Travel special 2014: A Tale of two cities on the Moscow-St Petersburg railway

 

For 150 years the railway line between Moscow and St Petersburg ran as straight as an arrow for 403 miles. Straight, but for one big bend near Novgorod. The story goes that Tsar Nicholas was so fed up of officials dithering over the route that he plonked a ruler on the map and drew a straight line between the two cities, accidentally drawing around his finger in the process. Too terrified to point out his error, the builders constructed the railway with the Tsar's bump in place.

Like all urban legends, it is probably not true. And in 2001 the kink was straightened out, so that's that. Still, a journey on the Krasnaya Strela (Red Arrow) is always good for new stories. The handsome scarlet train leaves Moscow just before midnight and arrives in St Petersburg eight hours later, having passed through mysterious places – Klin, Kalashnikovo and Chudovo – and mile upon mile of spindly birch forests, the real Russia, in a dream.

There are three classes – a chaotic open dorm, 'lux' wagons for two, and four-person 'kupe'. This latter is a tiny, etiquette-challenging compartment with four rickety bunks, one more often than not taken by a babushka with a flask of black tea, a plastic bag full of cabbage rolls and a hair-trigger response to you taking up more than half of the doll's house-sized central table.

Vodka might make an appearance. I've done the journey many times over the past decade, always unsure about the acceptable time for pyjamas, always sleeplessly and with varying levels of terror depending on my kupe-mates. It is one of those journeys that treads the enervating line between adventure and ordeal.

Then, in 2009, a revolution happened. Not quite the storming of the Winter Palace, but a $1bn high-speed rail link. The Sapsan (Peregrine Falcon) now flies cross-country in less than four hours and would go faster if the serf-built tracks were not so fragile now. It is spacious, runs on time and has Wi-Fi. I took it last summer and the birches passed by in an efficient daylight blur. It felt just like any other train, in fact, and I felt a bit sad.

Third-class from £27 and first-class from £137; russiantrain.com

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