Trains and Scheduling

Train standards and conditions

The first thing to understand is that the Trans-Siberian is actually a network of routes, including but not limited to: the Trans-Siberian, linking Moscow to Vladivostok; the Trans-Mongolian, branching off the Trans-Siberian and traversing Mongolia through to Beijing; and the Trans-Manchurian, which also links Siberia to Beijing, though bypassing Mongolia. Consequently, rather than a single train, or a handful of trains, there are any number of international and local trains servicing the extensive network. 
It is worth noting, all of our packages make use of public trains, as opposed to private ‘tourist’ trains, the same public trains that the locals use to travel throughout the country. This means, you won’t find a viewing or lounge carriage on any of the trains. Most trains operate a dining carriage, though again, these are largely reserved for meals, and generally not available for relaxing or socializing.

Each carriage has two attendants (provodnitsa [female] or provodnik [male]), responsible for checking passports during boarding, and the general comfort of passengers. The attendants will be Chinese, Mongolian or Russian, depending on the country of origin of the train. It is rare that the attendants speak fluent English, which makes communication a little tricky beyond the basic on-board necessities. 

The international trains keep reasonably high standards, while the many local trains vary in standard, comfort and service. Clean linen, pillow, blankets and a small hand towel are provided on all trains.

You may come across commentary that suggests lower number trains are of a higher standard, and while this is a reasonable guide, it doesn’t really provide an exact measure of standard and comfort.

The most basic guide with respect to Russian trains divides trains along the following classifications:

Firmeny
Firmeny trains are found across the vast Russian rail network, particularly on the more popular routes. They often have names alongside the number, such as train #1 ‘Rossiya’ or train #55 ‘Enisey’. Firmenty trains offer the highest standard on the network, operating newer carriages in first, second and third class, better facilities and dining carriage, and more experienced on-board attendants. FIrmeny trains typically have quicker schedules, with fewer stops, and subsequently come at a higher price.

Standard (or FAST)
The majority of trains on the Russian network are Fast (Skory) trains. The standards are reasonably good, though not as high as firmeny trains, operating older carriages. Fast trains typically operate second and third class carriages (not first class). The schedule is generally slower, making more stops, reflected in a lower price tag than the Firmeny trains.

Passenger (or PASS)
These trains operate a variety of short and long routes, and usually provide a budget alternative to higher standard FIRMENY or FAST services. These trains typically stop at most stations, making the journey slower. Aside from the lower price tag, these trains may offer a decent alternative for shorter journeys where availability on preferred trains is a problem, or if a particular schedule is preferred.

The particular trains we use across our various packages reflect a balance between schedule, comfort and budget.

First Class cabin on Chinese train. Trans-Siberian

Carriage classes

There are two main classes of carriage on the trains that we use – second class and first class. Many Russian trains also operate third class carriages (platzkart), made up of 54 berths in an open carriage (no separate cabins).

In both first and second class,  Styles and standards vary between Chinese, Mongolian and Russian train cabins, and between old and new carriages. On all trains covering the network across China, Mongolia and Russia, passengers can expect to find the following in their first or second-class cabins:

  • a sliding door, which can be locked from inside;
  • storage space above the door, and storage bins under the lower berths;
  • extra small storage pockets on the walls;
  • a small fold-down table used for preparing meals;
  • personal reading lights;
  • electric sockets: ok in first class, though these are rarely switched on in second class; instead, try the sockets in the corridor;
  • linens, pillow and blankets are provided;

Guests have the option to upgrade to first class (2-berth cabins) on some or all of the train journeys, keeping in mind that some trains operate second class carriages only. In this case, we can buy up the extra berth in a second class cabin to give pairs of guests travelling together a private cabin. This doesn’t really make much sense for a solo traveller as you are still likely to share the cabin with other guests.

Second class
Second class carriages (denoted on tickets and our correspondence as 2/4), or kupé (as it is known on Russian trains), consist of nine cabins, each containing four berths: two upper berths and two lower berths. This means up to 36 passengers per second class carriage.

