Steam power and trains in modern Russia

Russia has a history of railway electrification dating back to the 1930s, leading to the retirement of their last steam locomotives by the 1970s. However the distinctive smell of burning coal has not disappeared from the Russian Railways – just take a walk down the platform at any railway station.

ЧС2Т class electric locomotive ЧС2Т 954 ready to lead our train out of Saint Petersburg

There you will see steam billowing from the end of each carriage.

Many of Russia's railway carriages carriages still use coal fired boilers for heating

Early morning light makes it easy to see.

Russia has thousands of kilometres of electrified railways, but the majority of their sleeping carriages still use coal fired boilers for heating

And the smell is especially noticeable where sleeping carriages are stored and cleaned.

Smoke billows from coal fired boilers in the sleeping carriages

The reason for the smell and steam – the coal fired stove found at the end of each sleeping carriage.

Coal fired stove in our sleeping carriage for heating and hot water

The stove is used to heat water – to warm the carriage.

A toasty warm 25 degrees C inside our carriage

And keep the samovar full of boiling water.

Samovar at the end of our carriage, supplying boiling water for soup, noodles and tea

A samovar is an essential part of Russian tea culture.

РЖД (Russian Railways) branded tea and sugar packets

As well as the modern innovation that is instant noodles.

Russian version of '2 minute noodles'


The carriage attendants called a ‘provodnik’ (male) or ‘provodnitsa’ (female) are responsible for keeping the coal stove running, as well as checking tickets and tending to passengers.

According to this article in the Global Times, during the nine-month long winter season, one carriage needs to burn a total of six tons of coal. However times are changing, and in 2013 moves were made to replace coal with biofuel pellets, with around 300 carriages being so equipped.

On electrified railway routes, carriages are equipped with electric heating: they are fed by the 3 kV DC overhead voltage on DC lines, or 3 kV AC voltage via the locomotive transformer on AC lines.

Further reading

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