Tonight we are taking the overnight train from St. Petersburg to Moscow. I have to say, if there’s one thing that works far better in Russia than in the U.S., it’s trains.
Russia has one of the biggest railway systems in the world, no matter how you measure it. With 950,000 employees, the Russian system’s workforce is second only to India’s. And its 53,000 miles of railroad beat out everyone but the U.S. Until 1993, Russia shipped more freight than anyone in the world. And it’s not just volume. It’s efficiency, punctuality, and comfort. So, if you come to Russia, take the train. It’s worth it. When they told us, “we will arrive at 8:30am” I scoffed. In the U.S., any train journey needs anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour of leeway. We got to Moscow at 8:30 on the dot.
Luckily we got to ride in higher-class accommodations (i.e., rooms of four bunks) as opposed to the third-class “platskart,” which is essentially a dorm on wheels reminiscent of those Japanese pod-hotels. I have been on trains in Western Europe, and they are quiet and clean. I have been on trains in America (private and public), and they’re late and expensive. Neither compares to the simple efficiency of Russian overnight trains. It’s one of the overlooked triumphs of Soviet engineering, and a pleasant reminder of Russia’s sometimes hidden genius.
I enjoyed watching the scenery go by when it was still light out. I’ve spent almost all of my time in Russia in cities, so I am interested in seeing rural and suburban areas–how the architecture differs in age and form, how towns are arranged, what the countryfolk are up to, etc. One of my favorite things about trains is that buildings are often backed right up to the tracks, so you get to see the side of a building that you would never normally see (i.e., the ass-end), often complete with trash piles, secret alleys, hangout spots, or junkyards. It’s almost like spying. Perhaps my vignette from the Russian countryside was a horse standing in a rusty children’s playground.