Saturday, 22 June 2013


After exploring the urban rail systems of Helsinki, I took the modern Allegro train to St. Petersburg.When I visited Moscow in 2010, I was quite annoyed by the lack of order at the immigration procedure. In the U.S. you may find a long queue, too, but it is strictly organised and vigilated, so although you may have to wait, you know you will eventually get there. Not so in Russia (at least Moscow Domodedovo): there is a huge crowd waiting in front of numerous immigration desks, and you just have to keep your elbows out and you may eventually make it. Until a few seconds before it is your turn, you don't even know which counter will be the one available for you. The Allegro from Helsinki to St. Petersburg, which runs three times a day in only 3 hours and a half, seems to be the only civilised way to get into Russia, you just stay sitting in your train seat and wait until someone asks you for your passport, just like in Western Europe before Schengen. You need to fill in those little papers, of course (keep one half for departure from Russia). The border guards get on at Vyborg and then check people on the way to St. Petersburg.

Now for the real subject of this blog, St. Petersburg urban rail systems, primarily the METRO. There is not much I can say that hasn't already been said, so here's a little brainstorming (I'll add + and – to express what I think):

(–) it is extremely deep
(–) long distances between stations
(+) very clean
(+) quite frequent
(+) not too overcrowded
(+) feels pretty safe and civilized people
(–) extremely loud
(+) mostly well ventilated
(–) up to three different names for what is one interchange station!
(++) 'western-style' signage with colours and line numbers
(+) precious, though not too overloaded stations
(+) smartcard available
(–) rather long walks between lines
(+) most things written in English, too
(–) intransparent platform doors

Of course, one tends to compare St. Petersburg's Metro to Moscow's. I'd say the strongest point in favour of St. Petersburg is the new signage introduced some years ago. For purists, this may ruin the classic design of the stations, but I'd say, it's perfectly integrated and in fact the line colours add a special note. On older photos many stations look dull, with so much marble in all different tones, but nothing much more except the indirectly lit vault. So, now you have got a nice Russian metro with good global signage, which I missed in Moscow. The addition of English on virtually all signs helps a lot, but also makes one lazier when trying to get used to reading Cyrillic. I guess they had professional advisors from London Underground, as everything seems to be in correct English, although I don't know why they decided to use 'Subway' when everybody understands 'Metro' nowadays, whereas 'subway' still is a bit misleading for many British people and they may be surprised how deep those underpasses are.... Transliteration of station names from Cyrillic into Latin is often a subject of discussion, but here it is done at least in a rather consistent form (they use, for example, Ploschad' instead of Ploshchad' as I had learned and thus used on my maps).

One feature exclusive to the St. Petersburg Metro are the old-style platform doors, in many stations on line 3 and a few on the southern leg of line 2. Well, I don't like them at all, they give me a certain feeling of claustrophoby, like in a lift where can cannot even look through the door. Well, I guess I'm not the only one, and that's why both lifts and platform screen doors are always transparent nowadays. In St. Petersburg, these were installed in the late 1960s when the concept as such was unknown in other metros, so they were pioneers and used full metal doors to reduce the costs of the otherwise typical 3-nave tunnel stations. But when you're on the train, you are unable to see who is on the platform (as stations are always quite busy this is not so much of an issue here as it could be in cities like Berlin where you often find non-passenger people hanging round the stations), but when you wait on the platform, it is a kind of surprise whether the door that opens in front of you will lead you into a crowded or an empty car. Intelligent passengers like me 'scan' the train as it enters the station and try to get into the car that is less packed. So travelling south on line 3, it was kind of a relief to reach Proletarskaya, the first 'normal' station without these doors.

What I don't understand about Russian metros is why they are so loud. I know, they mostly use metal linings in tube tunnels, their tracks are not welded so like in London you get the endless clack-clack, but even in the stations you can hardly talk when a train enters. As a result, noone speaks on the train, all look rather serious and grumpy or play with their mobile devices as the entire systems seems to have coverage with several providers. What I like, though, is that acoustic announcements are exactly placed when the noise volume is the lowest and that not only the next station is announced but also the following one (acoustic announcements are in Russian only). But it will be quite relaxing to ride again on the Berlin U-Bahn, for some reason one of the quietest I've seen (but with often dirty stations, badly behaved people, etc.).

The network is growing steadily, and most of the new stations are also quite attractive, although two of them have clearly been made 'cheaper', Volkovskaya in the south and Komandantskiy Prospekt in the north, well they are a bit in the 'global' style, although the arches add some Eastern touch, too. My favourite is probably Obvodniy Kanal, although I was surprised that the new stations are all smaller than the rest, well, again, they have a more 'global' size, the size you would encounter in most western metros, too. The colourful signage, of course, adds a certain Viennese or Boston touch. Of the older stations, I like, for example, Akademicheskaya, simply because it is different, whereas many of the other stations, though elegant, they lack this individual touch which helps passengers recognise their station at once, when the train arrives there. The newest station, Mezhdunarodnaya on M5 was almost 'too much' with its massive golden columns!

