Train Travel in Ukraine
What you do when you get on a Ukrainian train
Last update: Apr., 2016 (minor improvements)
Riding the train in Ukraine involves complex procedures that foreigners are not prepared for, even if they have traveled by train in other countries. After reading this page you will know exactly what to expect from your ride on a Ukrainian train.
There are different types of trains with different procedures:
Riding electric trains, or "elektrichki"
With these short-distance trains everything is simple. You get on any carriage you like and sit anywhere. Seats are usually padded, but wooden benches are sometimes still in use. There is usually a toilet at the end of every few cars, but sometimes they are not very pleasant. Also, people sometimes smoke at the end of the carriage, so sit a closer to the middle if you are very sensitive to cigarette smoke.
Every once in a while a ticket officer comes through and checks tickets, so don't throw your ticket out after getting on the train. At minor train stops there is no ticket booth, so you'll buy your ticket directly from the conductor.
Be careful! Electric trains often stop for as little as 30 seconds at minor stops! That's why people are in such a rush to get on.
Riding long-distance trains in Ukraine
Long-distance trains stop for at least two minutes, and often much longer in cities (10-20 minutes). Before the train pulls in to the station, a loudspeaker announces in Ukrainian whether the numbering will be from the front or the tail of the train. Passengers check their carriage number on their tickets and take up position at the approximate location their carriage will stop at. If you want help figuring out where to stand, just ask where your carriage ("vagon") number might stop.
If you're getting on at the first stop, the conductors will open the doors for passengers half an hour to an hour before the train departs. There are two conductors per carriage — usually one man and one woman.
Boarding the train
To get on the train, find your carriage (the number is indicated on your ticket) and show your ticket to the officer at the door. Sometimes they ask to see your passport or other picture I.D. to check your name against the name on the ticket. Usually they return the ticket to you immediately, but sometimes they take it and remind you of your seat number. Helpers (friends and families) are usually allowed to enter as well (at major stops during the daytime), but they must leave a few minutes before departure. The conductor will walk up and down the corridor announcing loudly that escorting individuals must leave.
These days the electronic ticket system has been vastly improved, and more and more people are showing printouts of their e-tickets rather than buying tickets at the train station or purchasing points around town. In fact, it appears you don't even have to print them out anymore.
Several minutes after the train departs, the officer comes around to each compartment and collects tickets (if he didn't take them at the entrance). They also used to ask who is buying bedding (7-10 UAH) and collect money, but now the price of bedding is automatically included in the ticket price. You can, theoretically, bring your own bedding or sleeping bag and un-tick that box when purchasing tickets online.
The securest place to store luggage is in the bin underneath the bottom bunks. People traveling on top bunks also have the right to some of that space, but you may need to ask if there is room. Items can also be put on the top shelf, but never put valuables there. Either put them in the trunk under the bottom bunk or sleep with them on you or under your pillow. There are hooks for hanging up clothes and a net for books and other items.
Before you get on the train, make sure you know where all of your valuables are, and plan to stow all of them in the luggage trunk or, say, rolled up in your pants between your pillow and the compartment wall. Train theft is a common occurence. If you have expensive shoes or a nice coat or jacket, hide them out of view or put them in the trunk. This applies mostly to 3rd class carriages where everything is in view of people who walk by.
Only 1st and 2nd class compartments have doors. There are both locks on the doors and latches to block doors from being opened from the outside even if they are unlocked. 3rd class, or "Platzkart," is thus less safe for people traveling with valuables, unless you are on a bottom bunk or are able to fit your stuff in the storage bin under the bottom bunk.
Except for first class carriages, passengers must make their own beds. After the officer passes out bedding in sealed packages, passengers pull mattresses off the top shelf and unroll them on their bunks. The top bunk often must be lowered to a horizontal position by unhooking the chain holding it in place. Bedding includes a top and a bottom sheet, a pillowcase, a towel, and sometimes a package of tissues. Wool blankets are available either on the top shelf or from the carriage officer.
