2009 | RUSSIA

More Info
  • Length in km: 644 km
  • Name of the train: Sapsan

St. Petersburg and Moscow, both historic capitals, are the essential landmarks for any journey in Russia. The former, with its picturesque canals fronting pastel-coloured palaces, is the city of Tsars, culture and the arts; the latter, with its wide avenues, multi-coloured domes and skyscrapers, is the business centre of the country, a megalopolis in perpetual metamorphosis. The two cities are home to 18% of the country’s population, and represent 30% of the GNP. In 2009, the Sapsan brought them closer together. This high-speed train travels the 644 kilometres that separate the two in less than four hours. Since then, the Russian railways have pursued a rigorous programme of infrastructure and network modernization to benefit passengers as well as freight transport.

Leaving St. Petersburg

Boasting four million foreign visitors every year, this city holds the tourism card. The “folly” of Peter the Great, who established the city as his capital in 1703, has much to offer. Designed around a complex network of canals and waterways, tributaries of the great Neva River, the city is a masterpiece of rare elegance, its heritage bearing the stamp of multiple influences. Neo-classical palaces and baroque monasteries stand cheek to jowl with Art Nouveau and Soviet-era buildings. The jewel in the city’s crown is perhaps the magnificent mint-green Winter Palace, home to part of the fabled art collection of the Hermitage Museum. St. Petersburg is at heart an imperial capital, and has served as setting to many of Dostoyevsky’s novels.

Ballets, concerts, operas…the city is renowned for all theatre arts, particularly during the summer solstice and the White Nights Festival, when films are projected onto the raised bridges over the Neva. The city also offers visitors the treat of a banya, or steam bath, and matriochka workshops to learn about the famous Russian dolls. At the far end of the world-renowned Nevskiprospekt shopping avenue, whose architecture represents a wide range of styles, rises the Moskovsky Rail Station, located on Vosstaniya Square. From here, passengers board the Sapsan train to Moscow. Erected in 1851 according to plans drawn by the architect Constantin Thon and expanded in 1967, the station is designed in Italian Renaissance style, with walls in shades of yellow ochre. Chandeliers, ceiling frescoes, mouldings and columns set the stage. A bust of Peter the Great looks down upon the main hall of the station.

A historic line

The St. Petersburg-Moscow railway axis runs 644 kilometres long, and is the oldest line in Russia. Two tracks were completed in 1851, thanks to the determination of Emperor Nicholas I, who personally oversaw the line’s route. Construction lasted for ten years and required the labour of eight hundred thousand workers. That same year, the first coal-fired train left for Moscow. Signals were emitted using bells, whistles and flags. It was the era of samovars whistling in the railcars and footboards frozen over with ice in winter. At the time, it took a full day to travel between the two cities. The first diesel train entered into service in 1951, and in 1962 the entire line was electrified. Tracks were reinforced, and a new signalization system was put into place. Travel time was shaved down to five hours at 130 km/hr, then to four hours in 1984 with the implementation of the ER 200 fast train. At the beginning of the 2000s, rail infrastructures were entirely modernized in anticipation of the 2009 introduction of the first high-speed Sapsan train. Today, St. Petersburg and Moscow are separated by only three hours thirty minutes.

St. Petersburg-Moscow, the journey

A voyage aboard the Sapsan is a window onto the immensity of Russia. Leaving St. Petersburg and its outlying suburbs to the southeast, the train passes through birch and pine forests that form a solid wall of green. Scattered fields, wild grasslands, typical villages of half-timbered houses, remote traditional log cabin izbas, ponds, lakes...a rather austere landscape that contrasts sharply with the comfort aboard the train. This is even more true in wintertime, when all is a vision of black and white, between snow-capped forests and frozen rivers. The line passes nearby Veliky Novgorod, a city steeped in rich cultural heritage and a popular weekend destination for residents of St. Petersburg. The heart of the city is dominated by a kremlin set amidst wooded parkland.

From there, a passageway crosses over the Volkhov River and leads to the old market district. Dostoyevsky fans will want to visit the village of Staraya Russa, a few kilometres outside of the city. The famous author spent many of his summers here, and it provides the setting for the epic saga of The Brothers Karamazov. Tver, another stop along the Sapsan, tempts visitors with long strolls on the banks of the Volga. Between Tver and Moscow, the train runs across a strip of land surrounded on all sides by water, and forest trees at the water’s edge. The increasing number of rail tracks – to accommodate an endless fleet of passenger and freight trains - suggests imminent arrival in Moscow.

