Due to the vastness of the country and poor road safety, the best way to move around the country quickly is by train. Russia has an extensive railway network connecting almost all cities and towns. For intercity travel, the train is usually the most comfortable solution for journeys that can be made at night. Although the accommodation is not the best, Russian trains have efficient and courteous staff and fast departures and arrivals that would impress even a German. The train is an option for longer journeys (many Russians still use it for journeys of 2 days or more), but especially if you enjoy the nuances and experience of train travel in Russia. For a complete Russian rail experience, the week-long Trans-Siberian Railway is unsurpassed.
Russian trains are divided into different types: Long-distance trains (дальнего следования DAHL’nyehvuh SLEHduhvahnyah) usually cover distances of more than 4 hours or about 200 kilometres (120 miles). Shorter distances are covered by suburban trains (пригородные PREEguhruhdnyyeh), popularly called электрички ehlehkTREECHkee. Most railway stations (железнодорожный вокзал zhehlyehznohdohROHZHny vohgZAHL) have separate areas for the sale of such tickets.
Transport with bicycle
Carrying a bicycle in the car is allowed for one ticket, provided it is compact and neatly folded/disassembled. As a rule, the bicycle is stripped of its wheels and pedals, put in a bag and stored on the top shelf in the seat car. Other classes of vehicles have less space or storage and the bike must be more compact.
Almost all long-distance trains are designed for night services. There are several classes of accommodation:
- Deluxe – myagkiy (мягкий) – with private compartments for two adults and one child, with their own toilet and shower. Only a few trains have this fancy class.
- 1st class – spalnyy/lyuks(спальный/люкс) – with private compartments for two people. Most trains connecting larger cities have a carriage of this class; tickets are quite expensive by European standards. In common parlance, this class is usually called SV (es-veh, СВ). The compartments are often the same as in Kupe, with the two upper beds stowed away.
- 2nd class – kupe (купе) – with private compartments for four people. On some trains, compartments may be designated by the ticketing system as reserved for men, women or mixed gender.
- 3rd class – platskart (плацкарт) – with non-wall compartments with quadruple beds opposite two beds against the window wall. The safety of these compartments is debatable. For some, these compartments are generally less safe than other classes because they allow uncontrolled access. Others point out that in an open car full of witnesses, there is less risk of becoming a victim of crime or molestation. In any case, they offer a much more intense experience.
- Seat class – sidyachiy (сидячий) – Seat carriages for shorter journeys, with seat reservation. These carriages are usually used in slower regional trains.
Each carriage has its own attendant/driver (provodnik or provodnitsa) who checks your tickets when you board, provides you with bedding, sells you tea or snacks and can lend you a cup and spoon for about 10 roubles. The driver usually collects your tickets shortly after you board, and they are returned shortly before you arrive at your destination. At the end of each carriage you will find a samovar with free hot water for making tea or soup. Most long-distance trains have dining cars.
The lower berths (nizhnie – нижние) are slightly more comfortable than the upper berths (verhnie – верхние), as they offer more space for luggage. Discounts are sometimes given only for the upper berths (usually outside the tourist season and in the busiest directions, i.e. leaving big cities on Friday evening and returning on Sunday evening).
