New rail timetables for the former Soviet Union come into effect later this month. There remains some uncertainty about some services, but for travellers heading east, here are a few thoughts on what to expect:
- The direct overnight sleeper from Berlin to Kaliningrad will be reinstated from 30 May, running nightly until 2 October. The journey time is 17 hours. We have used this train and would heartily recommend it. Of course you can book right through from Berlin to Kaliningrad, but it is also possible to use this train to destinations in northern Poland - such as Malbork or even remote and run-down Mlynary, the station which we identified in hidden europe 28 as sorely needing a decent champagne bar along the lines of that at London’s magnificent St Pancras station.
- The direct daily train from Berlin to Ukraine, called the Kashtan, returns to its regular summer pattern of operation from 29 May till 3 October, departing Berlin Zoo at 8.46pm and Berlin Hauptbahnhof at 9pm. The main train runs to Kiev, but it carries a splendid collection of through carriages, among them the Kaliningrad-bound sleeper mentioned above. Depending on the day of the week, the Kashtan also has carriages for Kharkiv, Lviv, Simferopol and Odesa.
- The through daytime train from Gdynia and Gdansk to Kaliningrad and back returns for the summer season, again running from late May to early October. Between Tczew and Kaliningrad (and vice versa) these trains convey the Berlin to Kaliningrad sleeping carriages.
- Some Russian sources show a Thursday departure from Berlin direct to Irkutsk on Lake Baikal, a six-day journey of 6909 kilometres. Although through carriages have run from Berlin to Irkutsk in the past, we are a little less certain if this link will run this year. Some Polish sources show a Wednesday departure from Warsaw to Irkutsk (with the through carriage to Irkutsk attached to the 9pm overnight train from Warsaw to Minsk). Again, we have no confirmation of this.
- A new direct through carriage will connect Brest (in Belarus, just east of the Polish border) with Baku, capital of Azerbaijan. Three nights en route for a one-way fare of less than €100 make this seem a bargain. But bear in mind that the border crossing from the Russian Federation to Azerbaijan which this train uses is closed to all but CIS passport holders. First departure from Brest of this new service is on 3 June.
- A new link from Riga to Minsk opens on 1 June. For the three summer months (ie. until the end of August) this train will run overnight in each direction, then from September the schedule will be trimmed back to twice weekly. Contrary to earlier reports in some sources, this train will not travel via Lithuania, but will cross directly from Latvia to Belarus via the Indra / Bihosava border crossing. As far as we know, this cross-border rail link has had no regular scheduled passenger train service since May 2007. A Latvian Railways press release last week suggested that this new service will carry, on certain days, through carriages to Vitebsk, Mogilev and Gomel. The new train is a joint venture of the Belarusian and Latvian railway administrations.
More details of revised train services in eastern Europe (and, indeed, across the continent) will be published in the June 2011 edition of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable. This will be a landmark anniversary of the Thomas Cook Timetable – the 1500th edition of a volume that was first published in 1873. Few other publication can claim such remarkable longevity.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries