Sunday, 15 March 2009

The Amazing Race 14, Episode 5 (Trains in Russia, India, and China)

Krasnoyarsk (Russia) - Novosibirsk (Russia)

A certain amount of our time while travelling is spent, inevitably, in “waiting rooms”. Quite often there is only one train or plane a day on a given route, and a connection between two such daily schedules may leave you a 1-hour layover, or a 23-hour one. An important travel skill is learning to use that time as an opportunity for people watching, conversation, language and culture learning, and the like, rather than allowing it to be purely “wasted” time.

But did the teams on The Amazing Race 14 this week really need to wait up to 10 hours for the next train to the next major city along the trans-Siberian main line? Was there really only one train a day? And if not, how would they know — or how would you figure out, as an independent traveller in Russia? — and what could they do about it?

Arriving at the train station (which the racers might have recognized by the giant voksal sign if they had learned a little Cyrillic) not long after noon, local time, all the teams were sold tickets for first-class sleeping berths on the fast night train that departs from Krasnoyarsk at 22:26 local time (18:26 Moscow time in the schedule), and arrives in Novosibirsk, about 500 miles and one time zone to the west, at 9:47 the next morning (06:47 Moscow time).

It’s hard to tell from the edited television broadcast what was really going on, but I suspect that the ticket seller was carefully coached in what to say: The tickets and departure board undoubtedly said either “22:26” (local time) or, more likely, “18:26” (Moscow time, as in the published schedules), not “10:26” as the ticket clerk was shown saying.

Outside the USA, almost no transportation schedule is in 12-hour time — it’s too confusing. Foreign visitors to the USA regularly show up 12 hours early for planes, trains, and buses, since it never occurs to them that “6:00” might mean “18:00”, or to look for a code signifying “a.m.” or “p.m.” And almost all train schedules throughout Russia’s 10 time zones are published in Moscow time.

Plane schedules in Russia all used to be on Moscow time, too, but have mostly been switched to local time. In China, where the central government in Beijing acts as though acknowledging that “Xinjiang Province” is in a different time zone would be tantamount to acknowledging that it is entitled to independence, you can guess people’s ethnicity and political sympathies in East Turkestan by whether they use the official Beijing time or the unofficial local time. And then there’s “East African time”, also known as “Ethiopian Time” or “Swahili Time”, in which the hours are the same length as ours but the 12 hours of the day are counted from what we call 6 a.m., and the 12 hours of the night are counted from 6 p.m. (18:00), so that what we call 3 p.m. (15:00) is called “9 o’clock” by many Africans.

The bottom line is that there are more time systems in use in the world than most people realize. When in doubt, ask! The worst situation is when someone helpfully tries to convert the time as they know it into the time system they think you are using. Typically, either they get the conversion wrong, or you assume they are using local time, and re-convert a time that they have already converted into your time system. Either you miss your appointment or you wait as much as 12 hours.

As I mentioned earlier this season, none of the world’s three largest railway systems, measured by passenger-kilometers per year — in China, India, and Russia — are connected to international computerized reservation systems. The USA has more miles of track than any of these countries, but far fewer passenger trains. Most rail lines in the USA have no passenger service at all, and the USA ranks slightly below tiny Belgium in passenger railway traffic. But most tourists in Russia, India (where the race is headed next), or China do at least some of their travel by train. How can you plan and arrange these rail journeys? I know the race is not in India quite yet, and may or may not get to China this season, but because there are many general similarities, I’ll give some tips and advice this week for rail route planning, schedules, and ticket buying in all three of these countries.

In the absence of CRS connectivity, you have to look to more specialized sources for railway schedules in any of these countries. For China and India, but not Russia, good timetables are available online that you can print out and/or take with you on your laptop or a flash drive. Here are the best printed or downloadable rail route planners I know of for these countries:

  • China: For several years dedicated railfan Duncan Peattie has been producing excellent and regularly updated English translations of the Chinese railway timetables. My only quibble is that they are in English only, not bilingual, which makes them less useful in the field for communication by pointing, or for matching the Chinese place-names with those on departure boards or station platforms. There’ve been times in China when I was only able to communicate my desired destination to a ticket clerk by pointing to the place name in a bilingual timetable. Peattie produces two editions, both available for download as PDF files: a free “quick reference” summary timetable of express trains between main stations, which are the only trains most foreign tourists will ever take, and a complete national timetable for sale if you are getting off the main lines. The schedules are keyed to the Quail China Railway Atlas , which Peattie also distributes in either printed or PDF format, and which can be invaluable in finding possible connections and through routes.

