Rail travel in Russia is, due to the long distances involved, a comparatively quick and affordable way for getting around. The information in the article is largely also valid for long-distance trains in the rest of the former Soviet Union such as Belarus and the Central Asian countries. Most long-distance trains in Russia are sleeping trains.
The Russian Railways (Российские железные дороги, Rossiyskye zheleznye dorogi, abbreviated RZD) is the Russian government railway company and the operator of most train services in the country, though there are some private operators too (mostly for luxury trains). One of the world's largest railway networks, it crosses many time zones (the Trans-Siberian service between Moscow to Vladivostok crosses eight). To make it easier for voyagers to keep track of the journeys' length in time, all railway schedules were given in Moscow time until 2019. However now the schedules are given in local time, leading to less confusion when getting on and off the train.
Despite the large network and long distances, in 2018, 98% of the trains were on time, where the definition of being late was a delay of 5 minutes or more. This can be compared to the long-distance services of German Deutsche Bahn where 68.4% of the trains were on time (a delay of at most 6 minutes) as of September 2021. Passengers on high-speed trains may ask for a partial refund on their tickets if the train is more than one hour late: for Sapsan and Allegro 25% of the ticket price, for Nevsky Express and Strizh 50%.
The Russian word for railway station (vokzal, вокзал) comes from the pleasure gardens (i.e. leisure complex) in Vauxhall, London. In the 1840s early days of railways, visiting Russian entrepreneurs were impressed by these, which created a destination for railway travel and boost to the local economy. Similar gardens were established in St Petersburg around the first Russian railway, and elsewhere, and "vokzal" used to mean such a complex before coming to mean a railway station. The London gardens meanwhile became notorious for thievery and prostitution, and went bankrupt (so, most unlike any big railway station, especially in Russia). The original Vauxhall in London was "Falkes Hall", the home of Sir Falkes de Breauté, who fought for King John against the rebellious Barons, who were furious that he was breaking the terms of Magna Carta. So "voksal" commemorates a 13th-century reactionary warrior against the birth of English democracy.
Larger cities have multiple railway stations (вокзал, "vokzal"), and the main railway station may use carry the name Glavnyj (главный), Central'naya (Центральная) or Pasazhirs'kyj (Пасажирський) - "head", "central" or "passenger's". Like for instance London or Paris, Moscow and St. Petersburg have stations for each cardinal direction. Some cities like Perm also have stations denoted by numbers, where the main station is either station 1 or 2.
The main railway stations always have a luggage deposit counter and lockers. They're usually in the basement of the station, as are the toilets, though usually well signposted. Sometimes you may encounter lockers from the Soviet times with four black knobs, where you should set your own number combination. But normally you should buy a token coin from the luggage counter to use the lockers, and you might as well use luggage deposit service at the counter as it's not much more expensive. Nevertheless they close down or "take breaks" for 30–60 minutes once or twice a day so if you use this service do take notice of the signposted opening times.
Major railway stations have lounges that can be used for a small fee regardless of your ticket class. These commonly have soft seats and a small snack bar.
Tickets, fares and classes
Reservations are compulsory on long-distance trains, so you need to plan specifically for each leg of your journey, you can't hop on and off. Previously, all Russian railways used only Moscow time in their schedules, which was very inconvenient and misleading, especially for traveling to the Far East, where the difference between the departure time indicated on the ticket and the actual departure time could be 7-8 hours. On August 1, 2018, the Russian railways finally began indicating local time in their schedules. Check tickets and timetables carefully to see which time is being used in a particular city.
Ticket price depends on train class and car class, as well as on season (off-peak day tickets can cost 2/3 of peak day tickets). You can check the ticket price at Russian Railways e-shop. Domestic tickets can be booked 90 days ahead of the journey. As a rule train tickets are cheaper the earlier you book. The discount for booking earlier can be up to 50% in the winter, and 30% in the summer.
