Episode #5 – Russian railways
Hi! My name is Gigi Green and I… think I need to change how I begin my podcast! There are too many words! Ok, let’s leave the important ones. This is my travel podcast about Russia, its history, traditions, nature, everyday life, culture and whatever the heck strikes my fancy about Russia. Why Russia? You can check my episode #1 to find out! And now, on with an episode #5 Russian Railways
There are several ways of travelling through Russia: by plane, by car, by bus, by boat in some places and maybe even by bike if you feel like you can do it, because the distances are kinda… epic. Maybe there are some others. But my absolute favourite way to do it is by train. Because train rides here are usually long, and they make me feel that I am really travelling. I mean not just being in a new place and seeing new stuff, but actually physically moving through space kind of travelling. Old-fashioned way, I guess.
And you are being driven by somebody, you don’t have to do anything, you can just lay down and relax, read a book, listen to music, solve crossword puzzles, watch a movie on your phone or stare out of the window. Or chat with your very temporary neighbors. Or pretend like you’re sleeping so that you don’t have to chat with your very temporary neighbors. Last time I was travelling by train I took my knitting with me and made myself a hat! After all it was a 24 hour ride from my hometown to the Mineral waters of Caucuses, that I talked about in my previous episode.
Transcript and links are below
I’ll start with a little bit of a history. Really tiny bit, then I’ll go over what it actually looks like now, types of cars and services you can get. And then I’ll give some tips about the stuff you should take with you to make your travelling experience better. And save money.
A tiny bit of Railway History
So, Russia is not just big. It also stretches from west to east almost horizontally. And most big rivers here flow from north to south. That means that railroads would be one of the best modes of transportation. Hence Russians began building railways in 1837. First passenger line was a kind of a test railway between St Petersburg, which was then the capital, and Царское село/Tsarskoye selo, summer residence of Russian emperors. It was followed by the railroad connecting St Petersburg to Moscow and then to other cities in the European part of Russia. Next the railways connecting Russia to the Central Asian provinces were built in the 1880-s and 1890-s. Now those places are independent countries of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. The Trans-Siberian railway that connects European Russia with the Russian Far East was built between 1891 and 1916. It immediately became popular with people who like travelling and writing about it. Railways were further expanded during Soviet Union times. The most famous addition is Baikal-Amur mainline in the Russian Far east. Russian Railways are also connected to roads in former Soviet countries, Mongolia, China and North Korea. Because Russian Far East has borders with the last three.
Interesting facts about Russian Railways
The history of those railways, how they were built and who built them could fill several episodes. Maybe I’ll make them one day, who knows? But for now I’m still in the beginning of my podcasting days and I want to talk about more practical stuff. So I’ll leave some links in the show notes and just give you a few interesting facts for now:
- The longest railway line in the world is Trans-Siberian railway. It’s 9 289 kilometers which is 5 772 miles. The train covers distance between Moscow and Vladivostok in 6 days and 4 hours. There are other routes and you can reach even further places using this line or others connected to it.
- Total length of all railways in Russia is 85 200 kilometers. So you theoretically could wrap it around the Equator twice and there’ll still be some railways left. And one of those… circlings would be specifically for trains that run on electric power. But… it’s not the longest in the world. US railways are longer
- You also might think that railways that long would cover the whole country and you can get everywhere by train. At least to all major cities and naaah! The railways are long, but distances here are longer. You can’t reach the north of the Eastern parts of Siberia and most of the Якутия/Yakutia republic by train.
- All that means that rail density (that’s the length of the rail track per country area) is much lower in Russia than in the US or China. Our population density is also lower so there are parts of the railway where trains carry passengers and freight over very long distances of nearly empty space. So wanna feel that existential loneliness and like you’re a grain of sand in the vast Universe? Come to Russia and ride some trains.
- So you might have gathered from the previous fact that Russian railways carry both freight and passengers. It’s one of the most freight-dominated railways in the world behind Canada, the US and a bit unexpectedly for me, Estonia. However way more people travel by trains here than they do in the US (because for some reason they have the lowest long distance passenger train usage in the world there).
- We also have a different gauge than most of Europe and other countries. That’s the distance between the inside edges of the rails. The Russian standard gauge is 5 feet or 1520 millimeters. So it’s slightly wider than the standard gauge. That’s 1435 millimeters or 4 feet 8.5 inches in the US.
