Using trains in Russia
Due to the immense size of the country, and problems with road safety, the best way to get around through the entire country quickly and reliably is by train. Russia has an extensive rail network linking nearly every city and town, excepting some northeastern ones. For intercity travel, the train is generally the most convenient option for trips that can be covered overnight. Although accommodations are not always the best, Russian trains have efficient and courteous staff as well as timely departures and arrivals that would impress even a German. The train is an option for longer trips (many Russians continue to use it for trips of 2 days or more), but mainly if you appreciate the nuances and experience of train travel in Russia. For the complete Russian rail experience, the one-week Trans-Siberian Railway has no equal.
Travel time can vary from several hours to several days. There are more types of train between the two largest cities than between any other two cities in Russia. Apart from ordinary trains, there are rapid trains (Sapsan) that run by day only and cover the 650km between Moscow and Saint Petersburg in 4 hours. Some of the overnight trains are quite luxurious — these include the traditional The Red Arrow service and the private Grand Express, a ‘hotel on wheels’. Sheets, towels and pre-packed breakfasts are included in all the better trains. Shared bathroom facilities are located at the end of the train car. There are special hatches that one may use to secure the door of the compartment from the inside during the night.
When traveling in a sleeper car of any class, it is best to change to your home clothing and footwear, like all Russians do. It is very convenient and allows you to feel almost like at home, and even in harsh winters temperature in carriages is supported at a comfortable level. When both men and women travel in one compartment, etiquette rules say that the men should get out first to let the women change clothes, and after that the women do the same. In Platzkart carriages the only reliable place for changing is a toilet.
Branded trains are always air conditioned, but in cheaper ordinary trains it is true only for renovated or new carriages (mainly TVZ cars built in 2006+), so it would be a good idea to inquire beforehand whether your carriage has an air conditioning system, especially if you are traveling to the southern part of Russia in summer.
Toilets in trains vary from simple sewage pipes dumping waste on the ground to airliner-like vacuum systems. While ordinary toilets can only be used during movement and far from sanitary zones (usually 15 min before arrival to and after departure from every station), vacuum WCs are more environment-friendly and are available during entire travel time. In Russian trains vacuum toilets began to appear only after 2008, but the rolling stock of Russian Railways is now renewing rapidly, so, as of 2017, all the branded trains, as well as about a quarter to a third of ordinary ones have WCs with a vacuum system or at least with a waste tank which is emptied at several stations en route.
Train stations staff most often speaks only limited English, so if you are not familiar enough with Russian to purchase your train ticket in person, it is suggested that you purchase online or through your hotel concierge or travel agent before you depart.
Dining cars of express trains are nicely appointed with real table linens and an impressive menu and wine list, but an average bill is 2 to 3 times more expensive than it would be in a typical cafe in the city before and after you travel.
At major stations trains usually stop for long time, about 15-20 minutes. Check the timetable placed on door at the end of corridor. During long stops you can buy various meals and drinks at platform from locals for pretty reasonable prices or visit a nearby supermarket.
A few very popular routes, mostly between Moscow and nearby cities such as Vladimir, Yaroslavl, Tula, and others have an express commuter train that is considerably more comfortable. Your ticket will have a designated seat number and the seats are very comfortable. The trains travel to their destination with only 1 or 2 brief stops and are thus considerably faster.
Smoking on all types of trains is absolutely prohibited.
Being drunk and unruly and any type of aggressive behavior will get you in trouble first with a conductor and then with the police. People in Russia generally keep their voice down when traveling on trains and talking in a loud voice going to earn a cold look from other fellow passengers. A tourist should avoid drinking alcohol, it would only get you in trouble, if you don’t know the language.
Drinking your own beverages is OK in closed compartments if your neighbors don’t mind seeing you in a slightly drunk condition, otherwise they may officially complain about your behavior to a conductor or a transport policeman, and that may result in the termination of your trip at the very next station where you will be accompanied to a police department and fined. In this case your ticket will be marked by a conductor and you’ll have to buy a new one.
Warning! Since 2014 drinking of any alcohol in trains (except dining cars) is illegal and punishable with fine, so if you decide to drink in train, do it at your own risk. As said above, if you drink responsibly and behave quietly, the other passengers most probably will not trouble you, but if policemen that patrol trains see you drinking, you may have problems.
Alcohol ordered in dining cars may be consumed right there without any problems. But note that, as of 2014, most dining cars officially offer only alcohol up to 16.5%. Sometimes they can unofficially offer you vodka poured in a tea-pot, but beware of its possibly low quality. Perhaps, the best choice in this case would be a glass or two of quality wine instead.
As said in the beginning, Russian train movement is timely. Delays happen sometimes, as everywhere in the world, but even so they are usually very short, and you should never rely on such a possibility, because your train will not wait for you even a single minute in case you are late. It is best to arrive to the train station at least an hour before your departure time.
Be aware of the time zones difference between the cities, e.g. Moscow and Vladivostok differ by 7 hours. Local time is used on all Russian train stations and in tickets.
Most Russian cities have bus links to cities as far as 5-6 hours away or further. Though generally less comfortable than the train, on short routes in provincial Russia where traffic jams are not common, buses are sometimes a better option time-wise and are worth looking into if the train timetables don’t suit you. But if you try to get to or from Moscow by bus, in most cases you will waste plenty of your time stuck in huge jams not envisaged in the bus timetable. A small number of cities, notably Suzdal, are not served by train and bus is the only option besides a car.
The Russian word for bus station is Avtovokzal. Most cities have just one for long distance buses and the state buses depart from there. However, in Moscow and in some other Russian cities, a number of commercial buses are available, and they generally don’t depart from the bus station. Quite often, you’ll see commercial buses near train stations. Sometimes they run on schedules, though for popular routes (such as Moscow-Vladimir, Moscow/Yaroslavl, etc.) the buses simply wait to fill up. On these buses payment is usually to the driver.
Russian buses have luggage storage, but if it’s an old Eastern-bloc bus (Ikarus), you may find your luggage wet at the end of the trip. However, most buses used in Russia nowadays are either ~20 years old Mercedes-Benz, MAN, Neoplan, etc., or (at least relatively) new Russian, Chinese or Korean ones, and such a problem has become much less common.
Apart from regular buses there are private minibuses called marshrutka. Marshrutkas have fixed routes, but usually no timetables and no regular stations. Stop at the roadside and wave a hand, if you are lucky and the minibus isn’t full, it will stop. You can arrange with the driver to drop you off at a desired place on his route. At more frequent stops the driver waits until his minibus will fill up. There are no tickets; you pay directly to the driver. Marshrutkas ride both on countryside (in this case they likely to have timetables) and as city transport – in cities usually have number plates as regular buses.