  • India: The staple reference for travellers in India, Trains at a Glance is now available online. The format is somewhat annoying — separate PDF files for each section or table — but if you download and save them all you’ll probably have everything you need. Few foreign travellers venture onto the minor lines and local trains for which you need the complete and voluminous Indian Bradshaw . Indian Railways’ mainline reservations and ticketing have been computerized for more than 20 years, and there’s now a Web interface to Indian Railways’ schedules and a ticket purchase Web site for foreigners . Neither is very user friendly or reliable, however, especially if you aren’t familiar with the elaborate caste system of classes of trains and accommodations, the routings and connections, or the multiple stations in many Indian cities. And seats or berths on the better trains are often available only from the quota of seats reserved for foreign tourists, which can only be booked in person at train stations or at special railway ticket offices for foreigners in the largest cities (Delhi, Mumbai/Bombay, Chennai/Madras, and Kolkata/Calcutta).

  • Russia: Schedules for trains in Russia west of the Urals are covered — badly and bulkily — in the Thomas Cook European Timetable , while Russia east of the Urals, India, and China are all included in the Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable . There’s no decent or compact alternative in print in English for Russian trains, and it’s been many years since I saw one even in Russian.

So what can you do in Russia if you aren’t carrying both Thomas Cook volumes — other than rely on the clerk at the ticket window in the station, who tells you there’s only one train a day when you see long-distance passenger trains coming and going every couple of hours?

The Russian Railways have recently added an English-language Web interface to point-to-point train schedules within Russia, and on some (but not all) international routes to and from Russia. It’s a step in the right direction, but needs major improvement to be really useful. If you don’t find what you are looking for, it’s probably because you have chosen the wrong station or line (but how can a first-time visitor know which one to choose?), because the city or station name has been romanized from the Cyrillic differently than you expected, or because you are trying to check schedules too far in the future. The lack of connection information isn’t as much of a problem as it would be in Western Europe, India, or China: Most of the train journeys taken by tourists in Russia are on direct trains. The only place in Russia where you are likely to have to change trains is in Moscow, where you are also likely to have to make tedious transfers between train stations, and where you’ll probably want to stop over anyway if you haven’t been there before.

The Man in Seat 61 (Mark Smith), a British railfan who maintains a useful personal site of general advice on rail travel around the world, recommends the schedule search tool provided by, a specialized British travel agency. It appears to be based on the same data as the official Russian Railways Web site, but with a much more user-friendly interface.

One advantage to printed schedules over any of the online availability searches is that the Web-based systems generally show only those trains currently open for booking and ticketing. Unlike flights, which can usually be reserved and ticketed up to 11 months in advance, reservations for trains in Russia, India, and China aren’t generally accepted further in advance than a couple of days (for some local trains) to a couple of months (for the premier trains between big cities), depending on the specific route and train. Schedules are subject to change, and some trains operate only in winter, only in summer, or more or less frequently at different seasons. But printed timetables can give at least some idea, for planning purposes, of routes and schedules further in the future than you can actually buy tickets.

Don’t rely on old schedules in any of these countries: New rail lines are being built, more of the old ones are being electrified, and faster, more frequent, and more comfortable services are being added all the time. As in many other aspects of life and infrastructure, change is much more rapid in the BRIC countries (the “emerging” economic powers of Brazil, Russia, india, and China, although in Brazil it’s road-building rather than railway expansion) than it is or probably ever has been in the USA, EU, or elsewhere in the First World. For what it’s worth, the premium-priced trains between main cities in all of these countries (especially China) are more comfortable than most people expect, with berths in first-class sleepers costing no more than coach airline tickets.

