Famed for the legendary trains that clank across seven time zones on its Trans-Siberian railroad, Russia this week entered the modern railway age with its first high-tech express train.
The Sapsan train, whose gaudy red bodywork is in sharp contrast to the bottle green that adorns most Russian trains, started running on Thursday on the route between Moscow and St Petersburg.
The route between the country’s two main cities was until now largely served by overnight trains which shared the same romance as the Trans-Siberian railway but crawled to their destination in some eight hours.
But now travelers can take the Sapsan (Peregrine Falcon), which cuts journey time between the two cities to just three hours and 45 minutes and appears set to revolutionize the Russian concept of train travel.
It is a centerpiece of Russia’s plans to modernize its state-owned railways and integrate a network that extends as far afield as China and Mongolia with the railway systems of Europe.
For all the fanfare, the unveiling of the new pride of Russia’s railways was overshadowed by the deadly bombing of the luxury Nevsky Express train last month on the same Moscow-Petersburg railway.
The blast late on Nov. 27 derailed the Nevsky Express, killing 27 people and wounding about 100 more. It was claimed by the so-called “Caucasus Emirate,” an umbrella group uniting various militant Islamist factions.
By chance, part of the Sapsan was undergoing tests close to where the blast hit and was involved in rescue efforts, carrying several hundred stranded passengers away from the site of the attack.
In the Soviet-era train stations of Moscow and St Petersburg, the Sapsan train looks like it has arrived from another planet as it sits in the tracks next to its long-serving Russian-built brethren.
The train was designed by German engineering giant Siemens, which in 2006 signed a contract with Russian Railways (RZhD) to supply eight of its Velaro trains, in the latest example of German-Russian economic cooperation.
It has a highest speed of 250kph for the 635km journey, an almost rocket-like velocity compared with the trudge of most Russian trains.
Previous day trains along the route had taken four and a half hours.
The contrast with Russian trains of the past is even more striking inside with automatic doors, huge glass picture windows and innovations like television in first class.
Even more astonishing for anyone who has traveled on Russian trains in the past is the blanket ban on smoking, a major irritant for many train travelers in the country.
“It feels like a TGV!” exclaimed Mikhail, 43, as he climbed aboard in Moscow, referring to the French high speed train that transformed Europeans’ expectations of rail travel.
Alexei, 28, an IT consultant, decided to buy a one-day return ticket for one of the first journeys for the sheer pleasure of traveling on the train.
“When I compare with other Russian trains, I see that our railways have moved on to another level,” he said.
The cost is set at US$115 for a single and US$175 in first class.