10 November 2006

Invasion Guide: Train Travel in Russia

Long-distance trains within Russia have 3 classes:

Spalny Vagon (Sleep Wagon)

2-bed compartments, 9 compartments per coach. Both beds are at the lower level. Washrooms and toilets are at the end of the corridor. Twice the price of travelling kupé, but twice the space per passenger. SV is also known as 'myagky/soft' or 'lyux/lux'.


4-bed compartments, 9 compartments per coach. Washrooms and toilets are at the end of the corridor. Recommended for most visitors to Russia. This is also our favourite when we are in 4s and get all our privacy and expensive drinks away from leechers.


Open-plan dormitory cars. There are 54 bunks per coach, arranged in bays of 4 on one side of the aisle and bays of 2 along the coach wall on the other side of the aisle. Only recommended for the most budget-conscious and adventurous visitors. At midnight there is an unforgettable symphony of snore, rails, and human stench blended with cheap vodka...

Russian trains:  2-berth 'spalny vagon'

This is the Spalny Vagon or Your Bedroom on Rails. Rather expensive but ideal for a long trip with a friend.

Russian trains:  'Kupé' class 4-berth sleepers

Russian trains: 'Platskartny' class sleepers
The Kupe (left) and The Dormitory (right)

Whichever class of travel you choose, each coach is looked after by a pair of attendants called a 'provodnik' (male) or 'provodnitsa' (female). The provodnik will check your ticket at the door to the wagon when you board. Shortly after departure, the provodnik will come round to take your tickets. Bedding (two sheets, pillowcase and towel) is then handed out in sealed packs - blankets and mattresses will already be stacked in your compartment. I must say that I am rather amazed by the hygiene of the compartments and the smell of clean sheets. After a few journeys, you will become quite proficient at making up your bed..! Even without waking your travel mates up.

Food on board

A samovar(tea machine that looks like a nuclear radiator) with unlimited free hot water is available at the end of the corridor - pack some tea or coffee, sugar, powder soups or water-based drinking chocolate and bring your own mug and don't ever question the source of the water. Some russian friends argue that this is unused break fluid of the coach (maybe because of its unqueastionable metallic taste)

Most long distance trains have a restaurant car serving drinks, snacks, and inexpensive full meals - reckon on less than 250R (~$9) for two courses and a couple of bottles of beer.

You can always bring your own food of course..but the things you would buy in stations will not be that different from the ones on board.


There is no particular need to worry about security on Russian trains, as long as you use common sense, exactly as you would in a hotel, locking your door at night and not leaving valuables unattended in your compartment. In addition to the normal lock on the compartment door, 'Spalny Wagon' and 'Kupe' compartments have a security latch which stops the door opening more than an inch or two, and which cannot be released from outside. There's also a safe place for your bags at night - if you have a bottom bunk, there is a metal box underneath the bunk which you can only get to by lifting up the bunk - in other words, for anyone to get to your bags, they will have to shift you off your bunk first..! Your provodniks will probably also lock the access doors at each end of the corridor at night to prevent unwanted guests.

Men and women share the same compartments in Russia, but it's generally quite safe even for women travelling alone (many Russian women travel alone, after all!). I have once shared a kupe with three nuns and they weren't really uncomfortable with my presence...

How to buy tickets in Russia

The cheapest place to book is at the reservation office at the station - remember to take your passport, even if you only want a Russian domestic train ticket. Russian train reservations open 45 days before departure, you can't book before reservations open. Russian Railways have an efficient computerised reservation system, and you can book any journey within and out of Russia from the reservation office at any Russian railway station. But You must speak russian to get the destination you want !fullstop! or you would end up with a ticket to deep ends of siberia and try to change it back (which is a little bit harder than the escape from castle wolfenstein)

Click here for a translation of the ticket into English

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