Railways: total: 87,157 kilometers (second in the world after the U.S.); broad gauge: 86,200 kilometers. The entire system is 1.52-meter gauge. About 46 percent are electrified. Narrow gauge: 957 kilometers 1.067-m gauge (on Sakhalin Island). An additional 30,000 kilometers of non-common carrier lines serve industries (2006). [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

The countries with the most kilometers of railroad tracks: 1) USA (296,497); 2) former USSR (144,900); 3) Canada (120,000); 4) Germany (83,244); 5) India (61,478).

Russian Railroads Company (RZD), the state monopoly, has an extensive train network with 56,000 miles of track. Since most of Russia is flat, building railroads lines was relatively easy and the result are trains connect with almost every city and town in the country. The better trains are fairly punctual and, although a little shabby and old, comparable in comfort to Western European trains.

Railroads are a vital economic link, particularly important for hauling coal, coke, ferrous metals, ores, chemicals, fertilizers, grain, and timber products. Largely because of increasingly poor long-distance road conditions, between 1992 and 2004 the share of total freight haulage by the railroads increased from 34 percent to 43 percent, and in 2005 they carried 80 percent of Russia’s non-pipeline traffic. Rail transport of oil to seaports increased significantly in the early 2000s.

The prominence of railroads is the result of several factors: the vast distances that need to be covered; the penchant of Soviet economic planners for locating manufacturing facilities in politically expedient areas rather than where raw materials and other inputs were available; and the conditions for granting state fuel subsidies, which provided no incentives to break up cargo transportation into shorter-haul operations that could be covered by road. Cargo traffic is the predominant use of railroads, in contrast to the emphasis on passenger traffic in West European railroad systems. This pattern is a product of the Soviet emphasis on heavy industry and production rather than on consumers. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Large chunks of Russian railway system were built to transport convict labor and move resources and precious metals mined by the convict labor. Trains carry more passengers and freight than any other means of transportation in Russia. They carry 38 percent of all passengers and 70 percent of all freight, compared to less than one percent of the passengers and 30 percent of the freight in the United States.

Railroads After the Break Up of the Soviet Union

The amount railroads tracks is virtually the same now as it was after the break of the Soviet Union: In 1995 Russia had some 154,000 kilometers of wide-gauge railroads, of which 26 was electrified and 87,000 kilometers was available for common carrier service. Some 49,000 kilometers of railways were diesel, and 38,000 kilometers were electrified. The proportion of cargo shipping by rail was high by Western standards. The system was in need of large-scale repair. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Of the 154,000 kilometers of railroads, 67,000 kilometers of that total served specific industries and were not available for general use. In 1993 railroads accounted for 1,608 billion ton-kilometers of cargo traffic, compared with the 26 billion ton-kilometers provided by trucks. In 1992 Russia's railroads accounted for 253,000 passenger-kilometers, and by 1994 the total had dropped to 227,000 passenger-kilometers. *

Railroad traffic plummeted in the early 1990s at the beginning of Russia’s economic reforms, reflecting a general decline in economic activity. Between 1992 and 1994, freight haulage dropped from 1.9 million ton-kilometers to 1.2 million ton-kilometers, and Russia's rolling stock and roadbeds deteriorated, mainly because of insufficient maintenance funding. In 1993 an estimated 8.5 percent of Russian rail lines were defective. Experts predicted a smaller relative role for the railroads as a market economy took shape. The combination of fuel and material costs, substantially higher in the absence of government subsidies, and new alternative routing was predicted to prompt Russian manufacturers to find more efficient means of transporting goods. For shorter hauls, trucks were expected to replace rail service, and intermodal transportation were expected receive greater emphasis as an outgrowth of marketization. *

