Kids' play is what what I had in mind when I first learned about a children's railway in the suburbs of Khabarovsk where all operational tasks, from engineer to conductor to signaler, were performed by young boys and girls.
After all, one could be forgiven for imagining a small "kiddy train" making loops around a park.
As it turned out, the children's railway is a fully functional, passenger-carrying narrow gauge rail line running through the city. Wanting to learn more, I stopped over at Khabarovsk during my trip along the Trans-Siberian Railway.
As the departure time drew near, a diesel locomotive driven by a young boy enthusiastically pointing and calling out safety confirmations made its way down the rails toward the passenger cars. Another youth, a rail technician, jumped down onto the tracks to connect the engine to the rail cars. After a young girl finished guiding passengers onto the train, the three-car "Khabarovsk" pulled out of the station.
In summer, this scene is repeated nine times a day at Pionerskaya Station, the starting point for the Khabarovsk Children’s Railway operated by state-owned Russian Railways. About 50 young people aged 10 to 18 and divided into four groups alternately operate the line. On this day, 13 youngsters were briskly carrying out their assigned roles.
At 750 millimeters, the track gauge is approximately half that of Russian Railways' main lines, which have a width of 1,520 millimeters. The passengers on the train consisted mostly of families, and each person paid a fare of 70 rubles (about 175 yen) to board.
From the point of departure, the train began its journey moving between residential areas in the city suburbs. It passed through a large railway crossing and stopped at other stations before reaching the terminus, Yubileynaya, 3.3 kilometers down the line.
According to Russian Railways, the first children's railway was a small-scale affair created in a Moscow park in 1932. The first full-fledged operation run by children began in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1935. It is said that suggestions offered by children at a technology contest provided the impetus for its start. The idea spread throughout the Soviet Union, and the children's train in Khabarovsk was established in 1958.
The train only runs between June and August during school summer holiday. An adult engineer aboard the engine car provides supervision, and, according to sources, no accidents have been recorded to date.
During the Soviet era, children's railways were clearly positioned as rail personnel training organizations under the railway ministry. After completing the course, participants were guaranteed jobs. These days, the railways take the shape of youth club activities, and are said to be beneficial for those interested in working for a railway company or going to a railway technical school.
Ilona, 16, a ticket agent, has participated in the program for six years. She wants to work for Russian Railways in the future.
"However, a conductor's job is demanding, and it would be difficult to manage a family. I would like to do clerical work," she said.
Irina, 15, who works as a signaler, said, "After I get my certificate of completion I want to go on to university."
Irena, who has relatives living in Yokohama, has visited Japan and ridden on the Shinkansen bullet train. "Japanese technology is amazing. Russia doesn't even come close," she said.
During their heyday in the 1980s, children's railways operated across the communist bloc, including 52 cities in the Soviet Union. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, some railways, including some in former eastern bloc states, were abolished. However, since 2004, children's railways have been revived in three Russian cities. Now, such services operate in 25 cities across the country.
Given its vastness, Russia needs to secure railway personnel for all its regions according to local circumstances. As such, it is thought that the number of children's railways will continue to increase in the foreseeable future.
VLADIVOSTOK, AT 9,259-KILOMETER MARK: THE 'OCEAN' TAKES US TOWARD THE TERMINAL STATION
The scenery alongside the Trans-Siberian Railway differs somewhat between the eastern and western halves.
Compared to the western part of the track, where there is nothing to see but vast plains and forested land as the train lumbers forward on more or less straight sections of track, from Lake Baikal eastward, the view from the window turns mountainous. Scenes of rushing mountain streams pass by as the train clears one mountain pass after another.
Having connected in Irkutsk, I shared a car on the No. 8 express with an elderly couple from France. Gabriel Toulouse, 85, an executive with a publishing company, and his wife Ana, 66, were in midway through a three-week rail journey that had started in Nice.
They were now on the final leg to Vladivostok. When Gabriel was a child, his grandfather, who worked for a railway company, took him on trips throughout France, causing him to fall in love with the rails. Riding the entire length of the Trans-Siberian Railway was a long-cherished dream.
"My dream had finally become a reality. I'm having so much fun that I'm not tired at all," he said.
We spent the final night of the trip spanning the leg from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok aboard the Okean, a business express train that runs daily between these two major cities of the Russian Far East. Okean means ocean and the cars had pictures of dolphins painted on their sides.
A little after 7 a.m., the Trans-Siberian Railway offered up its first view of sea: The "Ocean" had reached the Sea of Japan. At 8:04 a.m. we were greeted by fragrant sea breezes as we pulled into our final stop, Vladivostok, only four minutes behind schedule.
A monument stands on the station platform marking the last stop of the line. Its inscription: "The Great Siberian Railway Ends Here."
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