Trains are classified according to their average speed:
- skorostnoy (скоростной, numbered 151 to 178) – the fastest trains (seats only). The Sapsan, Allegro and Lastochka trains run there;
- skoryy (скорый, numbered from 1 to 148 year-round and from 181 to 298 seasonal) – fast trains with accommodation ;
- Passenger trains (пассажирский, numbered 301-399 year-round, 400-499 seasonal and 500-598 on specific dates only) – slower trains with more frequent stops;
- mestnyy (местный, numbers 601 to 698) – the slowest trains serving most communities along the tracks. Typically, this type of train runs on shorter routes, often at night, e.g. between neighbouring or nearby regional centres or on dead-end branch lines. The approximate upper limit of route length is about 700 km. Trains are sometimes colloquially called shestisotye or shest’sot-veselye, depending on their numbering (6XX or 600 happy trains) ;
- pochtovo-bagazhnyy/gruzopassazhyrskiy (почтово-багажный/грузопассажирский, number 901 to 998) – mainly used for the delivery of mail and bulky luggage or goods. According to railway regulations, it is possible to purchase tickers on these trains, depending on the location and usually further away from larger centres. Where there is a choice of trains, they are not practical as they usually have long stops at all major stations and are therefore slower, even compared to 6XX trains. There is likely to be a heavy police presence when loading and unloading this type of train;
- Prigorodnyy express (numbered 800 to 899 and 7000 to 7999) – local express trains, both suburban trains, such as REX and Sputniks, and inter-regional trains, including even trains from Moscow to St Petersburg. In common parlance they are called popugai (parrots) because of their bright colours, but further away from Moscow regular local trains can be used as express trains ;
- prigorodnyy/elektropoyezd (пригородный/электропоезд, numbered from 6001 to 6998) – local or suburban trains serving mainly urban commuters. Usually called elektrichka, or sometimes more informally sobaka (dogs). Although all types of commuter trains are sometimes, if incorrectly, called elektrichka, their types are varied, especially when the tracks are not electrified, such as diesel trains and rail buses, or short trains pulled by a (usually) diesel or electric locomotive. Local trains pulled by locomotives can also be called kukushka (cuckoo clocks).
In general, the correspondence between numbering, speed and train types can be somewhat distorted, and trains in the “slower” category can actually be faster than those in the “faster” category. This usually happens for different categories of fast and express trains.
Service quality usually corresponds to train class, with year-round trains usually having better service than seasonal trains, which in turn are usually better than trains that only run on special dates. Also because of their service standards, some trains are promoted to firmennyy(фирменный) and are given their own label and a higher ticket price. The most distinguished trains use their special livery.
Since 2011, dozens of local trains (prigorodny) have been cancelled every year due to lack of funding, and the situation is getting worse every year. Cancellations occur all over the country, except in the suburbs of big cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ekaterinburg and Irkutsk. Up-to-date information on cancellations can be very important when planning your trip. Typical features of train cancellations: most cancellations take place at the beginning of the year, sometimes some trains are rescheduled if local budgets find funds to finance them; some trains are cancelled at the borders of the region, even if there is no road to cross the border to the previous destination; other local trains are reduced to one per day or several per week, often with timetables not suitable for tourists.
Reservations are compulsory on long-distance trains. You must therefore plan each leg of your journey specifically, you cannot get on and off. Don’t forget that Russian timetables use Moscow time, which is good for Moscow, St. Petersburg and the surrounding area, but you lose 3 hours compared to local time in Novosibirsk, and even worse, you move further east. Timetables based on these, e.g. on the internet, may or may not follow the same convention – so check this when planning your trip.
Ticket prices depend on the train and carriage class as well as the season (tickets for holidays can cost 2/3 of those for peak days). You can check the ticket price on Nnov-airport.ru, Poezda.net (in Russian only) or at the Russian Railways online shop.
It is best to buy your ticket online on the Russian Railways website. If the online system shows the train as 3P (with a small train symbol), you will need to print this ticket at home and it does not need to be validated before boarding. For trains without a 3P, you must present your receipt at a ticket office to collect your ticket, which is only possible within Russia – so you cannot use these trains for journeys starting outside Russia.
You can also buy at the station: Kassovyi Zal (кассовый зал) means ticket office. Queues vary a lot – some stations are much better organised than others, and it also depends on the time of year. If you find the queues unbearably long, it is usually not difficult to find an agency that sells train tickets. The commission rates are generally not prohibitive. For example, if you are buying your ticket to St Petersburg from Moscow, it is much better to walk a few steps from the regular ticket office – there are no queues there and the R140 is a small extra charge for this service.
There are many agencies that sell Russian train tickets abroad – RealRussia [www], RussianTrains [www] or RussianTrain [www]. They have an English-language website and can send the tickets to your home, but the prices are 30-50% higher.