JSC Russian Railways

JSC Russian Railways (JSC RZD; Rossiyskie zheleznye dorogi (RZhD)), is a Russian company that both manages the railway infrastructure and operates freight and passenger train services. In 2012 it became one of the three largest transport companies in the world. The company was established on September 18, 2003, when a decree was passed to separate the railways from the Russian Ministry of the Means of Communication (MPS), which was founded in 1992 after the Soviet Union break up and dissolved in 2004. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Although the government has recognized the need to restructure this system to keep it competitive with the improving road system, Russia’s railroads have remained a state monopoly. The system is divided into 17 regional railroads, which had a contractual relationship with the Ministry of Railways. A restructuring plan adopted in 2001 has partially privatized the system, with the creation of separate state enterprises for constituent services as an intermediate step. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

In 1998, the railroad ministry employed 1.5 million people (only the armed forces employed more) and controlled 400,000 pieces of rolling stock. Considered as a "state within a state," it still operated a huge system with one million phone lines, 64 colleges and universities, hundreds of school, 400 hospitals and housing projects.

Russia's nineteen railroad companies, which accounted for 78 percent of freight traffic and 40 percent of passenger traffic in 1997, were to be removed from direct control of the Ministry of Transportation, under whose management fast-rising railroad fees had added enormous amounts to the overhead of railroad-dependent industries such as steel and coal. At the same time, rail customers owed the lines an estimated US$1.1 billion in 1997, and the companies' equipment was in desperate need of modernization. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The reforming of the railway sector in Russia started with the establishment of JSC Russian Railways in October 2003. The new company has received more than 95 percent of the assets under the Ministry of Transport and Communications of the Russian Federation. In October 2011, the largest privatization transaction of the Russian railway industry took place at an auction held in Moscow. The Joint Stock Company Freight One, a subsidiary of Russian Railways, sold 75 percent of its shares for $4 billion to Independent Transport Company owned by Vladimir Lisin. Thus, Lisin as Russia's largest operator of rolling stock got the control of a quarter of the freight market. In October 2012, Russian Railways completed competitive negotiations with potential buyers of the remaining 25 percent in JSC Freight One. The best offer was received from the Independent Transport Company, who bought the for around $1.7 billion.

Railroad Gauges and Russian Border Crossings

The rail gauge in the former Soviet Union are is 1,520 millimeters (1.52 meters) compared to 1,435 millimeters in Europe and China. This means the railroad tracks are wider in the former Soviet Union are wider. Trains pass between Europe or China and the Soviet Union the bogies (the wheel-carrying frames at the bottom of the train) have to be changed to accommodate the different train gauges.

When a train passes from the former Soviet Union into Europe, the train is taken to a special facility and lifted—with the passengers in it and a lot of bumping and banging—by mechanical screw jacks. The Russian-gauge bogies are then rolled away and replaced with Europe-gauge bogies on to which the carriage is lowered and attached through holes in the bathrooms. The process takes about three hours. The process is the same when trains travel between China and Russia or between Mongolia and Kazakhstan and Russia.

The trains cars are like flat bottomed-containers with seats, which fit onto changeable wheel-truck assemblies (the bogies). When traveling from Europe to Russia, the cars are separated from the bogies and placed next to hydraulic lift platforms, which act like giant car jacks. They lift the cars and the European gauge bogies are rolled away. The Russian gauge bogies are then rolled under the cars. The cars are lowered and the new bogies are connected.

The bogie changing is are labor-intensive work done by 20-person crews on different shifts throughout a 24-hour day. Workers separate the cars and bogies and uses steel cables to pull the unused bogies away into storage sheds. When the new bogies are brought out they are positioned using large crowbars and bent pieces of tracks so they are aligned with car. The work is dangerous people have reportedly been killed or lost limps when they got caught under the bogie or between a bogie and a car when the car was lowered.

Passengers remain in the cars as the operation takes places. It is often done in the wee hours of the morning. Many Western passengers don't know what is going on and are rudely shocked by the whole ordeal. Sometimes the wait can be excruciatingly long.

Reasons for the Different Railroad Gauges in Russia

Why are the Russian gauges wider than other train gauges? According to one story, the wide gauging was designed to thwart a military invasion (the idea being that narrow-gauge trains carrying troops and weapons into Russia would be stopped cold at the border). According another popular Russia story the different size gauges date back to tsarist times when the tsar heard that the English had built the first train. In response he said, "we'll have to build a bigger one."