The best way to buy your ticket is online from Russian Railways website. Where the online system shows the train as ЭР (with a little train symbol), you should show qr-code at mobile application, and it doesn't need validating before boarding. For trains without ЭP you'll need to take your receipt to a counter to pick up your ticket, and this can only be done within Russia - so you can't use those trains for journeys that begin outside Russia. As of 2021 there are reports of some foreign credit cards not being accepted on the website.
Alternatively, buy at the station: Kassovyi Zal (кассовый зал) means ticket hall. Lines vary widely – some stations are much better organized than others, and it also depends on the season. If you find the lines unbearably long, it's usually not hard to find an agency that sells train tickets. Commission rates are generally not prohibitive. For instance, buying your ticket to Saint Petersburg from Moscow, it is much better to walk a flight of steps from the ordinary ticketing office – there are no queues upstairs and R140 is a small premium to pay for this service.
At the ticket counter, service in other languages than Russian is rare. Therefore it can be a good idea to write down (or have written down by someone else) the following info in Russian on a piece of paper: point of departure and destination, day of travel, train number and passenger names in Cyrillic letters.
When you buy long-distance tickets you need your passport, and you have to present it also when boarding the train. This policy wasn't invented in the Soviet times but in the early 1990s when forged train tickets became common. The policy has remained in use as it is also a handy tool for the government to supervise the movement of people.
Tickets can be canceled or changed free of charge as late as 8 hours before departure (international trains 24 hours), as late as one hour before departure for a fee of a third of the ticket fare. If you've missed your train, you can book a new ticket for a departure within the next 12 hours for a small fee.
There are many agencies selling Russian train tickets abroad – RusTrains.com[dead link], TuTu.travel, Real Russia[dead link], Russian Trains, and RussianTrain. They have foreign-language (English, Spanish etc) websites, can post paper tickets to your home address, provide customer support and offer larger number of payment methods, but prices are 30-50% higher.
Classes and car types
Almost all long-distance trains are set up for overnight travel. There are several classes of accommodation:
- Deluxe – myagkiy (мягкий) – with private compartments for two adults and a child, with a private toilet and shower. Few trains have this posh class.
- 1st class – СВ/spalnyy/lyuks (спальный/люкс) – with private compartments for two people. Most trains connecting major cities have a car of this class; tickets are quite expensive in comparison with European standards. Colloquially this class is commonly referred to as SV (es-veh, СВ). Frequently these compartments are the same as in kupe with the two upper beds stowed away.
- 2nd class – kupe (купе) – with private compartments of four people. On some trains, compartments may be marked as male, female, or mixed-sex by the ticketing system.
- 3rd class – platskart (плацкарт) – with unwalled compartments of four fold-out beds opposite two beds on the window wall. There is controversy on safety of these compartments. For some these compartments are generally less safe than other classes as they allow uncontrolled access. Others point out that in an open car full of witnesses the chances of becoming a victim of a crime or harassment are less. Anyway, they provide for a much more immersive experience. Nevertheless, they will be abolished slowly.
- Sitting class – sidyachiy (сидячий) – sitting cars for shorter distance, with seat reservation. These are mostly met on slower regional trains.
Some codes will let you know what kind of car to expect:
- 3Э couchette car with air conditioning and tank toilet
- 3T und 3Д couchette car with air conditioning, the toilet may be of the tank or hole in the floor
- 2Э und 2K sleeping car with air conditioning and tank toilet
- 2У, 2Т or 2Д mean you'll travel in either an old or new car but you can't know for sure before you've stepped on the train
Bottom-bunk berths (nizhnie – нижние) are slightly more comfortable than top-bunk berths (verhnie – верхние), because they have more place for baggage under them. There are also discounts sometime for top-bunk berths only (usually not in the tourist season and not in popular directions, which are from largest towns on Friday nights, and back on Sunday nights).
In cars without air conditioning the seat numbers 9-12, 21-24, 43-44, 49-50 are more expensive as their windows are intended as emergency exits and can't be opened and closed.
Railway cars have at least two toilets.