- BUT Russian Railway company has several international routes. You can come to Russia or leave Russia (specifically Moscow and St Petersburg) by train from Paris, Berlin, Helsinki, Prague, Nice, Warsaw, Tallinn and Beijing. And cities along the way. And of course, from all former USSR republics but they use Russian standard gauge so that’s not a problem.
- But how do Russian trains travel to Europe and back? Well, they literally change wheels at some point. The carriage is lifted, old wheels are unscrewed and new ones are screwed on. Which impresses the heck out of me, because can you imagine the weight of those things? Of course, it’s not done by hand, there are special mechanical device for that. I’ll leave links to some videos that show this process in the shownotes.
What do Russian trains look like?
One day, when I was telling my friends that I wanna go on a silent meditation retreat, and my friend Tom who is from the UK said that riding on a train for 24 hours is like a silent meditation. And that was the moment I realized that I really need to explain what it looks like when you are traveling by train.
Russian trains are not like Hogwarts express, nor are they really like those sleek European or Japanese super fast trains. There are some of those. For example, Сапсан/Sapsan that goes between Moscow and St. Petersburg in 3 hours. But new and fast trains can mostly be found in the European part of Russia and they go between somewhere not super far and Moscow. Most of the population however travels much slower and in a very different style and type of train cars (or carriages. However you are used to calling them).
So what types are there?
Important note: those trains that I’m talking about go between cities, they are long distant and often sleeper trains. Our equivalent of the commuter trains are called электричка/elektrichka, they mostly run on electric power. And they are kinda a different story but at the same time a lot of countries have commuter trains, so I think it’s more obvious how they work. So I’m not gonna talk about them here. Though if you want me to, you can write to me at email@example.com and I’ll do that some other time!
Day coach and platzcart
Firstly, there are train cars with just regular seats, day coach. They are the cheapest but I don’t think it’s a good idea to save money this way if you are travelling for longer that 8 hours and during nighttime. I just don’t think they are comfortable enough for that. But my experience with them is super limited. Because I usually travel longer distances and I prefer travelling at night. My mom often chooses that type of car/carriage to visit relatives in the next city up the Volga river. That would be Samara. Her train leaves at 6 am and she is there at 1 pm, so it takes 7 hours and she seems ok with it. So that’s an option.
Then there are several types of sleeper cars. First is sleeper car with reserved seats. That would be like econom version. They are called плацкарт/platzcart in Russian (though that doesn’t sound very Russian, does it? Still). There are 54 seats in a carriage. And they are actually not seats but bunk beds. The carriage would be divided unequally by a long corridor and there are 4 bunk beds on one side and two bunk beds perpendicular to it, and there are 9 or so compartments of that type.
If you choose this option, go for the side where there are four bunk beds. Especially if you are tall. The side bunk beds are not technically shorter but they feel that way. My height is 1 meter 71 centimeters or 5 feet 6 inches and I feel uncomfortable sleeping on the side bunk beds. The usual bunk beds give you more room for your toes.Also it is assumed that lower bunk bed is better than the upper one. That is arguable in my opinion but higher ones are cheaper.
How do you know which is which? Seats with even numbers are upper bunk beds and odd numbers are lower bunk beds. Seats from 37 to 54 are those side bunk beds. And seats 37 and 38 are closest to the second water closet at the end of the carriage. Don’t buy those unless you’re desperate. There might or might not be the smell, but people will be going to and from the WC all the time, there will be the sound of shutting doors and of the water closet actually working. So… beware!
How do you sleep on those bunk beds? There will be a mattress, a pillow and a blanket on your bunk. And the carriage attendant will give you fresh sheets, a towel and a pillowcase.
Usually at the end of their journey passengers would fold their used linen and return it to the carriage attendant. That used to be mandatory, now it’s not, it’s just a habit and common courtesy towards attendants.
There’s an attendant in every carriage, and if you have any problems they are the ones you should ask for help.
