DESTINATIONS train-travel-51


Train Travel

In Russia trains are reliable, convenient, and comfortable. Remarkably, most trains leave exactly on time; there's a broadcast warning five minutes before departure, but no whistle or "all aboard!" call, so be careful not to be left behind.

There are numerous day and overnight trains between St. Petersburg and Moscow. The new Sapsan express train makes the trip in just over four hours and has several departures a day from each city. The Siemans-built trains travel at speeds of 150 mph. Other fast day trains include the Avrora and Nevsky Express, which take around four hours, 30 minutes, and also have comfortable compartments. The Grand Express, which runs overnight, has showers in the compartments of the higher classes, and hand basins in lower classes, as well as satellite television and other amenities.

Train travel in Russia offers an unrivaled opportunity to glimpse the Russian countryside, which is dotted in places with colorful wooden cottages and fog-covered lakes, dubbed "mirror lakes," for their stillness. If you're traveling by overnight train, set your alarm and get up an hour or so before arrival so that you can watch at close hand the workers going about their morning rounds in the rural areas just outside the cities.

To make your train trip more comfortable, be sure to carry bottled water. Vendors run up and down train cars at and between stops, selling drinks and sandwiches. You may, however, want to bring a packed meal; most Russians do so, and your compartment mates may offer to share (beware of offers of vodka, however; poison bootleg vodka is a big problem in Russia). The communal bathrooms at both ends of each car can be dirty, so bring premoistened cleansing tissues for washing up. You may want to pack toilet paper just to be on the safe side, although it's rare now for train bathrooms to be without it. Also be sure to pack a heavy sweater in winter. The cars are often overheated and toasty warm, but sometimes they're not heated at all. (Note: smoking in the cars isn’t acceptable, but smokers will find plenty of company in between cars.)

You should stick to the usual security precautions. To be on the safe side when sharing a compartment on overnight trips you should sleep with your money, passport, and other important items.

On the more expensive trains (the lower the train number, the faster and more expensive the journey), you're likely to share compartments with businessmen or families. Many travelers to Russia say their trips on overnight trains have proven to be some of their most memorable experiences. For many, it’s a chance to get to know real Russians, despite language barriers.

Trains are divided into four classes. The deluxe class offers two-berth compartments with soft seats and private washrooms; the other classes have washrooms at the end of the cars. First-class service—the highest class for domestic routes—is called "soft-seat," with spring-cushion berths (two berths to a compartment). When buying your ticket, ask for "SV."

There's rarely segregation of the sexes (although this has been introduced as an experiment on a few train services), and no matter what class of service you choose, you could end up sharing a compartment with someone of the opposite sex. Never fear. There’s an unspoken system on Russian trains that allows each passenger to change into comfortable train clothes in privacy. Your traveling partner will most likely signal this by exiting the compartment for you to change. When he or she returns 15 minutes later, consider that your signal to do the same.

Second-class service, or "hard-seat" service—ask for coupé—has a cushion on wooden berths, with four berths to a compartment. The third class—wooden berths without compartments—is not the most comfortable choice but sometimes necessary. Known in Russian as platskart, this class entails an almost complete surrender of privacy in an open compartment. If you have to travel in this class, be sure to keep your valuables on you at all times.

Most compartments have a small table, limited room for baggage (including under the seats), and a radio that can be turned down, but not off. In soft-seat compartments there are also table lamps. The price of the ticket may or may not include use of bedding; sometimes this fee (which will not be much more than 150R) is collected by the conductor.

All of the cars are also equipped with samovars. It's not uncommon in soft-seat class to be offered tea in the evening and morning, plus a small boxed meal. For second- or third-class travel, you may want to bring some tea bags or instant coffee and a mug, since you can take hot water from the samovar at any time.

Russian Railways is experimenting with online ticket purchases. At this writing, this can only be done easily if you have Russian language skills; the English version of the Russian Railways website shows timetables of trains, but doesn’t allow the purchase of tickets. Also, foreign credit card holders may experience problems with purchases on Russian websites. In the meantime, there are several online services, such as Way To Russia, Visit Russia, and Russian Passport, who will buy the tickets for you for a nominal service fee. Tickets go on sale 45 days prior to departure, and for popular routes during peak travel times (summer and winter holidays), it's advisable to buy them as far in advance as possible. Note that you must show your passport or a photocopy when purchasing train tickets. Your best bet is to go to Moscow or St. Petersburg's central booking office, although you can buy tickets for any destination at any mainline train station. Telephone inquiries for train services usually involve poor lines and clerks who speak only Russian. Try to get your hotel, a Russian acquaintance, or an independent travel agency to help you book tickets. A one-way ticket between Moscow and St. Petersburg on the Sapsan express train start at 2,300R. The Grand Express overnight train starts at 6,000R for the luxury class.

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