Numbers on the ticket
Trains are classified according to their average speed:
- skorostnoy (скоростной, numbered 151 to 178) – the fastest trains (seating only). Sapsan, Allegro, Strizsh and Lastochka trains fall here;
- skoryy (скорый, numbered 1 to 148 all-year and 181 to 298 seasonal) – rapid trains with overnight accommodation;
- passazhirskiy (пассажирский, numbered 301 to 399 all-year, 400 to 499 seasonal and 500 to 598 on specific dates only) – slower trains with more frequent stops;
- mestnyy (местный, numbered 601 to 698) – the slowest trains serving most of the localities along the railways. Typically this kind of trains run shorter routes, often just overnight, for example between adjacent or next to adjacent regional centers, or sideline dead-end branches. A somewhat rough upper limit for route length is about 700 km. Colloquially sometimes called shestisotye or shest'sot-veselye trains, based on their numeration (6XX or 600-happy trains);
- pochtovo-bagazhnyy/gruzopassazhyrskiy (почтово-багажный/грузопассажирский, numbered 901 to 998) – mainly used to deliver post and bulky baggage or goods. By railway regulation, depending on location and typically further from major centers, it may be possible to buy tickers on those trains. Where there is a choice of trains, they are inpractical, as they tend to have long stops on all major stations and thus being slower even comparing to 6XX trains. Expect a lot of police, when boarding and unboarding this kind of trains;
- prigorodnyy express (numbered 800 to 899 and 7000 to 7999) - local express trains, both suburban, such as REXes and Sputniks and interregional, including even trains from Moscow to Saint-Petersburg. Colloquially can be called popugai (parrots) for their bright colors, though further from Moscow regular local trains can be used as expresses;
- prigorodnyy/elektropoyezd (пригородный/электропоезд, numbered 6001 to 6998) – local or suburban trains mostly serving commuters in cities. Typically named elektrichka, or sometimes more informally sobaka (dogs). Although sometimes any kind of local trains are called elektrichka, even erroneously, their types are diverse, especially where rails are not electrified, including diesel-trains and railbuses, or short trains pulled by (usually) diesel or electric locomotive. Local trains, pulled by locomotives, also may be called kukushka (cuckoos). Some routes of the Moscow local train network reach as far as 200 km from the city. These trains often operate from separate sections of major train stations or even from stations dedicated to local traffic, and they often have barriers with ticket readers like many urban rail systems in the world. Tickets for local trains are also cheaper than long-distance trains, so if you're making a short hop outside a major city you may save some money by not choosing a long-distance train. Read more about these a few paragraphs below.
Generally correspondence between numeration, speed and train types may be somewhat skewed, and trains from 'slower' category may actually be faster than trains from 'faster' category. Typically this occurs for various categories of rapid and express trains.
Russia's sole high-speed rail line is the Sapsan (Сапсан) between Moscow and Saint Petersburg, taking just under 4 hours to complete the journey on the fastest trains (compared to over 8 hours of driving). There are plans to upgrade the Sapsan line by 2026, further reducing the time to under 3 hours. On Sapsan, three classes are offered: first, business and economy. In first class there are three (adjustable) seats in each row, in business and economy four. One meal is included in the price of first and business class tickets. If you buy a ticket for Sapsan around your birthday (± 1 week) you get a 50% discount. The dining car of the express train is nicely appointed with real table linens, and an impressive menu and wine list, but is 3 to 4 times more expensive than eating in the city before and after you travel.
Service quality usually correspond to the class of train, but besides that, all-year trains usually have better service than seasonal trains, which are usually better than special dates only trains. Also according to their standards of service, some trains are promoted to firmennyy (фирменный) and given a proper brand and higher ticket price. The most distinguished trains use their special liveries.
Note that in some trains you can`t use the toilet while the train is at a station and some time before and after. Using the official website of Russian Railways, passengers can select the coach that does have a bio-toilet working all the time and air conditioning.