My favourite type of sleeper car
Now, my favorite types of carriages are called купе/coupe. Those carriages are divided into 9… sort of little rooms or compartments. There are 4 beds in each compartment and no side bunks. It’s a bit more expensive but the upper bunk often costs a bit more than the lower bunk in плацкарт. And in my opinion купе is way better. But I’m biased. I love the upper bunk. Actually we call them полка/polka – shelf. Not just because it’s cheaper, but also because I didn’t have a bunk bed when I was a kid so for me it’s a lot of fun! Купе are cleaner and there are less people, so it’s a bit quieter. There’s still a carriage attendant and two water closets.
Sometimes it seems to me that there is a million types of купе carriages, and you can never guess what you’ll get. Some carriages are new, you will have air conditioning, possibly a meal, a traveler’s set of useful things and some reading material might be included. Or you might get an old carriage without even air conditioning. (Ironically, the bunk beds in those are the widest, they are softer and I find it easier to fall asleep in them). How do you find the good ones? You can and should look at the carriage class (that would be a letter next to the number of the carriage). For example, 2Э or 2Л. If you are buying tickets online, always look up that stuff.
Business ans first class
There are also business class and first class carriages. Business class is called СВ/SV – спальный вагон, sleeper car. It has the same number of compartments as купе/coupe. But only two beds in each, and they are regular beds, not bunk beds. Those are significantly more expensive than the previous 2 types. For that money you’ll get air conditioning, a button to call a carriage attendant, maybe a tv and some other fancy stuff.
And the coolest and the most expensive type of carriage is мягкий вагон/myagkiy vagon, soft carriage literally. But I guess you can call it first class. That would be a type of place you would see in a movies like Murder on the Orient Express. Well, maybe slightly less fancy but still very cool. I’ve never traveled in one of those and I’m not sure I even want to – I could find a much better use for all the money that would cost.
An example of the price
By the way, I’m not giving you any numbers because they vary a lot depending on where you travel and what type of carriage you will choose. But just for example, to get to Moscow from my city would take 16-18 hours depending on a train. They are usually scheduled to travel in such a way that you get on the train in the evening or late afternoon and get off in Moscow in the morning. There are different kinds of trains to choose from. Trains with names or those we call фирменные/firmenniye, are usually better, faster and more expensive. Also prices vary depending on when you are buying a ticket. The earlier the better, as usual.
I looked some stuff up. Today is the 4th of June and if I buy an upper bunk bed in купе/coupe on a regular train for 13th of July it would cost me 1570 RUB (25 USD and some cents), That’s really cheap, by the way. Lower bunk bed купе is 2517 RUB (40 USD). The ticket for купе on the same date but a better train will cost me 3088 RUB or almost 50 USD for the upper bunk bed and 4112 RUB or 66 USD for the lower. In the first case the price is so low not only because of the class of service but because you would leave Saratov in the afternoon and arrive in Moscow at 7 am. Which might be not very comfortable for some people (I usually don’t care though). I hope that gives you some perspective.
Monopoly and prices
On that note, I should mention that Russian Railway company is a monopoly basically and closely connected to the government system. And in many ways it’s utterly disgusting and famously corrupted system. So my attitudes towards Russian railways is kinda like my attitude towards a lot of stuff in Russia – love the trains, hate the organisation behind it.
So if you don’t like their prices, tough shit. That’s their policy, I’m guessing. There’s no competitors with different prices unfortunately. So it’s their way or the highway. That is to say, planes (which are expensive) or buses. Or a car.
Although they have some special deals for fans who will come to Russia for FIFA 2018 – here it is
Safety and sleeping on a train
Now, even in the best of carriages it’s never quiet. You can always hear the wheels of the carriage touching the rails. If the carriage is old you can hear all sorts of creaking noises. Don’t worry though, you’ll be alright. Traveling by train is one of the safest ways to travel in Russia. It’s 45 times safer than travelling by car. I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard about passenger train wreck. And the one where somebody in the train had actually died, I don’t think I’ve heard of ever. In fact, I think that’s a perfect option for people who are scared of flights. If you want to feel even safer, you should choose a carriage in the middle of the train.
So it is safe, but quiet it is sooo not! Apart from the train itself, there are noises that other passengers make. Like talking, watching stuff on their phone or at night snoring. How on earth do you sleep in that pandemonium? Well, if you can fall asleep in front of the TV, you will most likely fall asleep on the train. If you’re like me, it might require some effort. For some reason my hearing becomes significantly sharper right when I’m on the brink of falling asleep. I’m guessing it saved my cavemen and cave women ancestors quite a bit in the olden days but now it makes traveling challenging sometimes. Not just in trains, noisy hostels can also be a problem. And boyfriends who snore… Ugh. How do I get around it? I buy earplugs. They won’t block everything, but it’s still better than nothing. And then I just… wait. And eventually fall asleep. Sometimes being really tired before you get on the train helps. Maybe some chamomile tea. Don’t know about sleeping pills. never tried them.