First class
First class carriages (denoted as 1/2), or spalny (as it is known on Russian trains), consist of eight cabins, each containing two berths, for a total of 16 passengers per carriage. In most cases, there are two lower berths, with a small fold down table between the bunks. However, on trains with extra bathrooms between pairs of first class cabins (e.g. on international trains #3 / #4 (Beijing <> Moscow) and #23 / #24 (Beijing <> Ulaanbaatar), the berths are split between one upper and one lower berth, with an armchair in the corner of the cabin.
First or second class – how to choose?
During the day all four people in second class will generally sit on the lower berths so as to enjoy the view or prepare meals at the small table. On many carriages there are also small fold-down seats in the corridor. Though it is a little disturbing to constantly shift place to let passengers pass along the corridor, these seats do provide a means of escaping the confines of your cabin, capturing the view on the other side of the train, or make for adequate support if charging devices using the electric sockets in the corridor. If you have an upper berth you can lie down and rest in ‘semi-privacy’ but cannot see the view. Second class can be very social, with cabin doors left open during the day and people chatting in the corridors. In first class there is obviously more space in the cabin to relax and enjoy the view, and with only 16 people in a first class carriage, the corridors are generally less crowded, and therefore, perhaps less social.

Apart from the extra privacy, especially for couples, the advantage of first class is having less of a queue for the toilet in the morning. First class carriages are usually closer to the dining carriage. In addition, travelling in the summer heat of July and August, first class is considerably cooler and less stuffy. Second class can heat up, especially when the train is stationary in one of the many stopovers.

China Railways class classification
A little note on the Chinese train class classifications, as this can cause some confusion. Chinese classifications generally equate to the Russian system as follows:

Deluxe soft sleeper = 1st Class 2-berth
Soft sleeper = 1st Class 4-berth
Hard sleeper = 2nd Class 4-berth

The Chinese 2nd Class 4-berth (hard sleeper) is closely equivalent to the Russian second class 4-berth kupé cabins, and this is what we tend to book for our guests at Monkeyshrine. The Chinese soft sleeper is a deluxe second class, with slightly wider berths and arguably higher standard carriages; as such, we don’t believe this additional class offers value for money to make it worth considering.

Toilets and washing up
In both first and second class, bathrooms are located at each end of the carriage, consisting of a toilet and a small hand basin. The facilities are small, with a hole in the floor allowing water to drain, which makes it possible to have a rudimentary camp shower of sorts.

The international Chinese train #3 / #4 (Beijing <> Irkutsk / Beijing <> Moscow) has additional washrooms between pairs of first-class cabins. These consists of a small hand basin that includes a retractable nozzle that can be used for ‘showering’, although the pressure is weak and the water usually cold. Toilets are located at either end of the carriage.

Similarly, the bathrooms between first-class cabins on Chinese train #23 / #24 (Beijing – Ulaanbaatar) have a toilet and wash basin with a retractable shower head (though the water pressure is generally weak and cold); newer cabins introduced from late 2016 now include a shower, toilet and wash basin. The extra first-class bathrooms on Mongolian train #23/#24 include a small hand basin with a retractable nozzle. Toilets are located at either end of the carriage.

Aside from these international trains, bathrooms on most other second and first-class carriages are located at either end of the corridor; it is rare to find showers elsewhere on the network.

Meals on trains

Most trains included in your itinerary operate a dining carriage where you can take your meals. In general, passengers balance meals between the dining carriage (perhaps once a day), bringing along a small supply of groceries to make meals in their compartment (packet noodles, cheese, salami, bread) and buying from the locals on the platform in the longer station stops along the route.

Where trains do not operate a dining carriage (most typically for the journey between Ulaanbaatar and Irkutsk), we will try to bring this to your attention in the itinerary notes. In this case, you will want to stock up on groceries prior to embarking, and supplement with snacks bought from the station platforms en route.

The restaurant carriages change in respect to the country in which you are travelling.
Chinese dining cars have a selection of decent Chinese dishes. Mongolian dining-cars usually offer rice and mutton, or dumplings.
The food in the Russian restaurant carriage is quite good and not overly expensive. The menu typically includes soup (solyanka, chicken or borsht), main courses of steak, schnitzel or fish with rice or potatoes. Don’t expect an extensive menu or everything shown on the menu to be available, especially on multi-day journeys. The restaurant also offers chocolate and snacks, beer, Russian champagne and (of course) vodka. 

