This post begins series of articles on railroad travel in Russia.
Russia has extensive railroad system and railroad is a primary mode of long distance travel. Most places in Russia have railroad connection. Trains are affordable, timely and, for the most part, convenient and comfortable.
Speaking of comfort, in soviet times little attention was paid to the comfort of travel. Bringing people to places was more important and train travel was simple and not sophisticated in terms of passenger experience. Nowadays Russian Railways makes notable effort in making rail travel more comfortable, enhancing customer experience and service. However upgrading (for the most part rebuilding) a big system, like Russian railways, requires effort and time. In practice this means, when you become a passenger, along with examples of immaculate customer service, you can easily run into disappointing experiences like bad treatment of passengers from staff, old carriages, faulty equipment and so on. Likelihood of really bad experiences is quite slim though, but if something happens not up to your expectations, be patient, your emotional reactions will not change the system, but will hurt you only.
Russian Railways (РЖД) with its multitude subsidiaries is the only company running Russian railroad system. The company is 100% owned by Russian government. Russian Railroads provide roughly 1% of all jobs in Russia, this is to demonstrate how huge the company is.
Let’s get into practicalities of railroad travel in Russia.
Sleepers. Trains in Russia are slow. Most trains cover routes of thousands of kilometers, making multiple stops. Passenger trains share tracks with freight trains. Train traffic is quite heavy on most destinations. Railroad infrastructure dates back to soviet era and despite all renewals is not suited for speed travel. Distances and slow train speed combined, require overnight travel or perhaps several days and nights of travel to most destinations. Thus, most long distance trains in Russia are sleepers. Seating trains are very few and most of the trains have just sleeper cars. Some long-distance trains have one or two seating carriages in consist to service regional destinations, but this is very few.
Express train service is on the rise in Russia, however express trains cover mostly regional or inter-regional destinations where travel time is, roughly, within one day. Express trains normally have seating carriages. Good example of express train destination is between Moscow and St.Petersburg with Sapsan train servicing the rout. It takes roughly four hours of comfortable non-stop travel to cover roughly 700 kilometers between two largest cities in Russia. Other express destinations from Moscow include Nizhniy Novgorod, Tula, Kaluga and others. There are express seating trains originating from other cities, servicing local destinations.
International trains. Aside from local destinations, Russian Railroads run trains to many European cities. International trains from Moscow service destinations to Paris, Berlin, Helsinki, Nice, Prague, Warsaw, Tallinn, Beijing. There is an express train between St.Petersburg and Helsinki called Allegro. In this and following articles on Russian rail travel we will talk about domestic rail service only. Types of trains and services vary per international destination, some are one of its kind.
Cheaper. Ticket prices are regulated by government to ensure regular Russian passenger with average income can afford train travel. We will talk about ticket pricing in a later article. Ticket prices for each destination vary from very affordable, simpler type of service to pricier, more comfortable options. In general, train tickets are cheaper compared to airline travel options.
Better coverage. Very few places in Russia have airports and some areas are only accessible by train. Car travel sometimes is not an option due to limited road coverage and road quality.
Convenience. Coverage, frequency of trains and its timeliness, variety of service options, central location if train stations are just few of multitude of factors making train travel convenient. Trains do not require lengthy security checks, do not impose luggage restrictions, provide more space compared to say, airlines.
Scenery. If you are on a long distance train for a day or more, it’s like a sightseeing tour. You don’t get to see places where train stops (except stations), but looking out the window, gives you unparalleled experience of seeing huge territory of Russia in a relatively short period of time. This is I understand one the primary reasons, expats take trains from Moscow to Siberia and Far East. In several days of travel you see areas of the country that otherwise would require years to visit one by one.
Time consuming. If you are on a train, you don’t have much to do, so this is an excellent time to read a book, watch some movie or work on a project. Aside from scenery, it’s very few distractions on a train, so you can focus on something important.
Time consuming. In today’s world, spending days on a train is a real luxury. For business travel most people seek faster options, that might combine airline and car. If the only travel option you have is train, you will have to spend days on the road, for the most part completely out of reach.
Hot. Long distance trains are heated by burning coal. Each carriage has independent heating system and in practice, all carriages are overheated and you suffocate in the heat and lack of fresh air. Windows on newer carriages do not open. Most newer passenger rail cars come with climate control with air conditioning. In reality train attendants either do not know how to operate them properly or equipment is faulty. Uncomfortably hot temperatures in summer is one of the most frequent complaints from train passengers.
Noisy and shaky. Rails can be bumpy as they are used by heavy freight trains. Passenger carriages can be shaky, especially when train starts to move or stops. Trains make many stops at night, so you will hear station loudspeaker announcements, people talking on platforms, getting on and off the train. Soundproofing is not a main thing in carriages, so you can also hear your neighbors. At night if someone is snoring, all passengers know. Sleeping on a sleeper train paradoxically can be quite difficult especially for those sensitive to disruptions.
Unpleasant passengers. Long distance sleeper trains provide communal type of accommodation. Unless you can afford 1st class or DeLuxe service, you will be traveling with a bunch of total strangers. Other passengers can annoy you in different ways, like talking too much or too loud, eating smelly food and drinking. Some people travel for days and smell bad. Most Russian trains have no showers.
The story about Russian railroad travel will continue.