What do you need in a train while travelling with Russian railways? Let’s start with the most important stuff – the phones! There are very few trains with WI-FI currently in Russia. And if you are travelling somewhere far from Moscow, it’s very likely that there won’t even be mobile internet while the train is moving. You will have it during the stops, of course. So… That will be some digital detox for you. But I suggest you put your phone into flight mode, so that your battery would not lose more charge because it’s been searching for network. Charging your phone in плацкарт/platzcart, the cheapest type of sleeper car might be tricky. Most carriages were built before mobile technology became so widespread. So there are some electric sockets, but not many. It’s usually way easier in купе/coupe, simply because there are less people there. But to be on the safe side, you should just bring your powerbank with you.
Oh! Important thing!!! In Russia electric line voltage is 220 volt. If it’s different in your country, you’d need an adapter.
What to bring with you?
What else do you need? Slippers or better flip-flops. Toiletries. You don’t need soap or toilet papers but you wanna bring wet wipes. Oh! If you have any kind of OCD and need stuff to be very clean or without microbes, trains will be a trial. A very serious one. Because it is a shared space, a bit like a hostel. All the carriages are regularly cleaned but you might get on a train that has a really long route. So you might potentially take a place that someone has just vacated. And there’s only so much cleaning that can be done while passengers are coming and going. And attendants have many duties apart from that.
You can bring your own cup and teaspoon, but you don’t have to, the attendant will provide it for free if you ask. The sheets and a hand towel is also provided. As I mentioned before, some classes of carriage provide more stuff but that depends.
There is a restaurant carriage. But I personally never use it. Most Russians usually bring their own food with them. You should be very careful with perishables if it’s a long ride. Some attendants might be cooperative and find you a place in the fridge but a lot of them won’t because actually they don’t have to. So one option is ramen noodles. Or instant mashed potatoes, or instant porridge. I used to do that in my student days, but now I’ve gotten to cool for this shit! Or more likely my digestive system is not as all-forgiving as it was. Or I’ve gotten hoity-toity. I’m not sure. But these days I prefer not to eat that. I buy canned corn (because I love it!!!), canned beans (we have some really great options in small glass jars actually). But that’s because I’m a vegetarian.
A lot of people bring salami and cheese sandwiches, fried chicken, boiled eggs and potatoes, fresh veggies like cucumbers and tomatoes. Fruit like apples and bananas are also a great option. And of course all kinds of snacks, chips, chocolate (maybe careful with that in summer though. Actually, in summer be very careful with all foods that are not dry. Because I’ll let you in on a secret – Russian summers are hot too!) Really you can bring whatever you like, even dairy products but eat them first. Just check all containers and wrappings for leaks and do the math when it comes to amount of food you require. And if you bring your own food, you need your own plate and utensils.
That’s actually very important. Most Russians would bring on board a 1 or 1.5 liters bottle of mineral or just drinking water with them because attendants only provide hot water for tea for free. (Of course, you can buy a bottle of water from an attendant. Basically, you can buy most of the stuff I mention on board. I’m just telling you all this in case you are travelling on a budget and want to save money in a way that’s really easy and that most locals use). It’s way cheaper to buy that water in a shop before you get on a train. Just not in a shop that’s too close to the station and not on the stops, because it will be more expensive. You can bring soda or fizzy drinks or juice. But I personally think it’s a bad idea because there’s sugar in that stuff so it makes you even more thirsty. But that’s your choice of course.
Since hot water is provided for free, just about everybody drinks tea (using tea-bags, of course) or instant or sublimated coffee. Although you can make yourself some real coffee if you don’t mind brewing it just by pouring hot water over it. My mom usually does that while travelling. Unflappable bitch that I occasionally am, during colder seasons I bring cocoa and cream and make myself a travel version of hot chocolate. With water being the only hot part. So basically anything goes. Or you can by coffee from the restaurant carriage and tea from the attendant. It won’t be especially good though.