The duration of the journey can vary from a few hours to several days. Note that there are more types of trains between the two capitals than between any other city in Russia. In addition to regular trains, there are also express trains (Sapsan) that only run during the day and cover the 650 km between Moscow and St Petersburg in 4 hours. Some of the overnight trains are quite luxurious, including the traditional “Red Arrow” service and the brand new Tsarist-era Nikolaevsky Express with conductors in 19th century uniforms. Bed linen, towels and breakfast are included on the best trains. Communal toilets are located at the end of the carriage. There are special hatches that allow you to secure the compartment door from the inside during the night.
The express train from Moscow to St. Petersburg takes 5 hours and costs 2400 roubles. The trains are only slightly air-conditioned. No one speaks English at the Moscow train station. If you do not speak Russian well enough to buy your train ticket in person, it is advisable to buy it online or through the concierge at your hotel or travel agency before you leave. Also note that all signage inside the station is in Russian only, so it can be difficult to find the right platform. The dining car of the express train is beautifully decorated with real table linen and an impressive food and wine list, but it is 3 to 4 times more expensive than eating in the city before and after the journey.
Trains stop at stations for a longer period of time, about 15 to 20 minutes. Check the timetable at the door at the end of the corridor. During the stop, you can buy various food and drinks from the local people on the platform at quite reasonable prices. Between stops, shopkeepers often pass through the cars selling everything from crockery to clothes to Lay’s chips.
Commuter trains are mostly hard-seat coaches. They do not have a fixed seat number, only a seat on a bench. These trains have a reputation for being overcrowded, but this reputation has somewhat subsided. The trains stop very often and are rather slow. For example, a 200 km journey to Vladimir takes about 3 hours and 30 minutes. They have (!) toilets in the first and last car, but it will be an unforgettable experience (to be used only in an “emergency”).
Tickets for local trains are sold in a separate room from those for long-distance trains, and sometimes they are sold from outside cabins.
Some very popular lines, especially between Moscow and nearby cities like Vladimir, Yaroslavl, Tula and others, have an express suburban train that is much more comfortable. Your ticket has a specific seat number and the seats are reasonably comfortable. The trains go directly to their destination and are therefore much faster.
Please note that all long-distance trains in Russia run on Moscow time (which can be up to 7 hours behind local time in the Far East).
Most Russian cities are connected by buses to cities 5 or 6 hours or more away. Although generally less comfortable than trains, buses are sometimes a better option in terms of time and are worth considering if train schedules don’t suit you. A few cities, such as Suzdal, are not served by train, so the bus is the only option outside the car.
The Russian word for bus station is Avtovokzal (Ahv-tuh-vahg-ZAHL). In most cities there is only one bus for long distances and state buses leave from there. However, in Moscow and some other Russian cities there are a number of commercial buses that do not usually depart from the bus station. It is common to see commercial buses near railway stations. Sometimes they stick to timetables, but on the busiest routes (e.g. Moscow-Vladimir, Moscow-Yaroslavl, etc.) the buses are just waiting to fill up. On these buses, payment is usually made to the driver.
Russian buses have a luggage compartment, but if it’s an old Eastern Bloc bus, your luggage may be wet by the end of the journey.
In addition to regular buses, there are also private minibuses called Marshrutka (маршрутка). They emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union as an alternative to the ailing public transport system. Legally, they can be licensed as taxis or buses. They have fixed routes but usually no timetables or regular stops. Their official name is “route taxi” (Russian: marshrutnoye taxi, Ukrainian: marshrutne taxi), hence the colloquial name “marshrutka”).
To board one of them, stop at the side of the road and wave. If you are lucky and the minibus is not full, he will stop. In the city, he will stop anyway and give you the opportunity to stand in the aisle or even in a corner and lean over the seated passengers. This is neither legal nor practical, but it is very common and acceptable. You can arrange with the driver to stop at your destination. Usually all you have to do is shout “stop here please” and the marshrutka will stop almost anywhere, even in the middle of traffic, without pulling over to the side of the road. At the main stops, the driver can wait and pick up more passengers. Waiting time is unpredictable and depends on the timetable, number of passengers, competing buses, etc. There are no tickets, you pay the driver directly. He can give you a receipt, but you have to ask for it explicitly.
