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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Railways Abolish Pricing Apartheid

Foreigners taking the Russian rails this summer are in for a pleasant and very unexpected surprise: They can now purchase train tickets for the same price that Russian citizens pay.

The two-tier pricing system of Russian Railways, the national rail monopoly inherited from the Soviet Union, has long been an expensive annoyance to foreigners traveling inside Russia by train. Foreign travelers were often outraged to find out that their tickets cost up to five times as much as those purchased by Russian citizens.

But the leftover practice of the Soviet pricing system was officially buried earlier this month when the Railways Ministry decreed that foreigners are entitled to buy tickets for the same price as everybody else.

The decree marks a significant milestone in the gradual transformation of the dour Soviet tourism monopoly to a more market-oriented, customer- friendly industry.

Two-tier pricing was the norm during the Soviet era, when the ruble was not convertible and travelers were hostage to Intourist, then the official state tourism agency. The state tourism monopoly shepherded foreigners throughout the country, billing them for trains, planes, hotels, museums and theater performances in hard currency or else inflated ruble prices.

However, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the pricing system has slowly begun to unravel.

Airlines were the first to abandon the practice, caving in to the competitive pressures unleashed by the breakup of the Soviet Aeroflot monolith into hundreds of "babyflots."

However, passenger rail transport has maintained its monopoly status, deadening any incentives to change. The decree leaves museums, big-name theaters and some hotels as the last bastions of the old Soviet pricing system.

The effect of the decree on foreign travelers' pocket books will be significant.

For example, a round-trip, second class ticket to St. Petersburg from Moscow purchased July 9 would have cost roughly 1600 rubles ($66), as opposed to 600 ($25) for a Russian citizen.

Now the price tag is 600 rubles for everyone.

"I used to have to enter a special code on the computer when formulating tickets for foreigners," said Denis Alekseev, an American Express travel agent in Moscow. "Now the tickets are written up exactly the same way they are for Russians."

Indeed, foreigners not only had to pay more, but they were usually required to buy their tickets at designated "Intourist" windows. Now, in addition to the savings, foreign travelers should have an easier time finding tickets.

Representatives of Russian Railways' central ticketing agency said that foreign travelers can now buy tickets at Russian rates at all of their four Moscow locations at any window.

However, agents contacted by the Moscow Times at local train stations ? traditionally the hardest places for foreigners to find a ticket ? said that they were still refusing sales to foreigners.

Indeed, this raises the question as to just how quickly or effectively this new decree will be enforced. As many travelers throughout Russia know, the final decision is often left to the whim of the local administrator.

Three years ago, for example, an American citizen working in Moscow won a ground-breaking case against a hotel in Yekaterinberg, Ural Mountains, which insisted that she pay three times more than her Russian colleagues. She won her case based on an article in the Russian Constitution, which states that foreign citizens have the same rights and are equally liable as citizens of the Russian Federation. Even after the case, however, most provincial hotels continue to charge foreigners more than Russians.

Travelers who encounter problems at the train station may address the station administrator and remind him or her of the July 10 decree ? but finding and convincing the administrator is often a battle in itself.

The fact that the decree originates from the Railway Ministry itself, however, lends hope to its chances of being enforced throughout the ministry's bureaucratic channels.

The decree stated that the change was being made to attract more passenger traffic, although officials were unable to cite any hard figures showing a drop-off in foreign customers. The Russian rail monopoly has been actively trying to drum up business of late, running a television advertising campaign to promote train travel as fun and romantic.

Strange as it might seem to experienced travelers, concerns over customer relations seem to have played a major role in the railroad's decision to do away with the two-tier pricing system.

"We had a lot of complaints about the double-pricing," said Vladimir Klimenov, head of the international passenger department for Russian Railways. "It was making it difficult to maintain good relations with the traveling public."

He added that complaints had increased after the ruble crashed last August.

"The difference in price used to be one-and-a-half or two times as much, but after the crisis the difference was more like three to five times as much, so the problem became much more noticeable to foreign travelers," he said.

He and other railway officials expressed their readiness to bid the two-tiered pricing system good riddance, criticizing it as overly cumbersome.

"It's a lot easier to work without having to deal with it," said Tatyana Sokolova, head of the passenger transport ticketing department at the Central Railway Agency, "Thank God it's gone."

***Where to buy tickets. Russian Railways' official ticketing offices are at the following locations. Tickets are also available from private agents or at railway stations.

Krasnoprudnaya Ulitsa d.9, Leningradsky p-t, d.1, Mozhaisky Val d.6/2, Maly Kharitonovsky Pereulok d. 6/11. Enquiries: 262-0604, 262-2566.***