Now… Alcohol. That’s tricky. By law you are prohibited from consuming it in public places. And smoking, BTW. But those two laws are… not imposed very well. Or strictly. So while you can’t smoke on a train, you might do it when it stops on some station. And with drinks… Well. I don’t have any personal experience in the matter because I’ve never tried drinking on a train. But I had tipsy neighbors.
So if you are very quiet about it, just having a bear with a friend and not bothering anybody, it will probably be alright. Although keep in mind foreigners would attract more notice that locals. But of course, if you get really drunk and make the journey unpleasant for other people on a train, there will be consequences. So better stick to tea.
Also if you are not feeling well, you should go to a carriage attendant, they have a first aid kit.
Where to buy tickets?
You can use RZD (that’s Russian railways) mobile app to buy tickets (for iOS and for Android). It’s not perfect but usable. And that will give you the real cost, with no add-ons. Or you can buy tickets online on their official site, I’ll leave a link to that below too. Or you can buy them at the station. But that would most probably have to be in Russian, so I think buying online is easier.
There are adult and kids options. If your child is younger than 5 years old and they don’t have their separate seat, you can order a “free” kids ticket. For children between ages of 5 and 10 there’s 35-50% discount. You can cancel your ticket and you will get a refund, but how much depends on when you cancel. Basically if you cancel not later than 8 hour before departure time you will get most of your money back. The later you cancel, the less you will get.
But if the train was cancelled or significantly delayed through no fault of your own, you have a right to get a full refund, of course. But trains are seldom late, just saying.
You don’t have to print the tickets, but maybe save them in .pdf format on your phone in case someone wants to see it. They rarely do, though. If you say you’ve got an electronic ticket, they will just ask to see you documents.
That is why you should carry your passport while travelling by train. The carriage attendant would need to see that document to make sure you really are the person who bought a ticket. You can’t just give away your ticket to somebody, the place on a train is reserved to you personally. However you might be able to exchange places with someone within your carriage after the train leaves the station. You might wanna mention it to the carriage attendant, if that’s the beginning of the trip. Or maybe not, if it happens later.
Very important thing! Keep in mind that train schedule is always in Moscow time. There might be local time on your ticket or there might be not, so check that stuff beforehand.
When your train is announced at the station they will how the carriages are numbered, I mean from which side of the train, from the head or from the tail. If the announcement was made in Russian only, keep in mind that from the head is “С головы поезда”/s golovi poezda, and from the tail is “с хвоста поезда”/s hvosta poezda.
The atmosphere on a train in Russia
A lot of Russian people love railways and travelling by train. Some say there’s something romantic in it. Not romantic as in connected to relationships and love, but more like the sense of adventure. And it’s a great way to meet people. A lot of people love heartfelt conversations and the idea of spilling their whole life-story to their neighbors during a long train ride. As a person who is always on the other end of those… spills, I really don’t like it.
But a lot of people, especially middle-aged and older men find that therapeutic. Like… the narrow box of what is considered appropriate male behavior wouldn’t allow them to talk about their feeling and stuff to the people they know. But to a stranger on a train? The one you’ll never see again? No problem. And what a great opportunity to vent! Political debates are also popular. So… keep that in mind.
If you like that stuff, great. If you don’t feel like it, it’s not you and you probably didn’t do anything to provoke it. It’s just train atmosphere. Try to find ways to get out of that sh… predicament. Like pretending to sleep, reading, putting your earphones on and literally getting away. Remember, it’s ok to not listen, you’ll never meet that person again either.
And now it’s time for the segment: How do you say it in Russian?
I’ll go with short and useful again. Yes as many of you know sound like Да/da. Not duuuuh, but simply dah!!! And no is нет/njet. But you need to pronounce it as one syllable! Not nj-et 😀
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Till next time!
Yours, Gigi, from Russia with love and superlong railways 😀
- Russian railways official site (Russian version looks completely different, BTW! Check it out)
- RZD (that’s Russian railways) mobile app to buy tickets (for iOS and for Android)
- Special deals for fans who will come to Russia for FIFA 2018 are here
- A map of the Russian railways
- History of rail transport in Russia
- Rail transport in Russia – more history and facts
- Trans Siberian Railway
Changing of the wheels on carriages that go from Russia to Europe