US8 – American and Russian sleeper trains (You and I are like America and Russia…

… We’re going to have to hold ourselves a peace talk/In some neutral café (Joni Mitchell, Blue Motel Room)

I woke up earlier this morning and looked out the window at a yellow farm in a yellow field.

yellow farm just into Oregon train Emeryville-Seattle 818.JPG

We’re on the “Coast Starlight” train heading north from San Francisco to Seattle. Despite the name we’re 200 km inland, in southern Oregon. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Russians explored down along the coast here.

[Clunky sequitur] I had the luck to travel in Russia earlier this year, at the time of the World Cup. It’s interesting to compare the sleeper trains (photos are of America):

  • Waiting rooms are grander in Russia, and the concessions there stay open as long as trains are leaving.

waiting room station Emeryville 818 2.JPG

  • The American station still shows a proud face on its railway side.

P8220058 2.JPG

  • The trains in both places are monsters, long and high. The American one. a double decker, is perhaps taller.

train coming in train Emeryville-Seattle 818.JPG

  • The American train makes free use of its whistle.
  • The American train has wifi.
  • Russian people use their trains to transport their stuff as well as themselves. The trains have baggage space under the seats and overhead. In the American train there is a baggage limit; you may have to check in some of bags; and the others will have to go on a rack near the doors.
  • On Russian sleeper trains, you lie perpendicular to the tracks. On this train – just like in Some like it hot – you lie parallel to them.
  • On this train I was on the top bunk (of two), with what seemed like about a foot of headroom. Getting in at night required the skills of a potholer; as I got out in the morning I got stuck. My travelling companion said I was like Winnie the Pooh and would have to dangle there until I lost some weight.
  • On this train, the corridor is down the middle between pairs of compartments. When the compartments are turned from beds into seats, everyone has a window seat. On the Russian trains, the corridor runs down one side. You can get a change from your compartment by standing up and looking out the corridor window.
  • Both trains have restaurant cars. In both, you share your table with other travellers. The American restaurant car is cleaner and probably less raucous (it closed last night at 9.45, and I don’t think that was because it had run out of beer, as once happened on a Russian train I was on). The Russian train has china crockery, the American has plastic.

train Emeryville-Seattle 818 SD water amtrak pepper.JPG

  • Both trains have uniformed provodnitsas (attendants assigned to individual carriages).
  • There are more villages alongside the line in Russia, even in Siberia, than here in Oregon.
  • Some sections of this route are single track – I think all the Russian ones are doubled.
  • Both have stops that last different lengths of time. You can stretch your legs and have a cigarette at the longer ones.
  • The Russian trains have samovars at the end of the corridor where you can make tea (first picture below); this American train has a “coffee station”.

samovar train Volgograd-Moscow 618.JPG

coffee station train Emeryville-Seattle 818.JPG

  • The Russian trains are never late. This one is known for it, apparently – and is an hour or so late today.

(San Francisco doesn’t seem to have a main station. I wonder if it ever did. We caught the train at 10 last night from the other side of the bay, at a place called Emeryville. This involved changing from the BART to an Uber at a station called McArthur. It lies between two elevated roaring motorways and feels like the set of a dystopian film.

McArthur BART station 818.JPG

Emeryville itself was a fine place. We found a good bar.


While people cheered the baseball on TV. I ate devilled eggs and macaroni cheese. I was a bit confused by this graffiti in the toilet:


Influenced by it, I wonder if the man in the picture, bowling, is Richard Nixon.



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Paul Hodson

Head of Unit "EnergyEfficiency" at European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy

2 thoughts on “US8 – American and Russian sleeper trains (You and I are like America and Russia…”

  1. I know little of US trains. But another interesting comparison might be how the railway systems deal with time zones. In Russia the train timetables run kn Moscow time. This once led to me trying to catch a train in Vladivostok 7 hours early. The US also has several time zones but I suspect uses local time.


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