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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Taking the Fast Track to Petersburg

It could have come from a toy shop: ten red, blue and silver carriages all stamped with the official Russian railways insignia, a shiny guard at every door and to top it all off a jolly, rosy-cheeked driver with gleaming gold buttons and hair swept up under his stiff black and white cap.

But this isn't the star exhibit in a model railways showroom. This is the superfast train that runs between Petersburg and Moscow once a week in each direction, taking a mere five hours. Ordinary trains between the cities take about eight hours.

Semyon Ilyich, the train's proud driver, has been driving it since 1984, when the service first started. "Of course I prefer it to the slow day trains and even the faster night trains," he said, caressing the engine of the all-Russian built ER 200. "It's more convenient to drive, and I know passengers prefer it."

ER stands for elektropoyezd rizhsky, or electric train of Riga. During the Soviet regime, all trains were manufactured in Riga, Latvia. The 200 means that this is the fastest train anywhere in Russia. It is also the only one of its kind. Although the sprint service has been operating for more than 12 years, the new sleek version has only been on the rails since Sept. 21, 1995. "She really is a beauty, don't you agree?" Ilyich said.

Igor Lyapin, the guard in charge of the sixth carriage, was less enthusiastic about the train. "Take a look at the other carriages," he said. "Sure mine is full, but there are at least three empty ones on the train. It may be fast, but people just can't afford it," he grumbled, adding that there isn't enough money being put into railways in Russia. After graduating from the university in Kharkiv, Ukraine, as a railways engineer, he went to work on the railroad, where he has been ever since.

"Trains are my whole life," he said, "But I can't bear to see how they've gone to the dogs of late."

He wasn't even impressed with the ER 200. "There was a fire on it last year," he said. A carriage full of American professors on their way to a conference caught fire halfway from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The carriage was eventually uncoupled, no one was injured and the professors had to make do sitting on the floor of the next carriage. "Still, one of them had a guitar, and they managed to entertain the Russian passengers all the way to their destination," Lyapin recalled.

The ER 200 may cost a little more than the ordinary day train (145,000 rubles, or about $30, as opposed to 110,000 rubles), but you get value for your money. The seats are laid out in pairs, bus-style, with white dust sheets that are changed every week. In addition to superior seating (individual cushioned chairs compared to hard wooden benches), there is a free packed lunch, -- a bread roll, salami, peanuts, pretzels, juice and banana wafers -- even the hungriest of passengers would be hard-pressed to finish.

Sergei Petrov, a regular user of the train, said he wouldn't travel between the two cities any other way. "There is time enough to read a book, or to look out of the window at the countryside, but the journey doesn't drag on, like on the usual trains." The only drawback about the service is the toilets which are grim.

At the moment there are no plans to extend the service to more than once a week. For the five days the ER 200 is not in use, it sits alone in a siding shed in Moscow. But Ivan Ivanich, duty officer at the Moscow Railways Department says there may be four fast trains running between Petersburg and Moscow as soon as May. They won't be new ER 200s, but the latest designs from France and Finland. "There will be a call for more high-speed trains, especially on weekends," he said, dismissing Lyapin's complaints that his train was almost one-third empty.