The Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary is very popular with Russian tourists - who nowadays prefer to get there by plane rather than by train. The last direct train from Moscow to Karlovy Vary runs this week (photo © hidden europe).
New rail timetables debut across Europe on 11 December 2016. Dozens of commentators have remarked on how the new schedules affect train services in western and central Europe. Indeed, we wrote a piece focussing on the changes in night train services to, from and across Germany. But hardly anything has appeared in English on what the new timetables herald for Russia. In this article for European Rail News, we look at Russian Railways' international services and how they change next week.
Next Saturday afternoon, destinations in Russia will feature on the departure boards at Karlovy Vary station for the last time. At least for the foreseeable future. The long-standing direct train service from the Czech spa town to Moscow is being axed as Russian rail operator RZD revamps its international rail links.
Karlovy Vary, which is still often known by its erstwhile German name of Karlsbad, is a popular destination for Russian tourists, but latterly many more are inclined to fly than opt for a long train journey. Moscow to Karlovy Vary by trains takes 31 hours. Direct flights between the two cities take just three hours.
Happily, some of RZD’s showpiece international trains to western Europe are being retained for 2017. The company has two well established routes from Russia to France. They are
Both services will run weekly when new European rail timetables come into effect later this month. For the Paris route, that’s quite a cutback as the Moscow-Paris service has run thrice-weekly throughout 2016. But the loss of some trains running right through to Paris is offset by the introduction of new fast services on the Moscow to Berlin portion of the route.
Spanish-built Talgo rolling stock will be used on the new dedicated Moscow to Berlin trains. These trains ingeniously handle the change of track gauge on the Belarusian-Polish border, so ushering in much faster journeys. The new service will trim three hours off travel times for trips from Moscow or Minsk to Warsaw and Berlin. The travel time from Moscow to Warsaw will drop to under 15 hours on the new Talgo trains.
While existing trains from Russia to Germany and France have latterly been composed exclusively of sleeping cars (and very high-quality sleeping cars too!), the new Talgo trains from Moscow to Berlin also include the option of regular seating. It’s something which may well appeal to passengers just making short hops on these services – and it’s perfectly possible to buy tickets for these trains for local journeys within Poland and Germany (or between Poland and Germany).
The general pattern of train services between Moscow and many neighbouring countries remains unchanged, with existing schedules continuing on routes from the Russian capital to Vilnius, Tallinn and Helsinki. The daily train from Moscow to Kaliningrad (which transits Lithuania on its way to Russia’s Baltic exclave) is sped up by a few minutes.
The weekly train from Moscow to Baku speeds up slightly, taking 75 minutes less. But it’s still a 52-hour journey. The daily overnight train from Moscow to the Belarusian city of Polotsk is also faster from 11 December, with an evening departure from Moscow 30 minutes later than now. While the general pattern shows a slight trimming of journey times, that’s not universal. The direct train from St Petersburg to the Moldovan capital Chisinau (not daily) takes 30 minutes longer from 11 December.
Sadly, the direct daily through sleeping cars from Moscow and Minsk to Budapest, Belgrade and Sofia slip from the timetables. The through service from Moscow to Sofia, running via Warsaw and Budapest, was only introduced in December 2015, so it has barely had time to get started before being axed.
We wonder if this might herald the reintroduction next summer of the seasonal Black Sea holiday train from Minsk to Bulgaria which in summer 2015 was routed through Ukraine and Moldova to Romania and beyond. That route allows Belarusians (and Russians) to reach Bulgaria without the need to invest in a Schengen transit visa.
There are a number of trains running east from Belarus which venture far beyond the big cities of western Russia. There are several trains each week from Belarusian cities to Sochi and Adler on Russia’s Black Sea Riviera. The regular Saturday departure from Minsk all the way to Murmansk (in the Russian Arctic) continues just as now in the new schedules, and the train will still carry through carriages from Brest (in Belarus, just east of the border with Poland). The once-weekly direct train from Brest to Novosibirsk in Siberia will still depart every Tuesday, but from 13 December it will have an hour trimmed off the journey time.
Perhaps the most interesting long-distance train starting in Belarus is the regular Friday departure from Brest to Karaganda in Kazakhstan. In the new timetables, it will still leave Brest every Friday afternoon as now. Six minutes are cut from the travel time, but will anyone notice? This is a journey which takes over 88 hours, so it’s only one for real devotees of rail travel. Passengers are accommodated in open dormitory-style communal carriages with 54 berths. The one-way fare is about €170. The train's final destination, Karaganda, is way, way east in Kazakhstan, so we've long judged this Brest to Karaganda service to be a real gem among Eurasian rail excursions. We'd love to hear from anyone who has made the entire journey from end to end.
There has been talk of a new direct link from Moscow to Kraków starting in mid-December 2016. The train features in the timetables, but bookings have not yet opened, so we wonder if RZD are having second thoughts on that possible new link. Russian tourism to southern Poland is on the up, with increasing numbers of Russians heading to the Tatra Mountains for winter sports. So we could see the case for running some through cars to Kraków on the existing Moscow to Warsaw service.
Despite frosty relations between Moscow and Kiev, the current pattern of half a dozen daily trains between the two capitals will hold for 2017. The lack of any direct flights between the two countries has given a boost to rail travel. Some of these services continue beyond Kiev to Odessa, Chisinau or Lviv.
All in all, the new schedules see RZD trimming back some links to neighbouring European states and focusing on key markets. However, the operator has in recent years been quite fleet-footed in responding to changing market conditions. We may not yet have seen the last word on RZD’s 2017 schedules. Indeed, it’s very likely that we’ll see a further iteration of the RZD timetable in spring 2017 as the operator looks to maximise summer traffic on its lucrative routes to European neighbours.