Both rail and air operators are upping the ante in the coming months in a bid to lure passengers onto the lucrative route between Moscow and St Petersburg. Business travellers have long faced a dilemma over whether to take plane or train on a route that, at 400 miles, is roughly the same distance as that between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Most Russian trains take a leisurely eight hours to cover the distance, running overnight. In recent years, a few fast day trains have been launched for business travellers, reducing the time to four or five hours. Then, on Thursday, Russian Railways launched the Sapsan, the first genuinely high-speed train in Russia, which is built by Siemens and will cut the journey time down to just 3 hours and 45 minutes.
Vladimir Yakunin, the Russian Railways chief, told press at the Leningrad Station before departing on the first train, that the Sapsan is “not just a train, but another life, another technology, another form of transport”.
A one-way business-class ticket on the Sapsan is well over €100, but the railways hope that the reduced journey time will decisively tip business travellers towards train over plane. Flying time is just one hour, but hideous traffic at both ends means that door-to-door the journey time is more like four hours.
In the past, many travellers opted for the train purely as a result of safety concerns. There are still some seriously terror-inducing aircraft that ply the St Petersburg-Moscow route. An old Tupolev wheezing its way into the sky as the shoddy cabin – complete with peeling 1970s upholstery – rattles from side to side, is not a situation that many international business travellers are happy with.
But last month’s horrific bomb attack on the Nevsky Express might force a few people to re-evaluate the safety equation. Around 30 were killed and 100 injured, many of them seriously, in the second terrorist attack to hit the train line in recent years.
The Nevsky Express, prior to the launch of the Sapsan, was the premium business train on the route, and last month’s attack hit the Friday evening train, packed with businessmen and commuters returning to St Petersburg after a day’s or week’s work in the capital. The impossibility of defending 400 miles of train track against determined terrorists with homemade bombs means that nobody can rule out another attack.
The air industry has also been getting more competitive. Russia’s first budget carrier, Sky Express, offers fares on the route for as low as €25, and Aeroflot has just opened a brand new terminal at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Previously, internal flights went from Terminal 1, which resembles a prison more than an airport. A fast, efficient train has also been set up to Sheremetyevo from the centre taking just 30 minutes.
This should reduce journey time, except that in an impressively poor piece of planning, the train goes to the old Sheremetyevo terminal but not the new one. For that, you need to take a bus that runs every 20 minutes. A recent visit to the sparkling new terminal also revealed that it has been staffed with bribe-hungry police, looking for imaginary violations in foreigners’ passports and offering a choice of paying a bribe or missing the flight. Old habits die hard.
A survey I conducted at random among five Russian and five expat businessmen revealed that nine out of 10 will take Sapsan over the air option.
“Even if it does get blown up now and then, it’s far less scary than getting on a Russian plane,” said one British lawyer working in the Russian capital.