Marshrutkas travel both in the countryside (in which case they tend to have timetables) and in the city. They sometimes look like regular buses, which makes it difficult to distinguish them from official buses. Moreover, on long-distance routes you can reserve a seat by phone and even buy a ticket in advance. The system is very random and organised in the strangest way. It is strongly recommended to ask the details of a particular route from the drivers or at least from the residents, who should know the current situation in their city. Never rely on route numbers in cities. Sometimes they match those of official public transport, sometimes they do not.
Russia’s vast distances make air travel highly desirable if you plan to travel to some of Russia’s most remote attractions. It is worth considering any destination that is further away than an overnight train journey. Travelling across Russia by train may seem terribly romantic, but it is also a long and rather monotonous journey. Almost all major destinations of interest have an airport nearby. The vast majority of domestic flights are to/from Moscow, but there are other connections as well.
Russia’s domestic aviation industry had a miserable reputation in the 1990s due to its uncertain security situation, unreliable schedules, poor service, uncomfortable aircraft and poor quality airports. However, significant improvements have been made. Air travel to Russia is unlikely to be the highlight of your trip, but it has become bearable.
- Aeroflot, based at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, is Russia’s national airline for local flights from Russia and the CIS, as well as international flights to cities around the world (Germany, South Korea, USA, etc.). Prices for flights from St Petersburg to Moscow vary, but you can get them for around US$32 (February 2016), which is cheaper and less time-consuming than taking the train. Since December 2010, Aeroflot has operated domestic and international flights from the new Terminal D, which is next to the old international terminal (now Terminal F) and serves non-Aeroflot international departures. Many international and most domestic flights are operated by Boeing and Airbus aircraft, with only a few Soviet-era planes remaining.
- S7 (formerly Siberia or Sibir Airlines) is the largest Russian domestic airline with international connections to many cities in Germany, China and the former Soviet republics.
- Rossiya Airlines has an extensive route network from St Petersburg Pulkovo Airport to Russia’s two main cities and to Western Europe.
- UTair operates the largest aircraft fleet in Russia and is one of the five largest Russian airlines by passenger volume. UTair is the leader in the Russian market for helicopter services and the fourth largest helicopter service provider in the world by volume of international operations.
- Yakutia Airlines is a Siberian/Far Eastern airline with an extensive network of flights in Siberia and abroad.
- Nordavia operates national and regional services mainly in the Northwest region.
- Aurora, a regional airline from the Far East, also offers international flights to Japan and South Korea.
- OrenAir operates domestic passenger services
- The low-cost airline Pobeda Airlines operates domestic and international flights from Vnukovo Airport.
- Nordstar(Taimyr Air Company), national and international airline
Many of these companies (with the exception of Transaero, which began as a stand-alone operation) grew out of Aeroflot’s hometown operations, which had been unique since Soviet times, when the former Aeroflot was dissolved.
In March 2009, Rosaviation (Federal Aviation Regulator) published statistics on average departure delays in 2008, broken down by national airline:
- maximum departure delays are reported: Alrosa Avia (40% of flights were delayed by 2 hours or more), Moskoviya (17%), Dagestan Airlines (16%), Red Wings (14%), SkyExpress (13%), VIM-Avia (12%), Yakutia (10%).
- Des retards minimes sont signalés : Aeroflot-Russian airlines, S7/Sibir, Rossia, UTair et UTair-Express, Aeroflot-Nord, Aeroflot-Don, Kuban Airlines, Yamal, Saratov Airlines, Transaero, Tatarstan.
In the summer, cruise ships frequently ply the rivers of European Russia, connecting Kazan with Volgograd, Moscow with St. Petersburg and Astrakhan, with the trips through the Volga cities being the most popular. Lakes Ladoga and Onega in northern Russia are also served by cruise lines.
Russia has a very lively hitchhiking culture, with many hitchhiking clubs, there is even a hitchhiking academy. There are many competitions. Despite the horror stories of bad things happening in Russia, it is relatively safe to hitchhike, especially in the countryside. In some regions, Russians expect some money for a ride.