A line adapted to high-speed

Due to the fact that the original route was well-suited to high-speed rail circulation, there was no need to construct a new line. The tracks, however, were completely overhauled. Their construction – at the end of the 19th century – had been extremely complex for that era, in technological terms. Built in part over marshland and a series of rivers, the track required the use of a significant number of engineering works, including 200 bridges, 69 tunnels, and 19 viaducts. Many of these constructions were adapted to provide for increased train speeds. Ongoing works never interrupted traffic flow, which would have been unimaginable between these two great Russian conurbations. Viaducts are equipped with pedestrian passages and video surveillance cameras. Perimeter fencing was installed across more than 1,000 kilometres, to protect the tracks in both directions. For security reasons, level crossings are kept to a strict minimum.


→ High-speed train Sapsan rides on the route Moscow-St. Petersburg.

A peregrine falcon

The Sapsan, with its aerodynamic lines, was put into service at the same time as the St. Petersburg-Moscow line, and assures connections between the two cities in three hours thirty minutes, several times per day. With its white cars trimmed in blue and red, the Sapsan – which translates as “peregrine falcon” – takes its name from the shape of its front cabin profile. The brand name, accompanied by its logo, is marked in bright red on all rail cars. Sapsan trains are all Velaro RUS, designed by Siemens in partnership with the Russian Railways (RZD). This partnership includes a thirty-year contract for maintenance and skills transfer. The trains can reach speeds of 250 km/hr at temperatures capable of dropping to ‒ 40 °C. The design was derived from that of German ICE (InterCity Express) trains, widened to adapt to Russian rail track width, and as a result, the railcar interiors are more spacious, with seats adapted to these new dimensions. Trains are equipped with cloakrooms, where passengers can hang their coats and make use of a shoe polishing machine. Screens on the ceiling display information updates, feature films and documentaries, and headsets are provided for passengers’ enjoyment. Sapsan agents aboard the train speak English, and are trained in first aid. 7 service classes are offered, including First, Business, Economy +, Economy, and Basic, as well as a Bistro car. Depending on the class chosen, the passengers are provided with diverse service packages: food and drinks, magazines and newspapers, and access to the on-board information and entertainment system. Private cabins for four people are available for business meetings in a specially designated area of the first car. For security and transparency reasons, the driver’s compartment is separated from the first passenger car by a window panel.


Major projects

A new line dedicated to the sole use of high-speed could one day be established between St. Petersburg et Moscow, thus cutting down travel time to two hours. In 2015, railway planning authorities authorized an official high-speed rail development programme. Twenty or so projects have been submitted for consideration to constitute a roughly 7,000-kilometre network. Beyond the St. Petersburg-Moscow axis, first priority is given to the implementation of a Eurasian corridor. The first segment will be the Moscow-Nizhny Novgorod line, extending 400 km.

Arriving at Moscow

Moscow is a city of excess. To understand this, one need only visit the mythical, immense Red Square, stroll the wide avenues lined with gigantic Stalin-era buildings, or ride the steep escalators down to richly-decorated metro stations. Russia’s capital city has preserved its historic centre on the banks of the Moskva River. The Kremlin, with its perimeter walls studded with twenty towers, define the spiritual heart of the capital, whose masterwork is the cathedral of St Basil the Blessed. This city, lively by day and passionate at night, abounds with theatres - including the famous Bolshoi – as well as opera and concert halls, chic bars and nightclubs. In summer months, the city’s parks provide welcome green oases.

Komsomolskaya Square is also known as Three Station Square, and is home to Leningradski Station – a nod to the former name of St. Petersburg – where high-speed trains arrive from the city of the Tsars. The station shares the square with two sister stations: the fortress-like Kazansky, and Yaroslavski. Built in 1849 in a similar style to the St. Petersburg’s Moskovskiy, Leningradski is the oldest station in Moscow. Situated at the heart of the downtown area, in a district full of life throughout the seasons, it is very well-connected to other modes of public transport and the metro system.

→ Sapsan on the platform of Leningrad Station in Moscow.

Sapsan, the origin of high-speed

For Russians, rail is the preferred mode of transportation. The St. Petersburg-Moscow line has provided faster connection between the country’s two largest cities – with respective populations of 5.3 and 15 million - for over a decade. The distance between the two, as well as the route of trajectory, make this line an ideal axis for high-speed. As few other cities are served by this line, Muscovites and Petersburgers make up the greatest percentage of passengers – over 85%. Given the economic importance of both Moscow and St. Petersburg, the majority of weekday passengers are business travellers. Russian and foreign tourists use the line on weekends and holidays. Thanks to high-speed rail, there has been a significant development in relations between the two cities’ scientific, educational and cultural institutions.

The Sapsan thus meets the needs of passengers travelling back and forth between the capitals, but does not include the smaller stations once served by slow trains. The implementation of the regional fast train Lastochka, or “swallow” in Russian, developed by Siemens Desiro in partnership with the Russian Railways, has remedied this situation by adding more station stops for rural populations.

a selection of HIGH-SPEED LINES by country