25 Oct 2010
Warren Singh-Bartlett
I was born in Pakistan. My father is English and my mother is Indian. I was brought up between India, Taiwan, Brazil and almost every industrialised city you can think of in England.

My Chariot Awaits

It’s heresy to say this on an aviation-oriented blog, especially given who my sponsors are (I’m sorry, Finnair!) but can I just say that my train ride to Moscow today provided compelling proof that in Europe, Russia and parts of eastern Asia at least, rail is almost certainly going to overtake air travel in the future.

I have no agenda when I say this. If anything, I’m pro-flying. Even in this age of inconvenience – the long waits, the interminable queues, the increasingly humiliating security checks – I still love planes. Apart from the Shuttle, I can’t think of a single more exciting way to travel, today. Whether you are packed in to Economy seats like sardines – there’s a reason some call it Cattle Class – or riding in the lap of business class luxury, very little equals the surreal glamour of travelling at 850km an hour, 10, 11 or even 12,000 metres above the earth.

Still, train travel isn’t far behind. It’s true that in terms of the journey itself, planes are still much faster (at least until they iron the kinks out of Maglev) but add in the distance from city to airport, the 2+ hours that most airports now require you to turn up for a flight and the travel time from the airport on the other end to your final destination and minute for minute, high-speed train travel is almost as fast and in some cases, even faster than flying.

Take my train today, the Sapsan. It’s true, it isn’t the fastest of the fast trains and I could easily have flown to Moscow but I chose the train because in the end, the flying would only have been 90 minutes faster, with all the transfers taken into consideration.

Babushka Is Overcome By The Beauty Of It All

The Sapsan is about as far removed from the old Soviet-era trains as is possible to imagine. The carriages are of German manufacture (Siemens) and so were as comfortable as any of the high-speed lines that run in Europe.

My cabin was non-smoking, clean and spacious with plenty of overhead storage. Each compartment had a coat-rack (with hangars!) and there was lots of room to stow away larger baggage between the seats.

Beats a Coat Hook, Any Day

Even in second class, at a seat without a table in front of it, I had plenty of room. My laptop fit neatly on the fold-down table without my keyboard riding up onto my tummy – and this is not, dear readers, because my build has been getting more slender of late – and I was able to angle the screen comfortably.

There was a trolley service for tea, coffee and snacks as well as the buffet cart. The toilets were spacious and spotless and the aisle was wide enough to allow you to walk down it and not fall into anyone’s lap on the way (Entities-Formerly-Known-As-British-Rail, please take note) and while the elderly gentleman next to me probably didn’t appreciate me getting out of my seat all the time to look around and no doubt wondered why in god’s name I was taking photos of my seat, I’m sure with Russian nonchalance he chalked that down to foreign eccentricity.

The journey was fast and painless. We left on schedule and yes, we arrived in Moscow on schedule too.

Ran Like Clockwork

24 Oct 2010
Warren Singh-Bartlett
I was born in Pakistan. My father is English and my mother is Indian. I was brought up between India, Taiwan, Brazil and almost every industrialised city you can think of in England.

There are two ways to purchase a railway ticket in Russia. You can get someone else – your hotel, a travel agency, a guide or an online booking site – to do it for you, but they’ll all charge a fee for their services.

Or you can book it yourself. This way is cheaper and more satisfying but you will encounter language difficulties. The information counter at the Moscovsky train terminal in St. Petersburg had signs in English but was staffed by someone who only spoke Russian. Don’t assume that any of the ticket sellers will be able to speak any more English than the average tourist can speak Russian, either.

The online site Russian for Railway Travel has some choice phrases, if you are good at memorising things but your best bet is probably to write out your desired destination, date of travel, preferred time and (if appropriate) name of train on a slip of paper that you can show to the ticket seller.

Remember that you should write the destination and train name in Cyrillic letters, not Latin. There are plenty of online translators that can take care of that for you.

You’ll also need to find out what trains are going where.

The Russian Railways site should be the logical place to start and they do have an English language website, which is an admirable and comprehensive source of information for investors. For actual travellers, though, it is next to useless.

The site does have an online timetable in English but to get train times, you’ll have to type your destination in Cyrillic, which rather defeats the purpose of a site aimed at non-Russian speakers.

I suppose you could copy-paste from a translation site, but still. The genius who designed this site deserves to win next year’s Nobel for International Relations.

You say St. Petersburg, I say Санкт-Петербург

Though they probably won’t thank me for saying this, your best bet is to go straight to Russian Trains.com.

Be aware that this is an online booking site, so what Russian Trains want is for you to buy your ticket through them, for which there is a booking fee. And if you feel so inclined, please do.

For more adventurous/budget-minded types though, the site is useful for its timetable, searchable in English, which will enable you to find out what trains are going where and when.

Armed with this information (you can take the prices listed on Russian Trains as a rough guide, but what you actually pay at the station will be significantly less), you are ready to buy your ticket.

Now all you have to do is be prepared to wait in line. My tip? Go early. Also note that Russian lines appear to form at a diagonal to the counter, so if you stand directly in front of it, don’t be surprised if people slip in beside you. In this, Russia is more than a little Middle Eastern.

Once at the counter, present your piece of paper. Hopefully, the train you want won’t be full but just in case, you may want to note down the details of other trains leaving earlier or later the day you want to travel.

That’s What I Want

Preferred payment, at least at Moscovsky Station, is cash and I saw no evidence of people using credit cards. The station is littered with ATMs, so even if you don’t like the idea of carrying money, getting your wad on is easy.

That’s What They Want

Most important of all, do not do as I did on my first trip to Moscovsky Station and come without your passport. You may not be leaving Russia but you will need your passport to book your ticket. Other documents (driver’s license etc) don’t cut it. The booking is made using your visa details as well.

Don’t Leave Hotel Without One

Is it worth the (minor) hassle?

Absolutely.

Firstly, booked yourself, the price of a Second Class ticket for the 800km trip between St. Petersburg and Moscow on the fastest train cost me 2354 Roubles/€55.59, which is practically free. Compare that to even the shortest taxi journey in St. Petersburg, which will cost you upwards of 500 Roubles/€11.81.

Secondly, Moskovsky station is a little architectural gem, with a fabulous map of where you can go from here (Tallinn! Archangelsk! Alma Aty!)

Yes, But What About Vladivostok?

a gorgeous ceiling mural of Lenin doing something appropriately heroic and proletarian (picture coming tomorrow) in the vaulting waiting room and a massive bust of King Peter the Great.

Looking Great, Pete!

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