The wide tracks did slow down the Nazi advance into the Soviet Union in World War II. They regauged the lines to Moscow. But apparently neither of stories mentioned above are true. Rather the wider gauges were chosen over narrow gauges because they were considered safer.

Before the 1960s, travelers changed trains at the borders, in some cases carrying their luggage for half mile between the trains. Portugal also has wide gauge tracks. But instead of changing the bogies, the cars there have spring-loaded axles that allow the wheels to be moved into different positions with a minimum of fuss.

Changing Bogies at the China-Mongolia Border

The Mongolian railway system uses the same wide rail track gauging as Russia. People taking the Trans-Siberian train from Beijing to Moscow have endure a long bogie change at the Mongolian-Russian border. Thirteen hours out of Beijing the train arrives at Erlian on the Chinese-Mongolian border, where the bogies are changed to accommodate the train tracks in Mongolia and Russia, which are about nine centimeters wider than the tracks in China.

The bogie changing is quite interesting. Inside a large shed near the station at Erlian—with all the passengers still in the train—the carriages are separated and lifted by hydraulic jacks. Work crews of men and women with bolt guns detach the bogies, which are then collectively pushed from underneath the carriages and new bogies with wider sets of wheels are pushed in and attached by the crews.

Altogether we spent about nine hours at the Chinese-Mongolian border. The bogies for the entire train, amazingly enough, were changed in a couple of hours. Another two hours were spent doing passport checks, immigration and customs. The remaining five hours was spent sitting on a side track for heaven knows what reason. Fortunately this delay took place in the middle of the night so we could sleep through it.

Passenger and Trains in Russia

In 1997, railway traffic was only a third of what it was in the Soviet era, still the Russian system carried 1.5 billion passengers (an average of 10 trips for each Russian). Passenger traffic is lower than it once was because tickets are more expensive than they were, Russians have less money and in many cases rail tickets are more expensive than air tickets for equivalent distances.

In the past the Trans Siberian Railroad moved huge amounts of freight with little concern about costs. In the Soviet era, black market goods were delivered by waitresses and cooks while freight cars were filled to only a fraction of their capacity. For every passengers car there were two freight cars.

Freight shippers have shown a preference for sea and air transport. They complain that even though rail travel is theoretically faster and cheaper than sea transport the red tape and paperwork are time consuming, deliveries are unreliable and theft is a problem.

Problems with Russian Railroads

The Russian railway system is bloated and inefficient. It employs about 950,000 people, down from 1.5 million people in the 1990s, but could still get by with considerably less people. Huge subsidies are needed to keep the trains moving. The goal was for the train system to be self-sufficient by 2005 by breaking the national railway system into smaller regional networks.

The railroads have been hurt by corruption, high freight tariffs, thefts, inefficient and rising fuel and ticket costs. But in many ways Russia has not alternative to its railroads. One Russian railroad engineer told National Geographic, "If the railroad falls apart. We have such huge distances to cover in Russia, and the railroad can do that."

China built hundreds of kilometers or railroad to the Russian border that were supposed to connect with Russian rail lines but Russia has failed to do its part and get its much shorter sections off the drawing board.

Baikul-Amur Mainline (BAM) Railway

The Baikal–Amur Mainline (BAM) is a railway line in Russia that traverses Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East. It is 4,324 kilometers (2,687 miles) long and runs about 610 to 770 kilometers (380 to 480 miles) north of and parallel to the Trans-Siberian railway. The BAM was built as a strategic alternative route to the Trans-Siberian Railway, especially along the vulnerable sections close to the border with China. The BAM's costs were estimated at $14 billion. It was constructed with special, durable tracks since much of it lies over permafrost.

Hailed by Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev as the "Hero Project of the Century," BAM, ended up being one of the most colossal wastes of money ever. The nucleus of new cities that were supposed to house millions have been deserted. The population has actually fallen since the railroad was completed in 1991.