If you don’t want to buy food and drink from the restaurant car, you can buy food from the vendors or kiosks on station platforms when the train stops. Warning: check with the carriage attendant how long you have, and don’t venture far from the train, as it is easy to misjudge how long it will take to get back to your carriage.

Don’t forget, on almost all Trans-Siberian trains, unlimited boiling water is available free of charge from the samovar at the end of the corridor in each carriage; remember to bring a mug, spoon, coffee, tea and a selection of cuppa soups. The more creative you can be, the more you’ll save on the budget: try some dried pasta, noodles, dehydrated camp meals, or dried potato; supplement with salami and cheese picked up along the way.

 

Supplies
Samovar
Dining car on Trans-Siberian Train

Train schedules

As noted above, the Trans-Siberian / Mongolian / Manchurian network is serviced by a variety of trains.
International trains provide direct travel between the capital cities and major destinations along the route, while, any number of local Russian trains link up the countless destinations across Russia. The comprehensive list below provides some assistance in coordinating your trip around the specific train schedules and departure restraints. Again, the particular trains we use across our various packages reflect a balance between schedule, comfort and budget.

Note: Train numbers in one direction will be one number different for the return journey (eg. train #23 Beijing to Ulaanbaatar returns as train #24 Ulaanbaatar to Beijing). The specific train descriptions for east to west journeys will subsequently be the same for the corresponding train in the opposite direction. 

 

East to west

Beijing to Ulaanbaatar – Train #23 (return journey as train #24)
From October 2017 until June 2018, departures from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar will operate on Chinese train #23 on Tuesdays, departing at 07:27, arriving in Ulaanbaatar the following day at 14:30.
From mid-June 2018, departures from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar are expected to operate on train #23 on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
Each of these trains depart Beijing at 07:27, arriving in Ulaanbaatar the following day at 14:30.

In the past it was possible to depart on the Wednesday train #3, the direct Beijing and Moscow service, and previously available for the shorter route. However, the ticket office in Beijing will now issue tickets on train #3 for the direct journey to Moscow as a priority, and will only release tickets for the shorter leg to Ulaanbaatar in the final week prior to departure. It is too risky to wait until the final week to secure preferred train tickets, especially for first class berths.

Beijing to Moscow – Train #3 / #4
Travelling direct from Beijing to Moscow, departures are on Chinese train #3 on Wednesdays (five nights on board, travelling via Mongolia), or Russian train #19 on Saturdays (six nights on board, travelling via Manchuria).

Train #3 / #4 is operated by the Chinese Railways and is serviced by Chinese attendants. Train #3 travels the arguably more scenic Trans-Mongolian route (7,622km), and operates Chinese, Mongolian and Russian dining carriages in the respective countries.

Additional washrooms are a bonus between pairs of first-class cabins. These consists of a small hand basin that includes a retractable nozzle that can be used for ‘showering’, although the pressure is weak and the water usually cold. Toilets are located at either end of the carriage.

Train #19 / #20
Train #19 (‘Vostok’) is operated by Russian Railways, and serviced by Russian train attendants.Train #19 travels the slightly longer Trans-Manchurian route (8,986km), and operates a Chinese dining carriage in China, and a Russian dining carriage in Russia. As there are no additional bathrooms between pairs of first class cabins, the two berths in a first class cabin consist of two lower berths. 

Beijing to Irkutsk – Trains #3 / #4 and #19 / #20
Travelling direct from Beijing to Irkutsk, departures are on Chinese train #3 on Wednesdays at 10:00 (two nights on board, travelling via Mongolia), or Russian train #19 on Saturdays at 23:00 (three nights on board, travelling via Manchuria).

Ulaanbaatar to Moscow – Train #5 / #6
Travelling direct from Ulaanbaatar to Moscow, departures are on train #5 on Fridays only (further restricted winter schedule from December to May). Train #5 operates first and second class carriages.

