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A huge snowstorm left traffic stranded on Russian freeways late last week, with blizzard conditions and heavy drifting snow continuing to inflict misery over the weekend. Worst hit was the main M-10 highway linking Moscow with St. Petersburg. Yet the trains, by and large, continued to run on time.
Tackling the Russian winter
The Russian Federation has a legendary reputation for managing to keep its trains running in even the most severe winter conditions. The fast Sapsan services linking Moscow with St. Petersburg speed between the two cities in well under four hours.
The trains which operate the route are essentially the same Siemens stock used by Deutsche Bahn (DB) for their ICE services. But while DB struggles to maintain a full service in cold winter conditions, their counterparts in Russia work a little technical magic and keep the trains running even in the much more severe winters that are common in Russia.
Day trains to St. Petersburg
France, Spain and Italy are the three European countries that have most conspicuously pioneered high-speed rail services on new-build tracks. But Russia has quietly established an enviable reputation for fast and efficient rail services.
Whether they really can pull off a new dedicated high-speed route from Moscow to St. Petersburg in time for the 2018 World Cup is very much in doubt, but with several Sapsan trains each day reliably linking the two cities, few will worry much about any postponement of the new route — which, when it eventually comes, will trim another hour off the journey time. It is worth remembering that fifty years ago, it still took eight hours to travel on the fastest trains between the two cities. Nowadays it is perfectly normal for Muscovites to make an out-and-back-in-a-day excursion to Russia’s second city.
Russia’s close business links with Finland have underpinned the growth of rail passenger traffic between the two countries, and the new high-speed service from St. Petersburg to Helsinki, launched in December 2010, was an instant success. Capacity was doubled within a few months, and four-times-daily Allegro services now link the two cities in just 3 hrs 36 mins. The route has helped shape leisure travel patterns and over the upcoming Christmas period (24 Dec. through 8 Jan.), many Allegro trains will be strengthened from seven to 14 carriages.
You can find the timetables for the Sapsan and Allegro services on the excellent Poezda website (which has an English-language option). Up-to-date schedules for the routes from St. Petersburg to Moscow and Helsinki are shown each month in the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable (as Tables 1900 and 1910 respectively).
The Winter Olympics
In the hills behind Sochi, on Russia’s Black Sea coast, preparations are well-to-schedule for the 2014 Winter Olympics. A 30-mile stretch of new railway links Sochi airport with the Olympic venues. And the Russian railway authorities are tackling bottlenecks on the main Moscow to Sochi route to speed up services from the capital to the Black Sea resorts and Olympic sites.
Looking further ahead, there are plans to introduce much faster services from Moscow to Kyiv in Ukraine and to speed up services from Moscow to Berlin. The latter’s potential as a major passenger artery is diminished by the need for trains to change gauge on the Polish-Belarusian border. Early in 2012, Russia signed an agreement with Spain to introduce Spanish-built Talgo trains on the route. The new stock is expected in 2015. That Russia looked to Spain is no surprise, for the Spanish — more than any other nation in Europe — have experience in operating main-line passenger trains over multiple gauges.
For those who fear that the development of high-speed rail tears the romance out of Russian trains, there are still plenty of slow train options. The fastest trains from Moscow to Irkutsk still take 73 hours.