The commuter trains are mostly hard-seat train cars. You don't get a designated seat number — you just find space on a bench. These trains have a notorious reputation for being overcrowded, though this has declined somewhat. The trains make very frequent stops and are rather slow. For example, a 200 km trip to Vladimir takes about 3 h 30 min . They do (!) have toilets in the first and the last cars but it is going to be an unforgettable experience (use them in "emergency" cases only). Nowadays many new trains have been bought, especially in the Moscow region, which make commuting comfortable.
Tickets for commuter trains are sold in a separate room from the long-distance trains, and are sometimes sold from stalls located outside.
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 reasonably comfortable. The trains travel to their destination directly and are thus considerably faster.
Since 2011, dozens of local (prigorodny) trains are canceled each year due to lack of financing, and situation worsens each year. Cancellations occur everywhere over the country, except commuter zones of largest cities, such as Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, Ekaterinburg and Irkutsk. Having latest news on cancellations may be essential for trip planning. Typical cancellation traits: most cancellations occur in the start of the year, sometimes some trains are returned into timetable, if local budgets find funds to sponsor them; some trains are cut at region borders, even when there are no roads over the border to the previous train destination; other local trains got cut to 1 a day or several a week, often with timetable, not convenient for tourists.
Transportation of bicycles
Transportation of a bicycle in a carriage is permissible for one ticket under condition of being compactly folded/dismantled and clean. Usually the bike is taken off its wheels and pedals, put into a bag and stored on the upmost shelf in the Platzkart carriage. The other class carriages have less space or shelves and the bike should be more compact.
On the train
Especially when there is no dining car, the cars may be locked so that it's not possible to walk between different train cars or classes.
Smoking in the train is nowadays banned, but it's often tolerated to smoke in the area between the cars. Other than that, smokers can step out of the train at stations for a smoke.
The train toilets, if they're of the old type where the excrement is simply dropped on the tracks, are locked at stops and stations when the train stands still. Modern train toilets where the stuff goes into a tank can be used all the time.
Travel time can vary from several hours to several days. There are more types of train between the two capitals 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 650 km 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 newer, fake-Czarist-era Nikolaevsky Express, complete with attendants in 19-century uniforms. Sheets, towels and prepacked 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.
Stop duration may be vary from as quick as one minute (barely enough for passengers to leave and board the train) to as long as several hours. Check the timetable placed on door at the end of corridor. During stop you can buy various meals and drinks at platform from locals for pretty reasonable prices. Frequently, traders will walk through the cars between stops and sell everything from crockery to clothes to Lay's chips.
Every car has its own attendant/conductor (provodnik (проводник) or provodnitsa (проводница)), which check your tickets at your boarding, provides you bedding, sells you tea or snacks and can lend you a mug and spoon for about 10 руб. On long-distance services there are usually one or two attendants in each car, where they're traditionally regarded as rulers of their own little kingdom and as a cliché they're somewhat grumpy. The conductor will usually take your tickets shortly after boarding, 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.
- See also: Camping food
Hardly any Russian will take a long-distance train trip without bringing any food. A popular choice is instant noodles as hot water is readily available in each car. Especially in the platzkart class it's common to bring a bottle of vodka as well. Officially consumption of alcohol is just allowed in the dining car, though unless the train attendant is in a bad mood or you disturb your fellow passengers, this is tolerated. On larger stations there are grocery stores to stock up, and locals selling their produce to train passengers though it's not as common as it once was.
Long-distance trains generally have dining cars, though eating there is comparatively expensive. In addition, over the 2010s the food has become more generic and is nowadays just reheated rather than prepared onboard. The RZD dining cars are operated by 12 different subcompanies, and the quality of the food varies between them. Luxury and tourist trains by private operators usually offer a better dining experience.
Due to differing rail gauge, when you cross the Russian border or even before it, you will either have to step onto another train or the train cars will have their wheels changed. Either way, expect this to take several hours. Since the mid-2010s international routes are operated by modern cars.
