Letter from Europe

From Berlin to Siberia

Issue no. 2013/31


We have long judged the Sibirjak to be the most outlandish train in Europe, running as it does from the German capital to Saratov and beyond. There was always the thought that we could hop on that train here in Berlin and travel across the continent, through the Ural Mountains, and on into Asia. Yet in December this year, the Sibirjak will be axed.

Dear fellow travellers

We are the bearers of bad tidings. A train which we have long judged to be the most outlandish in Europe will be withdrawn in December this year. The train from Berlin to Saratov and beyond is to be axed. No longer will we be able to board a train in Berlin and travel to Asia.

This train has long been remarkable for the extraordinary range of through carriages which it carried. This year, as for many years, the farthest-flung destination from Berlin that could be reached without any change of train has been Novosibirsk. That's a remarkable ride of over five thousand kilometres from Berlin. Passengers can leave the German capital on the Sibirjak on a Saturday afternoon, getting into Novosibirsk the following Wednesday morning. Those looking for Black Sea sunshine (or skiing in the Caucasus Mountains) can hop on the train in Berlin and travel right through to Adler on the Russian Riviera.

The through carriages attached to the Sibirjak have varied from year to year, even from season to season. Over many years of following this train, we have spotted through carriages to Ufa, Kazan, Chelyabinsk, Adler and even Astana (capital of Kazakhstan). In 2006, we reported on the train in an article for hidden europe magazine, entitled "The Train from Kazakhstan."

So what's the reason for the demise of the Sibirjak? From our Russian contacts, we hear that there is not just one but a number of factors that have led to Russian Railways' decision to axe the service. Competition from low-cost air services and even lower-cost long-distance coach services is just part of the story. Track-access charges within the European Union and rail tariff structures are also part of the equation. The Deutsche Bahn has never promoted the service, and it is really only those in Berlin's Russian community (and a few camp followers like ourselves) who ever really consider the Sibirjak as a credible option for journeys to the east.

Table 1980 in the Thomas Cook European Train Timetable was a complicated affair, entirely devoted to the Sibirjak — although oddly the train name was never mentioned in the timetable. That timetable was published for the last time in August this year. Now the Sibirjak slips from our travel horizons. For us as Berliners, it severs a long-standing link between our city and the easternmost extremities of Europe. There was always the thought that we could hop on a train that would take us across the continent, through the Ural Mountains, and on into Asia.

But it was only a thought. We've ridden the Sibirjak but never so far. It was the thought of the Urals that danced in our minds — perhaps informed by too many viewings of David Lean's Doctor Zhivago. And perhaps the Sibirjak's appeal was just that — a journey of the imagination. Had we, and thousands like us, actually used the train from Berlin to Siberia, then perhaps it would have survived.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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