Russian Train Guide

Krasnaya Strela (Railway Train), Russia
Image via Wikipedia


An introduction to Russian trains

Russian trains offer a choice of 1st 2nd or 3rd class.

You can buy tickets at train stations, Russian travel agencies, airports and online.  The ticketing system is electronic so it doesn’t matter where you buy the ticket.  You need to show your passport when buying train tickets in Russia.

If you buy your Russian train ticket online you at you will be offered the choice of a completely electronic ticket (E-Registration), a voucher that can be exchanged at a ticket machine in the station (E-Ticket) or a paper ticket. I would recommend booking E-Registration where possible, as this saves time and effort and means you simply turn up at the train, show your passport to the conductor and get on the train.  The other methods can involve long slow queues and could cause you to miss the train!

Russian 1st Class Train travel

1st class (known in Russia as esve or Спальный вагон ( spalyny wagon – literally sleeping wagon) is very very nice.  There are only 2 bunks in the compartment, one on each side, there is lots of space and the wagons are well appointed and clean.  When I went 1st class we had a flatscreen TV on the wall and were offered a choice of food for the complimentary meal.  Its almost like being in a hotel room on wheels.   Book a cabin with your loved one and you can have a very romantic and relaxing journey.  Unfortunately, 1st class is becoming rather expensive and can cost double the price of 2nd class.

2nd Class (Купе)

2nd class (Купе – pronounced Koopay) is reasonably comfortable.  There are now 4 bunks in the compartment, two upper and two lower, sometimes a TV and depending on your ticket there may or may not be free food.  The corridor is now bunk free, its just a corridor.  Expect to pay about half the price of 1st class for a 2nd class ticket.  2nd Class is usually air conditioned and cool and the bunks are fairly wide, plush and comfortable.  2nd Class can get a big cramped though, especially if you end up stuck with 3 hairy drunken Russian guys who resemble the Beast from the East and plan to play vodka drinking games all night long.

3rd Class – (Плацкарт) – Platskart

3rd class (Плацкарт – pronounced Platskart) – literally place in cattle wagon!  Oh dear. Life is very cramped and uncomfortable in 3rd class.  Again there are four bunks in the main compartment but now the corridor space is halved and a pair of bunks are jammed lengthways all the way along the wagon, making six to a compartment.  Welcome to hell.  There are no doors in 3rd class, so privacy and security are purely notional.  If you have ever wished to experience life on a Russian submarine then you will be happy in Platskart .  Forget about a TV, the wagon is usually hot, stuffy and smelly. The only food in 3rd class is whatever you’ve brought along yourself.  You can visit the restaurant car though, and sometimes the conductors sell snacks and drinks.


Russian Train Etiquette

In the UK train journeys are quite short, a few hours at most.  In Russia – the biggest country in the world, distances are vast, and getting from Moscow to Vladivostock can take a week or more.  Staying on a train for such a long time requires a little planning, preparation and little local knowledge which can make your stay more comfortable.

There are certain unwritten rules and customs regarding train travel in Russia, as a foreigner you might not know these.

On a long or overnight trip Russians like to change out of their usual business/city clothes into casual comfortable light clothes.  Clothes such as slippers,shorts, sports trousers and T-shirts are popular on the train.  It’s just more comfortable for a ride that could be anything from a few hours to a week or so long.  The trains are so well heated that you will never be cold, even in the depths of Russian winter.

Women might sometimes request that the men leave the compartment for a few minutes so that they can change clothes.  You could also try to get changed in the toilet, although this can be tricky, especially once the train has been moving a few hours and the toilet becomes very dirty.

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Soviet City advice – If you are travelling on a Russian train for more than a few hours bring slippers, light loose fitting sports clothes such as t-shirt, joggings pants etc.  It will be more comfortable and you will then be able to change back into usual clothes before you arrive.  Also  take a washbag, facial cleansing wipes, toothbrush, electric shaver, comb, brush and any toiletries you might need.  Bring bottles of water, noodles, bread,cheese,meat, sachets of coffee AND your own supply of toilet paper. There may be NO toilet paper in the toilets.

Train Security

All long distance trains will have a policeman or two aboard and they will be armed.  They occasionally wander up and down the length of the train to check everything is OK and they will be called if there are any serious problems onboard.