When praising the cleanliness of the stations, I'm not just referring to the ever polished floors or handrails, but also to hidden corners or surfaces hardly accessible and only visible from escalators, where in other cities dust and dirt would pile up for years without anybody caring. I guess also the tunnels are washed regularly as even after a day of photographing in the stations I did not observe any dust in my nostrils, whereas they are all black when I do the same in London!

It's amazing how much Russian people have to walk and how much time they have to spend on escalators, would be fun to calculate that for a typical lifetime. The long distances between stations even in the city centre, and often just a single access, require long walks to reach the stations. Also bus or tram stops are not located very near to metro entrances, when I thought they could have been. The new tram line 3, for example, stops south of Pl. Sennaya, although the trams have to go to the square to reverse anyway. If you want to get to Moskovskiy Vokzal on a Nevskiy Prospekt trolleybus, you need to walk some 500 m until you actually get to the railway station. The car lobby seems to be the only lobby here. So, the overall impression one gets is that passengers have to bear with what is there, and they are used to it. But it is certainly not a passenger-friendly transport system.

Fares are relatively low for western standards, just 28 roubles for one metro ride (some discounts with smartcards), so that's just around 70 eurocents, but if you travel a lot there is no unlimited pass, it seems, less so for the entire transport system. The only piece of integration is the Porodozhnik smartcard, you add value to it and then you can use it on Metro, trams and buses, but each time you pay a new fare. A passenger who is lucky to work and live in walking distance from a metro station, will only pay two fares a day, but someone who is not lucky enough, will pay at least double, which seems not much for one day, but adds up to a big sum over several years. I would consider it simply unjust that someone whose daily trip requires more than one vehicle (well, you can change between metro lines as often as you like), pays many times more than those with a single vehicle. This is not only so for metro/tram/bus transfer passengers, but also if you have to take two trams. And sometimes it appears that lines are broken up on purpose, like the long tram line 41 which terminates somewhere 'near' the centre, while line 16 would be a logical extension (although now it was extended to Narvskaya metro station), but this way, most passengers will have to pay twice.

The TRAM system is quite a case anyway. It is still the second largest in the world after Melbourne and before Berlin, but its network looks very much reduced, especially in the central area, where it was virtually banned. The first tram I took was line 6 from Sportivnaya metro station to Primorska metro station. I was hardly able to identify the stop, there was a shelter, but without any information. While waiting I realised that from the overhead line hangs a board which lists the trams that stop there at a height of some 10 m. A tram logo sign also hangs above the street, but later I learned that this is not meant for passengers but for car drivers. The tram stops where the numbers are hung. All without any platforms, of course, in the middle of the street, car drivers slow down more or less, but you'd better watch out! When I stated that in the Metro everything is clean and tidy, tram vehicles look worn out and dirty. After a long day's walks I found it also difficult to climb the high steps. Like on buses and trolleybuses, all trams carry a conductor, mostly female, who checks the smartcards or sells single fares like in the old days. So this is a way of creating a lot of jobs, although the few times I was on trams and buses I observed several people who simply ignored the conductors, so they do lose control when things get busy. The ride is slow and bumpy, too many cars prevent a fluid trip. Stops were announced acoustically and correctly, also with the following stop included. The track is often in bad condition, and as in Tallinn, I preferred riding trolleybuses, at least they speed up when they can. I haven't been to the suburbs on the trams, I guess that there they play an important role as a feeder to metro stations, but overall the picture was not good. Line 3 that was implemented a few months ago on some recuperated section along Sadovaya ulitsa is slightly better as it is operated with quite acceptible new double-articulated and partly low-floor trams. The low-floor element is only of limited advantage as the step from the street into the tram is still quite essential, some 30 cm. So I guess, it's time for St. Petersburg to upgrade what they want to keep of their huge tram system, and give trams priority, at least with marked off or separated lanes, but this is certainly only possible if their is a political consensus to reduce car traffic in the city centre. If this is not possible, I suggest to change most lines to trolleybus operation, which is much more flexible when there are parked cars or, as I observed on two ocasions within this short time, there is a minor car accident which blocks an intersection forever while they are waiting for the police to clear things.

What I have been criticising again and again is the lack of using the full potential of suburban lines to create a proper S-Bahn/RER type of metropolitan railway in Russia. In St. Petersburg, a sort of Passante seems obvious to me: If Baltiyskiy Vokzal is the busiest terminus for suburban trains from the south/southwest, and metro line 1 is the most overloaded, then it should only be logical that instead of spilling virtually all passengers from the Elektricky into the metro, those trains should go directly into the city centre. My spontaneous proposal would be for a tunnel from Baltiyskiy Vokzal to a city centre station at the Sennaya Ploschad hub, then to Pl. Vosstaniya to serve the Moskovskiy Vokzal, too and finally join up with the suburban lines that head north from Finlandskiy Vokzal, and you've got the "Peterburgskiy Krossrail". At least, the Metro is fairly well connected to suburban rail stations at three termini and several other stations, too. Devyatkino at the northern end of M1 even provides same-platform interchange!