Ulaanbaatar to Ulan-Ude – Trains #305 / #306 (new service for 2018) and #5 / #6
From December 2017, the daily departure on train #263 will no longer operate.
In its place, train #305 will depart Ulaanbaatar Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 15:22 (local time), arriving in Ulan-Ude the following day (Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays) at 05:53 (local time). In winter, train #305 will depart on Mondays, Tuesdays and Saturdays only.
Train #305 is expected to operate two first class carriages, in addition to the standard second class.

The alternative train #5 departs Ulaanbaatar at 15:22 on Fridays (further restricted winter schedule December to May), arriving in Ulan-Ude the following morning at 06:23. Train #5 operates first-class carriages (2-berth), in addition to regular second-class (4-berth).

Irkutsk to Moscow – Train #69 / #70

  • FAST – STANDARD service
  • late afternoon departure – arrives Moscow early morning around 4am [four nights on board]
  • operating second and third class carriages only, along with a dining carriage
  • standard train for the journey between Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk / Irkutsk Ekaterinburg / Irkutsk Moscow

Note: When arriving in Moscow early in the morning (e.g. on train #69 at 04:11), you have a choice in terms of the accommodation included in the package. We typically include the arrival night as part of the Osnova or Polny package so as to guarantee a room on arrival and a chance to rest before your city tour. Alternatively, you can roll the included accommodation over to the next night and simply drop your luggage off and either rest in the common area or find a nearby 24 hour café for an early breakfast before your city tour and checking in around midday. Totally up to you.

Train #1 / #2 Rossiya

  • FAST – Firmeny service
  • first (spalny), second (kupé) and third (platzkart) class carriages, along with a dining carriage
  • operating on most odd-numbered dates (even dates until 8th after month ending in 31 days)

The higher standard FIRMENY train #1 (the ‘Rossiya’) offers an alternative for guests looking to upgrade their train experience between Irkutsk and Moscow. Its popularity among train enthusiasts may be due to being regarded as the quintessential Trans-Siberian train, as it covers the entire route from Vladivostok to Moscow, and is the highest standard train on this route.
The conditions are definitely of a higher quality on train #1, it comes with a significant price tag, especially when upgrading to a first class (2-berth) cabin. Availability is also quite difficult, especially during the summer months, and with tickets available for issuing 90 days prior to departure, we recommend getting in as early as possible.

Other Russian trains
Trains #29 (‘Kuzbass’) / #37 (‘Tomich’) 

  • FAST – FIRMENY standard trains
  • operating on alternate days
  • first, second and third class carriages
  • overnight connection between Ekaterinburg and Moscow (afternoon departure / arrival)
  • higher standard option between Ekaterinburg and Perm
  • also good option linking Novosibirsk and/or Omsk

Trains #15 (‘Ural’) / #59 (‘Tyumen’)

  • FAST – FIRMENY standard trains
  • operating on alternate days
  • first, second and third class carriages
  • operating on side branch of the Trans-Siberian route, alternative route between Ekaterinburg and Moscow, via Kazan
  • connecting Ekaterinburg and Kazan during daylight (rather than the slower and lower standard overnight trains #105 or #377)
  • overnight connection between Kazan and Moscow
  • overnight connection between Ekaterinburg and Moscow (morning departure / morning arrival – alternative to trains #29/37)

Train #67

  • FAST – STANDARD service
  • operating second and third class carriages only, along with a dining carriage
  • overnight connection between Ekaterinburg and Moscow (early afternoon departure / late afternoon arrival)
  • budget alternative to trains #29 / #37 or #15 / #59
  • standard train between Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk / Irkutsk Ekaterinburg / Irkutsk Moscow
  • budget option between Ekaterinburg and Perm

Bypassing Moscow
If you do not want to visit Moscow, there is currently a direct train service between Ekaterinburg and St Petersburg. If you wish to travel from Irkutsk to St Petersburg, however, you will need to change trains in Ekaterinburg; you may wish to add a night on there, or coordinate trains with a transfer only in Ekaterinburg.

 

Mongolian train to Irkutsk
Steam Loco in Moscow
Loco at Lake Baikal

Moscow <> Saint Petersburg

Moscow and Saint Petersburg are connected by a dozen high-speed trains completing the 650 km in a few hours or during a comfortable overnight trip while saving hotel costs.

