6,721 kilometres by train from Moscow and six time zones ahead of Russia’s capital is Neryungri, a remote Siberian city with one of the world’s largest coal deposits. Why go there by train? David Shirres explains.
Neryungri has the closest airport to Tynda, the central city of the Baikal Amur Mainline (BAM) railway which runs 380 to 480 miles north of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Last month’s RailStaff reported on the special train which travelled 3,000 kilometres to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the volunteer movement that completed the BAM. To get on this train, I had first to travel half-way along the Trans-Siberian railway to Irkutsk. The Transsib, as it is known in Russia, is an experience to be recommended to anyone with an interest in railways.
Planning the trip
Russia’s long-distance trains offer three classes. First class compartments have two berths, whilst second class has four. Third class is an open coach with six berths in each bay, two of which are longitudinal berths above and below a window. Express trains such as “Rossiya”, which takes 143 hours to make the 9,259 km journey from Moscow to Vladivostock, are more expensive than standard trains which take 163 hours for the same journey.
Timetables and prices are available from Russian Railway’s website, also visit the Russian section of the excellent “The man in Seat 61…” website. Bryn Thomas’ “Trans-Siberian Handbook” is a useful reference tool which includes a route guide listing numerous features by kilometres along the line.
Whilst some may consider spending 163 hours on a train to be an achievement, others might consider the lack of a shower to be a limiting factor and plan a break in their journey accordingly. For example Yekaterinburg (1,778 km) has an excellent railway museum in its old station and Irkutsk (5,153 km) is an interesting city close to Lake Baikal.
The Metro is cheap, convenient and features numerous examples of iconic Soviet art. It is an absolute must for any rail enthusiast visiting Moscow. However, with almost all signs in Russian Cyrillic script, it can be intimidating for non-Russian speakers. This need not be a problem with a Metro map showing stations in English and Cyrillic, easily available on the internet. Also all city centre stations have ticket machines with an English option.
Trans-Siberian trains leave from Moscow’s Yaroslavsky station for which the nearest Metro station is Komsomolskaya where the red line crosses the brown circle line. When underground, thinking about which lines cross each other rather than station names is the trick. Also allow plenty of time for boarding a train going in the wrong direction. An essential navigational aid is the tunnel wall sign at the end of each platform which is usually obscured by one the frequent Metro trains. This sign shows which lines are crossed at each station in the direction of travel.
The Moscow Metro carries 2.5 billion people each year, twice that of London Underground which has 40% more stations. The crowds are not generally a problem as the stations are built for them. Between the platforms, and linked to them by a continuous series of entrances, is a large central hall. In this way crowds are naturally dispersed along the platform.
A train and its people
Although there are some stunning views to be had from Trans-Siberian trains, most of the journey is through the seemingly endless taiga (snow forest) broken occasionally by Russia’s wide rivers. The Transsib experience really is the train, its passengers and the railway.
Few people speak English so the non-Russian speaker needs a few basic words of Russian and a good Russian / English dictionary. A chess set, vodka and interesting photographs (especially of family) on a phone or iPad help communication. If possible get a letter about yourself written in Russian. On a 54-hour journey, I shared my compartment with eight people, only one of whom spoke English. Everyone was friendly, helpful and wanted to communicate. Learning how to do so is part of the fun.
Each coach has a (male) Provodnik or more often a (female) Provodnitsa who provides bedding, clean toilets, corridors and compartments during the long journey. At each station they lock toilets (closed times are posted in the coach), open coach doors, lower steps and clean handrails. On departure they display a yellow flag to show their coach is ready to depart. They also look after the coal-fired samovar which provides an endless supply of boiling water for tea, and pot noodles for those who wish to save money on train catering. The attendants are with the train for a complete return journey and work hard. In my experience they were helpful and had the authority to keep the coach in order. I think I got told off for not making my bed properly.
A typical train consists of 17 x 58 tonne coaches with a maximum speed of 140 km/h. The first and second class coaches have nine compartments, an attendant’s office and two toilets. On older coaches these discharge onto the track. The coaches each have their own power supply as there is no electrical connection from the locomotive. Gangways are draughty with sight of the track below. They are the only place on the train where smoking is allowed. In the Siberian winter passengers are advised not to be in a gangway with both doors closed, as there is a risk of freezing to death.
