There are two important parts of this question. Is it safe to travel on the train on the Trans-Siberian railway? Is it safe to travel to cities along the Trans-Siberian railway?
Even me, originally from an ex Eastern Bloc country, Hungary, have been questioned by Hungarian relatives and friends with safety concerns about my Trans-Siberian travel plans. My father warned me about the danger of getting robbed on the train, while a flatmate in London told me a story about a guy who has been beaten up badly while traveling in Russia. My mom was endlessly terrified. These and similar feedback regarding my plans were satisfactory enough to make my decision, thrill-seeking me quickly bought the train tickets for the Trans-Siberian Express.
Is it safe to travel on the train on the Trans-Siberian railway?
The train has 1st class (spalny wagon – luxury 2 bed private compartments), 2nd class (Kupé – 4 bed private compartments), and 3rd class wagons (Platskartny – 6 bed open compartments). Traveling in a separated compartment has the danger of getting stuck with unpleasant company for long days, so unless you are spending your honeymoon here, this is not an advised way of traveling. Traveling on the 3rd class open “Platskartny” wagon with the locals is the real experience. But is it safe traveling on the 3rd class of the Trans-Siberian Express? The biggest concern is getting robbed on the train.
Getting robbed on a train can happen anywhere in the world, but in certain places there is a higher chance for this to happen. So what’s the situation in Russia?
There is a basis of this topic, as there were several stories in the past about people getting robbed on the Trans-Siberian Express, but things have changed. First of all, Russia is not as chaotic as it used to be for decades after of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Secondarily, the terror threat, that is just as present in Russia as in other parts of the world, forced the general security and policing to be taken more seriously, especially on means of transportation.
As of now, every wagon on the train has its own conductor who oversees and tidies the wagons, and inspects tickets and identification documents when boarding the train (usually tough middle-aged women). Not only they inspect the new arrivals to the wagon, but also who get off the train. There are police officers on the train as well. Travel time between two stops usually takes really long, so if any valuables would go missing the thief couldn’t easily get away with it, and the conductor could call the police if noticed. The conductors are helpful, and they take their job seriously. But what if you get robbed, and there is a stop while you are sleeping? There are 2 beds on each of the 3 sides in the open compartment of a 3rd class Platskartny wagon (see the picture below). The lower bed has a storage place for luggage under it, which can only be accessed by lifting the bed up, so it is not easily accessible (there is either someone sleeping, or people sitting on it). There is a storage place above the top bed as well, which is also almost impossible to access unnoticed. It is a common practice among travelers to chain their bags to the steel elements of the storage place, but a steel chain and a lock makes up a lot of extra weight to carry around when backpacking. Keeping your travel documents, cash & valuables with you at all times is still a good idea.
Generally, no, don’t worry about getting robbed on the Trans-Siberian Express. Usually you will be traveling with Russian families, old Babushkas with their grandchildren, and university students, who will gladly share their food and vodka with you, before the endless sign communication and the intense Google Translate sessions kickoff.
Is it safe to travel to cities along the Trans-Siberian railway?
This is probably a bit harder to answer. I have traveled on the Trans-Mongolian route, which diverges after Irkutsk towards Mongolia, and I have only been to a couple of bigger cities along the Trans-Siberian Railway in Russia. These are Moscow, Yekaterinburg, Irkutsk and Listvyanka. Shortly, my experiences were absolutely positive. I have traveled as a solo male traveler, and I felt absolutely safe all the time, the people were all welcoming and friendly. Of course as in any other cities in the world, there are unsafe areas, so always inform yourself before exploring deeper!