The BAM railroad runs from Ist-Kut on the Lena River in the West to the Far Eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur on the Amur River. It breaks off from the trans-Siberian Railway at Ust-Kut, north of Lake Baikal, and extends to Sovetskaya Gavan on the Pacific coast about 400 miles north of Vladivostok. Blasted through seven mountain ranges, it required the building of 4,000 bridges and the moving nearly a billion cubic feet of earth. Seven ministries provided it with money and 130 research firms participated in the engineering.

There are few opportunities for passenger travel on the railway. There are few places to stop and little to see but taiga forests. Severobailask (on the north shore of Lake Baikal) is a town of 35,000 that was created almost from scratch in the 1970s to accommodate the BAM railway. A large percentage of the population still lives in what was supposed to be temporary housing.

History of the Baikul-Amur Mainline (BAM) Railway

The Baikul-Amur Mainline (BAM) is an astounding engineering feet and was much more difficult to build that the Trans-Siberian. It cuts through mountain ranges and virgin forests, spans 17 rivers and large swamps and crosses vast stretches of permafrost. It traverses region where winter last for nine months of the year and temperature regularly drop below -50 degrees F. Thousands died making it.

By some reckonings the BAM cost $60 billion to build. Over a million trees were felled, 2,400 bridges were built, and seven long tunnels were carved through mountains. Railway builders had to deal with permafrost, avalanches, mudslides and earthquakes. The permafrost in some of the mountains created huge challenges for tunnel builders. In some places holes were drilled in the mountains and concrete was poured in to keep tunnels from collapsing.

BAM was built to harvest the great timber, coal, gold, mineral and petroleum wealth of northern Siberia. Construction began in 1930 and was abandoned in World War II when the rails were taken away and used in industry. Construction was restarted in 1974 and the first line became operational in 1989.

The rail lines were little used. So much money was spent on building the railway there was little left over to developed the industry it was built for. Settlements along the tracks have become ghost towns. Some are no more than foundations.

Types of Passenger Trains in Russia

Types of Trains in Russian: 1) Regular long distance “skpryy poezd” (fast trains) are used in both domestic and international service. 2) Ordinary “passazhorskiy poezd” (passenger trains) are slow long-haul trains that cover routes of 1,000 kilometers are less. 3) “Prigorodnyy poezd” (suburban trains) or “lektrichka” trains provide local services between cities and suburbs, and large cities and towns and small cites.

The best rains are usually the "name trains," which tend to more comfortable, leave and arrive at more convenient times and cost more than other trains. These include the blue “Kiev” and “Ukrainia” trains between Moscow and Kiev; the six “Red Arrow” trains between Moscow and St. Petersburg; and the dark yellow Prestige trains to the Volga region. The “Trans-Siberian” is dark red. The “Rossiya” is the most well-known Trans-Siberian name train. It travels all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok.

Russia has developed a high speed train capable of going 220mph. Developed in Tyikhvin, near St. Petersburg, the six-car Sokol (falcon) is scheduled to link Moscow, St. Petersburg and Helsinki. Because it will run on existing track its maximum speed will be around 120mph.

Special Trains include The Great Express is a new luxury overnight train between Moscow and St. Petersburg that began service in August 2005. Each compartment has wireless Internet access and a flat screen television with satellite channels. The cost is $110 for a first class seat and $400 for a luxury room with a bed and bathroom.

The Red Arrow offers “lyuks” (luxury) cabins on it overnight train between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Each compartment has a private bathroom, outfit with gold fixtures and ample supplies of hot water in the shower. On a lyuks carriage there four cabins, instead of the the usual nine, plus a bar with cognacs, whiskeys, vodkas, wine and beer as well as tea and soft drinks.

Each cabin is 9 by 6½ feet and has a berth that folds into a nearly double bed as well as an upper bunk that fold outs from the wall. There is also a flat screen television, a DVD player, stereo and air conditioning. Passengers are given white robes and slippers. There are packaged cakes and sweets in the cabins. Sirloin steaks and zabusky are available or people who want a meal. The Red Arrows leave both Moscow and St. Petersburg around midnight and arrive in the other city about 8:00am. The cost for the “luks” is $380 for a cabin with a bed and bathroom with a flush toilet and shower. .