As it takes about a week to reach its destination, servicing a train with passengers on board is an essential requirement. This involves much more than passengers having to move when the Provodnitsa vacuums their compartment.
On its journey from Moscow to Vladivostock the “Rossiya” has 13 station stops of 20 minutes or more, five of which are 30 minutes or more. At these stops, water tanks are topped up, toilet tanks emptied (every three days), a wheel tapper examines running gear. Locomotives are changed every 2,000 kilometres or so or when there is a change in overhead line voltage. On board each train is a technician who may take advantage of these stops to repair anything that cannot be fixed on the move.
The Transsib is primarily a freight railway. Indeed the section between Omsk (2,676 km) and Krasnoyarsk (4,065 km) is reputed to be the world’s busiest freight line. At its busiest, every five minutes there are freight trains typically one kilometre long of up to 6,000 tonnes and 71 wagons long. Interestingly, such long trains normally have a single pipe air brake although there are air lines at stations and yards to charge the air brake when required.
With such dense traffic, passenger trains often run at only 60 km/h until they pass a freight train in a loop. The main traffic is fuel, coal, timber and containers. Trains are usually mixed to maximise train length and the line’s capacity. At each city there are large marshalling yards. By 2020, Russian Railways intend that the Transsib will have regular 7,100 tonne trains within the current maximum 71-wagon train length. This will require the maximum axle weight to be raised from the current 23.5 to 25 tonnes.
The line is fully electrified with a mix of 3kV DC (31 per cent) and 25kv AC (69per cent). The DC sections are Moscow (0 km) to Danilov (356 km) and Balezino (1,154 km) to Mariinsk (3,680 km). At voltage changeover points overhead wires can be switched to either AC or DC to allow locomotives to be changed. This takes around 20 minutes.
Most freight locomotives are dual or triple units whereas passenger trains are generally hauled by single unit locomotives such as the EP2K, a 5,800 hp 3kV DC Co-Co locomotive introduced in 2006, or the EP1, a 5,900 hp 25kV AC Bo-Bo-Bo locomotive introduced in 1998.
Typical freight locomotives are the VL80, a 8,500 h.p. 2 x Bo-Bo 25 kV AC locomotive built between 1961 and 1984. As Russian Railways consumes 5% of the country’s electricity there is an urgent need to replace the VL80 and its ilk with efficient modern traction. This is reflected in Russian Railway’s investment plan which, in 2014 and 2015, includes the acquisition of 327 new locomotives. These include the 11,250 hp 2 x Bo-Bo 2ES5 25kV AC locomotive, jointly developed between Alstom and Transmashholding and the 11,250 hp 2 x Bo-Bo 2ES10 “Granite” 3kV DC locomotive manufactured by Ural Locomotives, a joint venture between the Russian Sinara Group and Siemens.
Clearly Transsib track maintenance is a challenge, the scale of which is evident from the track maintenance depots every few hundred kilometres at which there are ballast cleaners, track laying machines and new track. Over the next two years, Russian Railways is to spend £750 million on 2,285 infrastructure maintenance vehicles.
Bi-directional working permits track work on adjacent lines and on one occasion was used to allow my train to overtake a freight train on a double line. For rolling stock at each main station there are jacks and a training facility with a compound with cutaway wagons, bogies, couplers and brake gear. Recovery trains are also a common sight, each has a large and small crane, bulldozers and spare freight bogies. The impression is of a railway that is tooled up to do its job.
For the British visitor, a novel operational concept is that, throughout the network, Russian Railways run to Moscow time so when the station clock shows 10:30 in Vladivostock, the time there is actually 17:30. This takes a little getting used to. As an example, leaving my Yekaterinburg hotel at 11:30 for a 10:09 train was disconcerting.
On to the BAM
After three nights on the Transsib with a two-day break in Yekaterinburg I got to the Siberian city of Irkutsk where I was to report to the station at 05:30 to join the special BAM train leaving at 00:50 (05:50 local time). This was to be my home for the next five days and is the subject of part two of this article.