Eating and drinking
Each compartment comes with a small table that passengers usually eat at. Many passengers bring food on board with them. Some snacks can be bought from the carriage officer (tea, coffee, cookies, chips, beer, mineral water, etc.), but supplies of water, etc. can run out. In addition, many trains have a restaurant car with a small variety of dishes and alcohol. Usually there are a lot of semi-drunk men there hanging out together. Few passengers go there, probably because it may involve passing through many carriages to reach the restaurant car.
Food at train stops
A nice thing about Ukrainian trains is that ladies sell all kinds of food at particular train stops, including drinks, rolls and pirozhki with cabbage, potatoes, rice and whatever else. Some enterprising folks have begun selling plastic-wrapped dinners with chicken and potatoes. In Crimea you can also buy smoked fish, local wines, and fruit. If you didn't have time to eat before getting on the train, you won't go hungry.
Potable water is available from the carriage officers' sink, but water from the restrooms is not to be drunk. Tip: bring at least one liter of drinking water with you for overnight train trips.
Each carriage has two restrooms at the ends that may be used between stops. Waste is disposed directly onto the train tracks, so the bathrooms are usually locked 10 minutes before and after each city. Bathrooms are equipped with toilets, sinks (press a floor pedal or press up on the faucet for water), mirrors, clothing hooks, soap, and toilet paper. However, because of the shaking of the train, it can be hard to use these things. Sometimes the floor is dirty and you may find the bathroom unpleasant. Always bring a package of napkins just in case the toilet paper has run out.
Smoking and drinking
Drinking is allowed on Ukrainian trains, but conductors and other passengers will start to make a fuss if people get too rowdy. Smoking is technically no longer allowed anywhere in the train, but it is still known to happen at the far end of carriages in the part connecting two carriages. If smoking, drinking, or noise is bothering you, don't hesitate to tell the conductor.
When women need to change clothes, they usually ask the other passengers to leave the compartment. In 3rd class, however, this is impossible, so people either sleep in their clothes, change under the covers, or change in the bathroom. Sometimes someone will hold a sheet over the end of the compartment so that women can change.
Morning wake-up call
Conductors will make the rounds in the morning about 45 minutes before stops and remind passengers to wake up and get ready. You are expected in most cases to gather your bedding, take it to the officer, and roll up your mattress. If your train is destined for Kiev, you'll be roused an hour before and warned that the bathrooms will be closed in half an hour.
Consider wearing ear plugs and a face mask to help you sleep better, especially in 3rd class carriages, as these are lighter and noisier than elsewhere. Sometimes snorers, talkative passengers, or crying children make it hard to sleep. Even if everyone is silent, there is still the loud clickety-clack of the train and the rocking and jolts of the carriage moving along the tracks.
Sometimes train cars can be unreasonably warm — mostly in the summer months, but also as a result of overheating in the winter. They'll heat the carriage up in the evening and it'll slowly cool off during the night. If it's intolerable, somebody needs to ask the train officer to turn on the ventilation or air conditioning (1st and 2nd class). I believe 3rd class doesn't have this. Usually the windows don't open, or if they do, passengers don't want the wind to blow on them, even if it is hot and stuffy in the compartment. Most Ukrainians are fearful of catching cold from cool air blowing on part of their body while the rest of their body is a different temperature.
Hot and stuffy air is the worst part about Ukrainian trains and seems to occur about a third of the time. Occasionally, it gets cold, but this rarely happens, and there are always wool blankets available. Tip: if it is unbearably hot in the carriage (>30 C), try wetting the towel provided and laying it over your exposed skin when you're lying down.
Since there are so many people in such a small place and generally quite a few old people with chronic health issues, it is quite easy to catch a cold or flu on the train. Keep this in mind and maybe consider taking something to strengthen your immunity before you get on the train.