International tickets can be booked 60 days ahead of travel, except tickets to or from Ukraine or Moldova where the earliest time is 45 days ahead of travel. Groups of six or more persons will receive a discount of 20-30%. If you buy an international train ticket for a journey around your birthday (± 1 week), you will receive a discount of 35%.
The electronic visas introduced in 2020 are impractical for rail travel as they can be used on just two railway border crossings in the Russian Far East: Pogranichny-Suifenhe with China, and Khasan-Sumangang with North Korea.
Passenger cross-border services from Baltic states closed since 2020.
- There are direct trains to Kaliningrad from the "Russian mainland" going via Vilnius without stop. The rail line from Poland to Kaliningrad is just used for freight.
Passenger cross-border services from Finland closed since spring of 2022.
Passenger cross-border services closed since 2020.
Mongolia and China
Passenger cross-border services from Russia to Mongolia reopened at summer of 2022. Service from Russia to China planning to open at winter 2023/2024
- The most famous routes are the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian branches of the Trans-Siberian Railway, both connecting Moscow with Beijing the former via Ulaanbaatar and the latter via Harbin. Both trains run once a week, and in addition there's one weekly train connecting the Russian and Mongolian capitals, and services between Novosibirsk and Ulaanbaatar.
- From the Far East there are trains between Harbin and Vladivostok on one hand and Chita on the other.
- Finally, there's no bridge between Heihe and Blagoveshchensk but a boat service connects the cities, both of which have railway stations.
Poland and Western Europe
Passenger cross-border services beetwen Poland and Belarus closed since 2020.
Overall the Central Asian rail services are dominated by long-distance services between Moscow and the national capitals largely used by Central Asians working in Russia. You will encounter old Russian rolling stock. Uzbekistan is the exception with its domestic intercity high-speed network. At the other end of the spectrum is Tajikistan where the only passenger trains are the services from Moscow.
One of the east-west lines in Russia, in Soviet times used for the Trans-Siberian services, crosses into Kazakhstan. Check the itinerary of the train if your nationality requires a Kazakh visa.
There's much to see in Russia for railway enthusiasts. Many railway stations have old steam locomotives on display, and there are pioneer railways and railway museums. In addition there are some interesting train experiences:
- Ruskeala Express (Рускеальский экспресс) (From Saint-Petersburg: EMU train at 06:15, change for steam train at Sortavala). The Ruskeala Express daily from Sortavala in Karelia to nearby Ruskeala. 350-1000.
- Bologoye-Ostashkov (overnight long-distance train to Bologoye, or morning Sapsan). saturday, sunday 09:15. In Tver Oblast, a steam train runs every Saturday and Sunday morning from Bologoye to Kushenkino to Ostashkov.
- The Circum-Baikal Express along the northern shore of Lake Baikal.
- Nizniy Novgorod - Arzamas. saturday, sunday.
- Ekaterinburg - Verkhnaya Pishma Museum. saturday, sunday.
- Yaroslavl- Rybinsk. saturday, sunday.
Narrow gauge railways
- Karinskaya narrow-gauge railway in Kirov Oblast
- Alapayevsk narrow-gauge railway in Sverdlovsk Oblast
- Apsheronsk narrow-gauge railway in Krasnodar Oblast
- Kudemskaya narrow-gauge railway in Arkhangelsk Oblast
- Krasnaya strela (Кра́сная стрела́), the "red arrow" is a luxurious night train between Moscow and St. Petersburg.
- Megapolis is another night train between the two largest cities with a stop in Tver, and operated by Tverskoy Express.
- Grand Express operated by Grand Service Express likewise connects Moscow and St. Petersburg. In 2021 tickets prices for the luxus class were 13-19000 R, for the kupe class 3300-4100 R. This company also operates the Tavrya (Таврия) service from Moscow to Crimea across the new bridge.
- Golden Eagle is a company operating train cruises from Moscow along the Trans-Siberian, towards Caucasus and Central Asia with ticket prices starting at $16000.