In 1st and 2nd class it is possible to lock the door, there is also a piece of metal that can be pulled out to jam the door shut for extra security.  If you are really paranoid you could use cord/string to tie the door handle together.

In 3rd class there are NO doors!  Its completely open.  The only door you will have is the toilet door!  Your happiness and security depends on the sobriety and character of your many newfound Russian friends.  As a foreigner you can expect people to just stare at you for hours.  Just be nice, smile back and remember you are a guest in their country.  There are no prizes for being an arrogant asshole or picking fights with anybody.

Many Russians, especially if they are not from Moscow or St Petersburg, may have never seen or spoken to a foreigner in their life, so expect a little attention.

Despite the warning about security, just relax and don’t panic.

 I travelled thousand of kilometres backwards and forwards across Russia dozens of times and never had a single problem on the train!

I would rate security as reasonable although it is sensible to take a few precautions. Luggage can be stowed in a small metal compartment underneath the bottom bunks, the bunks hinge upwards to allow access.  If your sitting or sleeping on the bottom bunk then the safest place for your money and documents is obviously in the metal box underneath your bunk inside your suitcase or rucksack.

If you are in the upper bunks then you might be able to squeeze your bag under the bottom bunk, or alternatively you can make use of the upper storage spaces although these are open and dont have a lid or door to protect them.

If you are travelling alone then you should take care when going to the toilet or restaurant car.  Use a moneybelt and also consider splitting any cash into seperate bundles ie one in your moneybelt, one in your suitcase etc.  If you have more than one credit or debit card then consider splitting these into different locations as well.


Life on the Train

Once evening arrives people will start to make their bed.  Russian trains usually provide clean sheets, a mattress cover and a clean pillowcase cover.  You can ask the conductor for a cup and spoon and buy tea and coffee from them.

Hot water is provided by a large metal samovar which usually sits near the conductors compartment.  You just pull a lever and out comes scaldingly hot water.  The samovar is free, so bring your own teabags, sachets of coffee, sugar,milk.   I usually buy the 3 in 1 sachets of coffee that can be found in any Russian food shop.  Take care with the samovar, the water is  amazingly hot!

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Popular foods for the train include kalbasa (sausage meat- as smelly as possible), lapshoo (noodles), sandwiches and beer for the evening.

Train toilets are often locked during the first and last hour of the journey, and can also be locked when the train approaches or stops at stations along the route.  So make sure that you visit the toilet early enough before you get off at your final stop!

Train Stops

Intercity trains usually have a timetable of stops printed on the corridor wall.  If not then ask the conductor about stops.

Trains often make numerous short stops on long journeys, they can be anything from 2 to 60 minutes each time.

It’s possible to get off the train at these stops in order to buy food or beer from the local sellers who line the platforms at all times of day and night.

You will be amazed and surprised at the choice of variety of goods available on the platform.

Even if your train stops on the edge of a remote Siberian village at 3am in a -40C snowstorm there will still be dozens of people lining the platform trying to get your attention to buy their goods.

You can often buy food, beer, water, juice, fresh fish, sandwiches, souvenirs, toys and clothes and the odd crystal chandelier or samovar from the platform sellers.

The conductor for each wagon gets off the train at these stops and carefully guards the train door to make sure nobody tries to sneak aboard.  They sometimes allow selected sellers aboard for a couple of minutes to flog their wares.

Make sure that that the conductor knows that you have got off the train, and also don’t wander off too far.

The train WILL NOT wait for you, so don’t go into the station or out of sight of the conductor.  I would recommend staying right by the conductor as the sellers will simply come right up to you.   There is no need to go to them.

You really don’t want to be left behind.

Enjoy your journey!

Had a great Russian train journey? Has our Russian Train Guide been useful?

Leave a comment or drop a mail to let us know.

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  1. This was a lot of work and of great interest, thanks.

  2. railroad_conductor says:

    Although i agree that platskart is not the paradise, it is the TRUE soviet-russian way of travelling. No privacy at all-thats the best thing, everybody open, everybody as they are, one small community of people totally unrelated to each other besides their travelling destinations.
    If you think about it, platsart in some sense is better than other two. If you get in S.V. with a loud-sleeping person, or with “alkash” you would understand what I am saying

  3. Railroad_conductor, I agree with you.

    Everything depends on the people and sometimes 1st and 2nd class aren’t much better than 3rd !
    I usually travel in platskart.

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