As the future of Russian rail travel, the Sapsan (“Peregrine Falcon”), a German-made super-express train with a top speed of 250 kilometers per hour, went into service on certain Trans-Siberian Railway routes in 2010.
The Sapsan can cover the 460 kilometers between Moscow and the Russian automobile manufacturing capital of Nizhny Novgorod in three hours and 55 minutes.
Most of the trains that travel through Siberia depart from Yaroslavsky Rail Terminal in central Moscow, but the Sapsan originates from the city's underground Kursky Rail Terminal. Standing directly in front of it is the Atrium, a major shopping center completed two years ago.
Like what the Sapsan represents to the rail industry, this modern mall is what its developers envision is the future of the Russian retail industry.
Not only does the Atrium house the kind of retailers catering to the wealthy that have sprung up around Moscow to date, but also many brand stores targeting middle-class consumers. This is where Uniqlo of Japan opened its first Russian outlet.
When entering from the front, the first store that catches shoppers' eyes is a branch of the cosmetics chain L'Etoile. By gathering various luxury brands under its roof in the manner of an airport duty free shop, it has achieved rapid expansion in recent years.
“Brands like Chanel and Dior aren't just for the wealthy anymore,” says staff member Larisa, 44. “Ordinary women come to buy them too.”
“Middle-class customers seem to be increasing,” says Ella, 21, who works for another of the center's cosmetics stores. One of its bestselling items is a foundation that retails for 1,000 rubles (2,500 yen, or $31).
In Russia, it is said that cosmetics are women's greatest weapon, and that the combined amount they spend on them exceeds the country's defense budget.
One survey has found that Russian women's expenditures on cosmetics is 1.5 to two times more than their counterparts in the United States and other European countries. This disposition has been bolstered by the booming economy and is set to become increasingly ingrained.
The average monthly income of a Moscow citizen in 2008 was 34,000 rubles, which was 2.3 times that of the national average. In response to growing consumer confidence, shopping centers aimed at middle-class customers such as the Atrium are popping up around the country.
THE "DISTANT TRAIN JOURNEY" OF TODAY
For quite some time, the Trans-Siberian Railway has been regarded in Japan as a “distant train journey” to Europe.
It spans 9,288.2 kilometers (this differs somewhat depending on the rail route taken) from Vladivostok to Moscow. Russia began construction of the railroad in 1891 with the aim of boosting Siberian development and tightening its control of the country's eastern regions, and all of its lines were opened in 1916. A 73-year effort to electrify the lines was completed in 2002. At present, the Trans-Siberian Railway's Rossiya express travels all routes over six to seven nights, as well as various other lines in operation and direct services to Europe and China.
Prior to World War II, Japanese cultural luminaries such as author Akiko Yosano and Fumiko Hayashi used the Trans-Siberian Railway to travel to Europe. After the war, even with the consolidation of air routes to Europe, many cash-strapped young people chose to take its trains bound for London and Paris. Depictions of this trend in Hiroyuki Itsuki's novel “Seinen wa Koya o Mezasu” (The Youth Heads for the Wilderness) and other media popularized journeys that took in all of its routes.
Today, the vestiges of that era are gone. According to a travel agent, most participants for its infrequent Trans-Siberian tours are of advanced age. This is due to factors such as the increased affordability of air travel to Europe, and the greater preference for journeys including accommodation.
It is not only Japanese travelers that have dwindled in number. A slump in passenger numbers is affecting the entire Russian rail industry.
The Trans-Siberian Railway and other railroads are operated by public company Russian Railways (RZhD), which was established in 2003 when the operation and management divisions of the former Ministry of Railways were cut loose to form an independent organization, in line with restructuring measures. The entirety of its shares are owned by the government. It employs more than 1 million people throughout Russia and its lines cover 85,000 kilometers, making it the world's second largest rail network after the United States. As around half of those lines are electrified, it is effectively the largest electric rail system on the planet.
However, RZhD's passenger division is plagued by annual losses of around 50 billion rubles. Most of its long-distance passengers have been lured away by air travel, while short-distance passengers and commuters are favoring buses and shared taxis. As a result, railways are almost exclusively used by mid-distance passengers. The dire financial situation has been exacerbated by the cheap fares and various discounts set by the government, and habitual fare dodging.
This is compensated for by a yearly surplus of around 100 billion rubles generated by its freight transports. As the state of roads in Siberia's far east is less than reliable, rail is the sole means of conveying natural resources, especially coal, oil and lumber.
The Trans-Siberian Railway and its journeys across vast plains kindle the wanderlust of foreigners. On the other hand, for Russians, it exists above all for the transport of freight. Passengers are merely baggage.
DEPARTING MOSCOW AT 11:45 P.M. FROM THE ZERO-KILOMETER MARK
Moscow has nine railway terminals for various destinations. Yaroslavsky Rail Terminal, which faces Komsomolskaya Square (named after the Komsomol, the Communist Union of Youth), is also the point of departure for the Trans-Siberian Railway. In the evening, several long-distance trains bound for various cities in Siberia, depart one after another from a platform next to a signpost marking the start of the line.
We got on a second-class sleeping car on the Rossiya express bound for Vladivostok that left at 11:45 p.m. Riding in a compartment that accommodates four passengers, our overnight journey took us through Kirov as we pressed on toward the city of Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains.
In the compartment next door was Irina Popova, 50, who was on her way home to Nakhodka on the Japan Sea coast. She usually travels by plane, but wanted to view the surrounding countryside from a train window for a change. “The inside of the train is nicer than I'd thought," she said. "It's comfortable apart from the lack of a shower, and I never get tired of the scenery.”
Sheets and eating utensils are loaned to passengers free of charge. Two conductors assigned to each car work in shifts, and also clean the compartments. One of the conductors for my car, Tatiana, 54, has been working for the Trans-Siberian Railway for 34 years. Once every month, she embarks on a two-week return journey that takes her from one end of the line to the other.
“The scenery changes with each season, so no matter how many return trips I make, it never gets boring,” she said.
The Rossiya is a new model express train that is also proving to be popular with foreign tourists. I wasn't yet aware at the time that most of the other trains were much the worse for wear.
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