Train Travel in Russia

Russian trains travel at speeds up to 95 miles per hour in open country and slows to around 30mph in the cities to avoid hitting pedestrians. When asked if he had ever hit anybody, one engineer told National Geographic, "A lot. Mainly on holidays, when they've been celebrating."

The trains are diesel or electric but the smell of coal—from old-fashion boilers used to heat the compartments—often permeates the cars. Many of the compartments are outfit with spittoons and hot water from quasi-samovars. The windows are screwed shut in the winter and unscrewed in the summer. Passengers sometimes wear pajamas.

The bathrooms and toilets are locked during stops. The tap above the sink works by pushing the metal stud under the faucet upwards into the spout. To flush the toilet use the pedal on the floor next to toilet.

The trains are very comfortable. Some have reclining seats. Most have compartments with seats oriented face to face. There are toilets and sinks at the ends of each car. Sometimes on sleepers lines form in the morning to use them. Smokers are supposed to use the spaces at the end of the cars. Sometimes they smoke in the compartments. ???Music is piped into many of the compartments but can be turned down with a volume switch.

Sleeping Cars generally have seats that fold into sleeping bunks. The sleeping compartments are unisex and complete strangers often sleep together is the same compartment. Luggage is stored in the overhead compartment or under the lower bunk. Each bunk has a thin mattress, lumpy pillow, blanket and sheets. Sometimes there is small fee for the sheets. The toilets are reasonably clean. The bathrooms are often locked at the stations because the toilets empty on the tracks.

Each carriage has one or two attendants (“provodnik” for a man, “provodnitsa” for a women). They are in charge keeping things clean, handing out clean sheets, making sure the water in the samovars is hot and notifying passengers that their stop is coming up. They are generally babushka-like older women who can be both helpful and gruff depending on their mood.

Train Classes in Russia

Train Classes: Long distance trains have compartments with bunks rather than seats. Tickets generally have the numbers of your carriage and seat printed on them.

First Class Compartments has two beds in relatively spacious compartments. Sometimes the walls are lined with wood-colored plastic and the floor features a faux Oriental carpet. There is a small table with a porcelain teapot and sometimes a small television. Some trains offer a zakusly, a an array of Russian delicacies like smoked meats, caviar and crackers, ideally washed down with vodka, beer or cognac.

Second Class Compartments have three or four bunks. The beds are harder and the compartment is smaller and more spartan than in first class. There is a table that folds up and down. The heating and cooling often doesn't work very well. Temperatures often top 100 degrees Fin the summer and drop below 4 degrees F in the winter. The majority of cars on the Trans-Siberian and other long distance trains are second class. A second-class bunk on the night train between Moscow and St. Petersburg cost around $60.

Third Class Cars hold 54 passenger and have bunk-style sleeping berths stacked close together above linoleum floors. They are entirely open and resemble a cross between dormitory and a refugee camp. People, clothes and possessions are strewn all over the place. There are a few linoleum tables. Foreigners rarely travel in third class.

Forth Class Cars have unreserved bench-type seating. They are often very uncomfortable and used primarily on secondary routes.

Train Food in Russia

Train Food is tolerable. Restaurants cars known as “pectopah” have a limited choice of food and drinks: usually soup, salad, difficult-to-identify meat, potatoes, Coca-Cola, tea or coffee. The meals tend to be similar whether served for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Beer and vodka are generally not sold on the trains. Most people drink tea. If you want coffee bring instant packages. The waiters don't speak English.

The food on the Trans-Siberian and other long distance trains is relatively cheap and generally better than the food served on short distance trains. Dishes include vegetable soup, grilled chicken, Beef Strogonov, fried eggs and ham, soup with chicken, cheese, pickled cucumbers, mashed potatoes, goulash and occasionally moose steaks, sturgeon or caviar. Sometimes Crimean champagne and Georgian brandy and wine are available.

