near Arts Suuri, where it would met a new line of Russian Railways to Kyzyl, from where a link exists to Kuragino on the Trans-Siberian Railway. In 2018, a feasibility study was completed for the 547km section from Erdenet to Ovoot, and in 2019 an agreement was signed for its construction. Also in 2018, a preliminary economic assessment was completed for the 239km section from Ovoot to Arts Suuri.

In 2021, the Zuunbayan Railway opened, a 416km, 1520mm gauge line linking the national network at Zuunbayan with mines in the Tavantolgoi coalfield.

Also in 2021, a children’s railway was constructed in Darkhan. Like similar railways in Russia, the 2.1km, 750mm gauge line provides train operating experience for older schoolchildren as well as carrying fare paying passengers.

In 2022, the Tavantolgoi Railway opened, a 240km line from the Tavantolgoi coalfield to a connection with the Chinese railway network at Gashuunsukhait. In order to avoid a break of gauge at the Chinese border, the entire line has been constructed to standard (1435mm) gauge.

Later the same year, the Mongolian Trans Line opened, a 227km, 1520mm line from Zuunbayan to Khangi on the Chinese border, where it connects with the Chinese national network, albeit with a change of gauge.

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