Having just spent three weeks in Russia trundling along the Transsiberian, it is impossible not to devote a column to it with the aim of persuading any rail enthusiast to do it once in a lifetime. Sure, everyone who has come back from it moans about the endless stretches where only the odd fallen down birch tree breaks up the monotony of forest and brown grassland steppe. And travelling in a country with a different alphabet fiendishly devised to fool foreigners – H is N, B is V and U is I for starters, as well as there being half a dozen entirely new letters – and where few people speak any English is tough. But it remains the ultimate railway experience, leaving one gobsmacked in admiration for its 19th century builders and aware that this is very much a modern railway that remains at the heart of the Siberian economy today.
The Transsiberian is not one railway but several that have been built at different times – as well as Vladivostok, there is the Trans Mongolian through Ulan Bator and eventually Beijing. Or to the North there is the Baikal Amur railway, known as Brezhnev’s folly, which parallels the Transsiberian through even more sparsely populated parts of Siberia and was built at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives of gulag prisoners.
Don’t go with any preconceptions about the Transsiberian being a quaint railway winding its way through picture postcard countryside with little log cabin stations and cuddly railway officials dressed in bearskins. Even an old cynic like me was surprised to discover the scale of the undertaking. It is not only the longest railway in the world, but it is big in every sense. The track gauge is, of course, 5ft, slightly larger than ours, but the loading gauge is much greater to accommodate the huge freight trains that lumber through every few minutes on the busy stretches and which are the equal of those encountered in the USA. There are very few tunnels, too, and it is electrified throughout.
The Transsiberian is primarily a freight railway and today carries around 200,000 containers annually to Europe. Russian Railways has ambitious plans to at least double the volume of container traffic on the line and is developing a fleet of specialised cars and increasing terminal capacity at the ports. At every station there are half a dozen sidings with mostly petroleum and container flatbeds awaiting transfer and the trains, even in the middle of winter, are heavily patronised with ordinary Russians going about their routine business
The stations themselves are grand, too. Most of the notable ones are built in a kind of mid-European turn of the century classical style, painted in a warm turquoise colour and maintained to a very high standard. Unfortunately, Russian Railways have caught some of the worst obsessions on our railway. There is a ridiculous security gate at all the major stations, through which everyone has to walk but most of the time there is no one checking people going in, and often it is quite easy to dodge round the main station building and walk onto the platform. There is, too, a vivid reminder that this is still a tightly controlled police state – everyone buying a train ticket has to show a passport and the Russians even have a special type of internal passport that they must have to travel. On the other hand, though, some Western habits have not caught on: there was not a single announcement in our whole trip and I doubt whether even the most modern of these sleeper trains had a PA system. And walking over the tracks was not treated as a criminal offence which was helpful given the enormous height of the overbridges at stations.
Every railways has its systems and its foibles, and the Transsiberian is no exception. Everyone has to have ticket before boarding and you are allocated a specific seat. All the carriages are sleeper accommodation with two people in first class compartments, four in second class and third class is just one open area carrying 40 people in a single vast space. Every coach has two conductors, one on nights, one on days. Here, though, things are very different from the old Communist era when the conductors were there to guard the passengers rather than work for them. Traditionally these were fierce babushkas – grandmothers – whose sole response to any request was simply ‘nyet’. Not any more. Not only were many of the conductresses – most are women – rather attractive in that rather austere Russian way – don’t expect friendly hellos – but they were mostly quite responsive and eager to undertake a bit of private enterprise. They want you to buy the beer and the drinks from them, rather than the restaurant car, and that’s a good idea to stay in with them, as they can be very useful if problems arise.
There is always a dining car (PECTOPAH, it says confusingly on the side), a place of mystery since they seem designed solely to cater for the staff. No one ever seems to use them and we quickly found out why. On our first morning of a two and a half day trip from Vladivostok to Ulan Ude we went to the dining car to get breakfast. We had expected a bustling place with the smell of coffee and a huge vat of porridge. In fact it was empty apart from the waiter and two women, one of whom was cutting her toenails and showing more fat leg than we really wanted at that time of the morning. They were clearly a bit put out that we had disturbed their chat. We asked for porridge – nyet, eggs – nyet and bread – da. We were rather pleased that the waiter added cheese, strawberry jam – though any trace of the fruit seemed absent from the bright red sticky mess – and butter to the plate, but in fact he was on the make as we found that it had all been priced and the breakfast came to a staggering 560 (£11) roubles in a country where a cup of tea in a café can be bought for 30p. A piece of cheese that a mouse would not deign to trifle with on a trap cost an amazing 192 roubles – nearly 4 pounds and even the knobs of butter were 40p each. So that’s why the dining car was empty.
A much better option was buying bread – which is often delicious in Russia – and cheese from the shops at the stations where we had long stops. Indeed, that is one of the features of the journey. In order to change crew and to make safety checks, there are regular stops of half an hour, all listed on the timetable hung up in every carriage – unaccountably, it’s sometimes 24 minutes, or 31 or 34 – but the train never leaves early so one can wander into the station and even a bit beyond.
The best treat is that at the end of the compartment is the samovar, which looks like an ancient hot water tank with a few Heath Robinson additions rather than the ornate silver Dr Zhivago-like affair I had imagined, but it serves its function and everyone fills up their tea glasses, which you get from the conductress, all day long.
The five trains on which we travelled were all on time but they are not fast. They cruise along at around 45- 50 mph, because that is the speed of the freight trains which they are following and so it is relatively easy to keep to schedule. However, even though temperatures reached minus 12 when we were there, and can get to minus 35, there is never any suggestion that there will be a hold up. No collapsed catenary – the line is electrified throughout – and no frozen points and the like. I did see a couple of gangs fixing catenary, though, clearly working to clear a backlog but this seems relatively rare.
The trains do vary greatly in standard. There is a variety of more local trains – and in this instance local means anything up to 3,000 miles – which operate on several sections of the route and are cheaper than the famous Rossyia, the train No 1 that runs every other day on the whole 5,700 mile distance between Vladivostok and Moscow – it is No 2 when starting in the capital. It is a cut above the others. t has TV in every compartment, showing happy films of the Soviet era, much more comfortable beds, excellent lighting, toilets that don’t give you a brief but chilling view of the tracks every time you flush and heating that doesn’t make you want to join the local naturist club.
The contrast between the Rossya’s coaches and those of the Spartan Soviet era on the normal service trains is an embodiment of the changes that have taken place in the country since the collapse of Communism. The Rossyia is, naturally, much more expensive and so, of course, is first class which can cost three times more. There are, too, special tourist trains which operate in the summer, designed solely for foreigners and with facilities which are even than those of the Rossyia but are not only even more expensive but somehow reduce the authenticity of the experience. As for travelling in winter. That really gave a Siberian flavour to the whole journey and there were no mosquitos, a real scourge in much of the summer.
My book on the Transsiberian will be published at the end of next year.
Oh when will they ever learn?
I am writing this on the morning of Monday December 3rd and there is still no news of any deal being signed between the Department for Transport and Virgin over the temporary contract, which precedes the interim contract that precedes the final contract for the West Coast. Of course by the time you read this something will have been cobbled together as there is no way that the trains will stop running, but the crass decision to stand down Directly Operated Railways who could have stepped in to run the franchise means that the Department has been negotiating with both hands tied behind its back.
By this I mean no criticism of Virgin. It is obviously out to get the best possible deal. But to have only one counterparty in a negotation is a most fundamental mistake and bodes ill for the Department’s ability to get itself out of this fine mess.