Often many of the items listed on the menu are not available. On the Trans-Siberian, sometimes the dining car runs out of good food in first few days. After that passengers have to make do with watery soup, eggs and stale bread.

Vendors at the stations sell all or some of the following: sausages, vodka, beer, moonshine, smoked fish, bread, boiled potatoes, picked berries and mushrooms, vegetables, fruit, pickled vegetables, pine kernels, yogurt, kebabs, cone-on-the-cobs, bread, gingerbread, bread and borscht. There are also begging gypsies and hawkers selling Chinese consumer goods.

Russians tend to bring most of their food with them: things like salami, cheese, fruit and bread. At mealtimes people usually share food with one another. If you have food you are expected to share it. Sometimes snacks or drinks or hard-boiled eggs are available from carts wheeled through the train.

Security and Tips for Train Travel in Russia

Train Tips: 1) Russian train carriages are high off the ground. Sometimes it is difficult hoisting luggage aboard. 2) Train timetables are difficult to decipher even if you can read Cyrillic. The old Soviet names are used and times are changed suddenly without explanation. 3) Sometimes train cars heading for different destinations are removed from the main train. Make sure you in a car that is heading all the way to your destination.

4) Bring earplugs. A sponge and a cloth to clean the windows isn’t a bad idea either, 5) Keep books, toiletries and things you need in a separate bag near you. Once your backpack or suitcase is stashed away it is usually pretty inconvenient to open. 6) Bring lots of food and water. 7) Seat reservations are optional for local trains but necessary for sleepers. 8) ??? Discounts are sometimes offered to children, youths and senior citizens.

Train Security is a concern. Watch your stuff at all times. Be especially careful during the rush to get on and get off the train. Avoid the use of porters. Night trains, particularly the one between Moscow and St. Petersburg, are notorious for thefts. Sometimes luggage is snatched and thrown out the window. There have even been reports of criminals paying conductors to open the compartments so they can gas travelers and steal their belongings.

Don't make yourself a target by wearing expensive clothes or jewelry, acting like a tourist or getting drunk. It is good idea to lock your luggage shut plus lock it to something so it can't be carried away. Also secure your compartment door with wire or some kind of door jam. In some cases, it is worthwhile to purchase an entire compartment for yourself or you and your traveling companions.

Luggage: Try to limit you luggage to what you can carry on the train. There are left luggage desks or luggage lockers (that use tokens and combinations) at most train stations. Foreigners often have trouble with the combination lockers, which require you set a combination with one Cyrillic letter and three numbers on the inside of the locker, insert a token in the slot and close the lockers. When you return, you open the locker by dialing the combination. Make sure to write your combination down.

Train Tickets in Russia

Train Tickets are generally purchased from a ticket counters at the train stations or at selected travel agents. There are separate prices on trains for foreigners and Russians. You can save yourself a lot of hassle by buying a ticket through a travel agency (it may cost you though).

Buying a train ticket at a train station takes patience. There are separate windows for pensioners, military personal and railway workers. Don't try to buy a ticket which are not entitled to use. On the trains conductors sometimes make spot checks to see to compare tickets with passports and identity cards. Also make sure you are in the right line. There is nothing worse than waiting a long time only to be told you are supposed to wait in another line.

Sometimes there are separate windows for foreigners. The lines at these windows is generally shorter than at the other windows. In Moscow and St. Petersburg and some other cities there are special Foreigner's Ticket Offices as well as booking agencies in the city that specialize in arranging train tickets for commission of between 5 percent and 25 percent.

Virtually no one in the train station speaks English so have a pencil and paper ready. Write down (preferably in Cyrillic) the name of your destination, the train name or number, the class you want and the date and time you want to leave and the number of tickets you want.

The price of the tickets varies according distance. Passengers generally can not make stopovers because they lose their seat. If you want to stop and visit a number of places, buy separate tickets between each destination. Tickets generally can not bought on the train. If you get caught without a ticket you get thrown off, hit with a big fine or thrown in jail.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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