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Night train to Moscow

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David Shirres makes Europe’s longest train journey – the 3,483 km Paris to Moscow service run by Russian Railways (RZD).

Three times a week Russian Railways (RZD) train number 024 leaves Paris Gare de l’Est at 18.58 to arrive, just over 37 hours later, at Moscow’s Belorussky station. The train has 17 stops which include departures from Strasbourg at 23.25, Berlin at 07.13, Warsaw at 13.40 and Minsk at 01.04.

There is quite a history of trains between Paris and Moscow. After 1945, there was no through service until 1960 when a train using Russian sleeping cars was introduced. In 1969, this train became the Ost-West Express which also included through coaches from Ostend to Moscow. In 1994, this train only served Brussels and stopped running in 1999. A through Paris-Moscow sleeping car started in 2007 and took about 48 hours. In 2010, a train between Nice and Moscow was introduced. Such was the demand for these services that the Paris to Moscow train started in December 2011.

Main image - Bogie change at BrestBranded teapot

The train consists of three luxury sleeping cars, five standard sleeping cars and a restaurant car. The luxury cars have four spacious double occupancy compartments with their own toilet and shower for which the fare is about £820. These were built in 1994 and were recently refurbished.

The standard cars have eight compartments configured for either first class, with two passengers, or second class, with four, as well as an attendant’s compartment and two toilets, one of which has a shower. The first class fare is around £320 and the second class about £220, slightly less for the upper berth. Occupants are given bedding and a key card for their compartment. Snacks are available from the attendant. A nice touch is the Paris-Moscow branded teapot in each compartment that can be filled with continuously available hot water in the attendant’s compartment. Drinking water is also available.

These standard cars were built under a RZD order for 200 sleeping coaches awarded to Siemens and Russian coach builder Tverskoy Vagonostroitelny Zavod in 2009. They are the first Russian-built vehicles to meet RIC standards for use on networks of International Union of Railways (UIC) members. They weigh 59 tonnes, can run at 200 km/h and have interchangeable Russian and standard gauge bogies.

Dinner with Russian family

I am on the train as RZD had invited me to their 1520 Strategic Forum in Sochi. I share my four-berth compartment with Michal, Olga and their son Evgenia who welcomed me to ‘their’ compartment and insisted I share the meal they had brought onto the train. Their warm welcome was typical of my previous experience travelling on Russian trains. Although they speak little English, and I little Russian, I learn they are returning from a holiday in Paris and are to leave the train when it enters Belarus at Brest.

The train is full, although the restaurant car manager advises that it is less busy in winter. I wonder why people choose this train which takes 10 times longer than flying for about the same cost. He tells me that only about 40 per cent of its passengers are travelling from Paris to Moscow as many join and leave at Berlin and Warsaw. Some use the train because of the amount of luggage that can be carried for free. For others the experience of travelling on this train is an attraction in itself, especially for those who have treated themselves to the luxury cars.

Main image - shunting at Warsaw

Various overheads

The nine-coach, 523-tonne, train left Paris hauled by SNCF 25kV AC class BB 26000 locomotive. In Berlin and Warsaw there are stops at the city’s main station and one just beyond for operational reasons. In Berlin, the DB class 120 locomotive, which had hauled the train under the German 15kV 16 2/3 Hz AC electrification system was replaced by a Traxx class F140M locomotive that can operate under 25kV AC, 15kV AC, 3kV DC and 1.5kV DC overhead lines. This was needed to haul the train through both Germany and Poland, with its 3kV DC overhead line system.

At Warsaw, the restaurant car was removed. This is operated by the Polish train operating company, PKP Intercity. Its manager explained that this could not travel through to Moscow because of customs regulations. As it was the train’s third coach, its removal required a number of shunting moves.

Wheels within wheels

At the border between Terespot in Poland and Brest in Belarus, the train’s passengers faced their first customs and passport check to ensure that those travelling to Moscow had the required transit visa through Belarus. The train arrives at Brest at its standard gauge platforms. It is then shunted to a siding to empty toilet tanks and then, past sidings with dozens of bogies, to the two-road gauge changing shed. Here the train is split into two portions, each of which is split into individual coaches.

The standard gauge bogies were then disconnected and the coaches jacked up. These bogies were then pushed from under the coaches by a ‘train’ of Russian-gauge bogies moved by a cable system. Each Russian bogie was then positioned under its coach and the jacks lowered. It takes an hour to re-bogie the entire nine-coach train. This is done on tracks which are mid-gauge (between the 1435 mm standard gauge and 1520 mm Russian gauge). As a result, the standard gauge wheelsets have their rims near the railhead and Russian gauge wheelsets have their flanges against the rail.

Brest in the west

More shunting sees the Russian restaurant car attached and the train moved to Brest’s Russian- gauge platforms. After a Russian class ChS4T 25 kV AC locomotive has been attached, the train leaves Brest 137 minutes after arriving at the station’s standard gauge platforms.

Main image - standard sleeper compartment

Although the Russian border is crossed at about 04.00, no-one is woken up for passport checks as the border check at Brest was also a passport check for Russia. At 09.21, RZD’s train 024 arrives on-time at Moscow’s Belorussky station.

At the head of the train is a ChS7T locomotive under 3kV DC overhead lines. After at least five locomotives, with a change of restaurant car and bogies the train has averaged 94 km/h between Paris and Moscow.

It is certainly not the fastest journey between the two cities but, for anyone with an interest in railways, it is the best way to travel.

Further information about this train is available from the man in seat 61 website. seat61.com/paris-moscow-express