As for actually buying tickets, you might as well wait until you get to the country. The only way to get Russian or Chinese train tickets from outside the country is to pay someone to buy them for you at the station. Some tour operators and travel agencies will do that, and send the ticket to you abroad or hold them for you to pick up from their office on arrival. Typical markups for their services, however, are anywhere from 25% to 200% or more of the face value of the tickets. It’s generally cheaper and easier to buy your tickets after you arrive in country. if you don’t speak Russian or Chinese, your hotel or a local travel agency or tour operator can usually procure tickets for you, for a modest service fee. Or you can hire someone who speaks some English — through your hotel or off the street — to come with you to the station to help you navigate the process (a big-city station may have dozens of ticket windows for different destinations, classes, and services), choose which train and class you want, and if necessary haggle for black-market tickets.

Except around holidays, it’s not generally hard to get tickets on the main domestic rail routes in Russia, India, and China as long as you buy them a few days in advance. Through international trains, with much more limited frequencies and capacity, are another story. Trains on the branch lines between China and the trans-Siberian, for example, can be fully booked weeks in advance in the summer.

Any of these printed or online tools — once you pick dates for which they have data, get the city and station names spelled to their liking, and figure out how to read the tables — makes clear that there is more than one train a day in each direction between Krasnoyarsk and Novosibirsk, including afternoon trains that, even if they were slower and made more stops, would still have arrived hours earlier in the morning. So why were all the racers sold tickets on this one train, rather than any of the earlier ones?

It’s possible, of course, that the TV producers had blocked space on that train for the cast of the show, and told the station agent to sell them tickets from that block. That’s not a problem you’ll have to worry about, I presume. There are, however, equally plausible explanations that might have more relevance to real-world travellers.

The most obvious possibility is that all the earlier trains were sold out. In that case, however, the ticket clerk would normally have said so. Even if she didn’t, the racers would have found out from the ticket touts (whether professional black marketeers or merely opportunists like the people who “volunteer” to give up their seats on overbooked flights in exchange for compensation in airline scrip) who would have approached them, offering to sell their tickets on earlier trains. I’ve dealt with such people myself for tickets on sold-out overnight Russian trains, although it’s a lot easier if you have a Russian-speaking friend, or someone you’ve hired for an hour from your hotel or guest-house, to help you negotiate.

It’s also possible that there was space available on earlier trains, but only in such low classes of accommodations that the ticket clerk didn’t think it appropriate to suggest those trains, or those 2nd or 3rd-class hard seats (or unreserved places), for foreign tourists. Sometimes that’s official policy, and sometimes it’s just a well-meaning attempt to suggest what will make the customer happy. Foreigners who ask for the cheapest ticket don’t always appreciate what that might mean in discomfort, and wouldn’t necessarily make that request if they knew. First class on a train in Western Europe is generally a waste of money, like first class on an airplane. Outside the First World, however, I always choose the fastest train available, and usually the highest class of accommodations I can afford. If the railway doesn’t want to sell me a last-class ticket, I’ve learned that there’s probably a good reason.

I suspect , though, that the reason that the racers couldn’t get tickets on the earlier trains is that those trains originated somewhere further up the line to the east. The train for which they were sold tickets was both the next train with first-class sleeping cars and the next train to Novosibirsk that originated in Krasnoyarsk, and thus for which all the allocation of space was controlled from Krasnoyarsk. It’s common in Russia, India, and China for the manifest for a train to be kept only in the place where the train is made up (or perhaps at the places where cars are added, for those cars only). Where things work this way — as they do for most trains in Russia, India, and China — it’s difficult or impossible to confirm onward reservations from any intermediate station. You can sometimes board such a train midway along its route, but only with an “open” (unreserved) ticket, and only at the risk of not finding a seat or berth, having to stand for the entire journey, or being put off the train — perhaps at some even smaller station where no trains originate or where only the slowest local trains stop, and from which it is even harder to make your way onward.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 15 March 2009, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

They do go to China this season.

Posted by: aTARfan, 22 March 2009, 12:34 (12:34 PM)

If the ticket seller in Novossibirsk spoke English,then he wasn't coached, he was an actor ! the closest train station from Novossibirsk you can buy a train ticket in English probably is Darjeeling...

Posted by: Linca, 29 November 2011, 14:41 ( 2:41 PM)
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