  1. I think part of the problem in Russia is the residual institutional barriers between the surface transit, the Metro systems, and the railroads, with each one having its own sphere of responsibility and rarely venturing outside it (with the exception of a couple of Metro-Tram light rail systems). This explains the lack of fare integration. In some cities, the buses and trams/trolleybuses are run by different organizations and don't have integrated fares! This is slowly changing, though, and Moscow recently introduced a "90 minute" ticket which also works as an automatic discount on the smartcard now.
    Another fun fact is that there is exactly one underground railroad station in all of Russia, and that itself is a fairly recent development. The idea that the railroad can run like a Metro is still a rather foreign one, though again, that's slowly changing.

    1. >In some cities, the buses and trams/trolleybuses are run by different organizations and don't have integrated fares!
      Not in some, but in almost all cities.

  2. I also like the signage in St. Petersburg and agree it was done very well and fits most stations. As to the transliteration rules, "Ploschad" is in fact closer to the Russian pronunciation, as Щ is pronounced almost as S+CH, so SCH is really the best approximation to this letter.

    Fares: you are incorrect, there is an _unlimited_ pass for all _ground_ transportation (i.e. trams, trolleybuses and buses) combined with a 70-ride ticket for metro (which is more than enough for a month) for only 2040 rubles/month (less than $70/month) - or half that price for half a month. This is very convenient for regular users, although I agree a week or day pass would be useful as well.

    Long distances to walk - that's why Russians will never be as fat as many Americans :-)

    Tram system - you are correct, there is only car lobby in that city, and tram lines were systematically removed from city streets in 1990s and 2000s, mostly in the city center. That vandalism has now stopped, and they have even reconstructed a few tram lines at the outskirts. You are quite correct that most tram ridership is outside the city center, there are still a few tram lines running every 3-4 minutes most of the day. On average, track condition is indeed very poor, they have never learned how to lay track properly.

    The idea of Krossrail :-) is excellent, but you know it will never come to fruition. The need to connect some dead-end railroad terminals is even greater in Moscow, yet even there, with the most transit-friendly mayor in decades, it is not even mentioned on the list of transportation priorities. St. Petersburg is much more modest in its transportation aspirations, and its current authorities are far less progressive than those in Moscow, so forget about it.

    1. >The need to connect some dead-end railroad terminals is even greater in Moscow, yet even there, with the most transit-friendly mayor in decades, it is not even mentioned on the list of transportation priorities.
      Yuriy, it would never be mentioned in such a list, because it is simply outside Moscow mayor's sphere of influence. All russian railroads infrastructure are in the hands of a private company, and such a connections remains there paper project for decades.

  3. P.S. By the way, the overall situation in St. Peterburg is very good in terms of metro-railroad interchanges, with most radial rail lines having more than one transfer point to the metro system (and moreover to different metro lines).

  4. What a wonderful stations! I wish to be there someday... Visit my blog:

  5. Robert, "long distances between stations" is not as negat6ive as you think. It increase the average speed of trains, let save money for the next construction & service and makes stops more profitable due to more traffic.

    Also "deep" means safe.

    "3 different names" is comfortable too because it's more memorable and suitable for the orientation.

  6. i think that it is really cool that the stations are so deep, its very exotic. i think that the lack of deep stations in berlin makes it rather boring. Even hamburg has two relativlely deep stations and frankfurt has one. Everytime i travel i google for the deepest station in the city. so far ive been been on the deep sections of the D.C., Prague, London,Helsinki and montreal subways. I cant wait till i take a trip to st petersburg or kiev or moscow.

  7. >they were pioneers and used full metal doors to reduce the costs of the otherwise typical 3-nave tunnel stations.
    No, these stations are NOT 3-nave! They represent unique St.Petersburg only station type, where the single central nave is build between tunnels (not station tunnels with platforms and typical for Russia diameter of about 8.5 meters, but interstation tunnels, which are 5.1 meters in diameter - which is enough for train, cables and some equipment only).
    >My spontaneous proposal would be for a tunnel from Baltiyskiy Vokzal to a city centre station at the Sennaya Ploschad hub, then to Pl. Vosstaniya to serve the Moskovskiy Vokzal, too and finally join up with the suburban lines that head north from Finlandskiy Vokzal, and you've got the "Peterburgskiy Krossrail".
    Sounds nice, but in reality it is almost impossible to implement. St.Petersburg is build on swamps, and safe and suitable for building tunnels ground lies 60-70 meters deep in most parts of the city. So for existing rail lines it would require extremely long descent from surface to the tunnels level and huge extremely deep stations. I don`t know whether anywhere in the world were comparable (non-military) projects.


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