Typical day-trains cover the journey in 4 hours, while overnight trains take 8 hours. With overnight sleeper trains leaving between 11pm and midnight and arriving early morning directly into the city, it is definitely the most sensible choice.

 

West to east

Moscow to Beijing – Train #4 and #20
Travelling direct from Moscow to Beijing, departures are on Chinese train #4 on Tuesdays (six nights on board, travelling via Mongolia), or Russian train #20 (‘Vostok’) on Saturdays (seven nights on board, travelling via Manchuria).

Irkutsk to Beijing – Trains #4 and #20
Travelling direct from Irkutsk to Beijing, departures are on Chinese train #4 on Wednesdays (two nights on board, travelling via Mongolia), or Russian train #20 on Saturdays (three nights on board, travelling via Manchuria).

Moscow to Irkutsk – Train #70

  • FAST – STANDARD service
  • early afternoon departure – arrives Irkutsk late morning [four nights on board]
  • operating second and third class carriages only, along with a dining carriage
  • standard train for the journey between Moscow and and Krasnoyarsk / Moscow and Irkutsk

Train #1 Rossiya

  • FAST – Firmeny service
  • first (spalny), second (kupé) and third (platzkart) class carriages, along with a dining carriage
  • operating on most odd-numbered dates (even dates until 8th after month ending in 31 days)
  • late evening departure – arrives Irkutsk early morning [four nights on board]
  • 14 hours quicker than the standard train #70, allowing an extra afternoon in Moscow

Moscow to Ulaanbaatar – Train #6
Departures out of Moscow to Ulaanbaatar are expected to be on train #6 on Tuesdays. It is also possible to depart on the direct Moscow to Beijing train #3, departing on Tuesdays and generally available for the shorter leg to Ulaanbaatar.
Train #5 operates first and second class carriages.

Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar – Train #306
Departures from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar operate on train #306 on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, departing at Irkutsk at 08:08am (local time) / and Ulan-Ude at 15:45, arriving in Ulaanbaatar the following day (Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays) at 06:50am (local time). Train #306 is expected to operate two first class (2-berth) carriages, in addition to the regular second class carriages.

From May 12th 2018, it is also possible to travel on train #6, departing Irkutsk at 08:08 (Ulan-Ude at 15:45) on Saturdays (every two weeks from mid-December 2017 to May 2018), arriving the following day in Ulaanbaatar at 06:50.
Train #6 operates first-class carriages (2-berth cabins), along with the regular second-class carriages.

Ulaanbaatar to Beijing – Train #24
Departures from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing are on train #24 on Thursdays only throughout the year. An extra summer train is expected to depart Ulaanbaatar on Fridays (2018) / Saturdays (2019) from mid-June through to early October. Train #24 operates first and second class carriages.

Other Russian trains
Trains #76 / #82

  • FAST – Standard trains
  • operating on alternate days
  • second and third class carriages
  • preferred schedule for overnight connection between Ekaterinburg and Moscow (early afternoon departure / early evening arrival
  • also good option linking Ekaterinburg to Novosibirsk and/or Omsk

Trains #16 (‘Ural’) / #60 (‘Tyumen’)

  • FAST – FIRMENY standard trains
  • operating on alternate days
  • first, second and third class carriages
  • operating on side branch of the Trans-Siberian route, alternative route between Ekaterinburg and Moscow, via Kazan
  • not preferable for Moscow to Kazan, due to early morning arrival around 5am
  • overnight connection between Moscow and Ekaterinburg (afternoon departure / evening arrival
  • alternative to trains #76 [odd date departures] / #56 [even date departures]
Second Class cabin on Russian train. Trans-Siberian
Dining car on Russian train. Trans-Siberian
Corridor of second class carriage of Russian Train. Trans-Siberian
First Class cabin on Chinese train. Trans-Siberian
Corridor of First Class carriage on Chinese Train. Trans-Siberian
 

‘I enjoyed the trip very much, overall. Everybody should do that once in their life! The trains I took were very comfortable and clean! I was really impressed by that.

Thanks again for your help organising the trip!’

Tihana Majcen, November 2010

First Class cabin on Russian train.