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Rail adventurer Matthew Woodward shares his thoughts on the ever changing time zones of the Trans-Siberian railway.

Getting anyone to agree on what is the right time of day can become a frequent debate on the Trans-Siberian. It charts not just a simple measure of your progress, but what you get to see in daylight and what you thunder past in the darkness of the Siberian night. But what actually constitutes the right time on board the train? The answer is interesting from both from a historic and a practical point of view.

The history of “Greenwich Mean Time” (GMT) is a fascinating subject. In the eighteenth century the British Admiralty offered a huge prize to the person who could accurately calculate the time, and thus safely navigate the oceans using the sun to calculate position. After a lifetime’s work, John Harrison solved this problem. His amazing clocks can still be seen today at the Royal Observatory in London. Harrison saved the lives of many sailors, but received little recognition for what he had achieved during his lifetime. His legacy of course defines how we relate to the concept of time at a particular place when travelling east and west around the surface of our planet.

It wasn’t until 1840 in Great Britain that individual towns on railway routes started to adjust their “local time” (often set by a sundial) to the time on the telegraph known as “GMT”. But by 1880 all stations used this single time provided by the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. The story is similar in many other countries, but of course with more than one time zone, it is even more vital to have a singular “railway time” to avoid collisions of trains using different times on the same tracks. Thus, India had “Madras time”, North America had “railway time” and Russia used Moscow time.

Today in the Russian Federation there are no less than 11 time zones (including some daylight saving zones). No other country in the world has this expanse of longitude set to just one single train time, in this case GMT +3 hours.

This then is the very practical problem that faces the Trans-Siberian traveller. If you think, for example, that a scheduled train is going to arrive in Vladivostok at 13.10 on Tuesday afternoon (after all, that is what it says in the RZD timetable) you are in for a surprise, as it will in fact not arrive until 20.10 in the evening in local time (Vladivostok is GMT +10).

Sunset Vladivostok (Longitude - GMT +10)

Thankfully on board the Golden Eagle this is all taken care of. Each day the train adjusts it’s very own “train time” to local time as it heads east or west. A pair of clocks in the restaurant carriage reassuringly show local time and Moscow time. The itinerary that is delivered to your compartment each day reminds you of any change to train time, so all you need to do is adjust your watch before you go to bed, and then you can enjoy breakfast in your new time zone without fear of missing anything.

Stopping off the train to see local life is much more rewarding by the daylight of local time, but having a feeling for Moscow time is also intriguing. It gives an insight into how the local railway stations service trains at all hours of the day and night, whatever the local time. It is also a reminder of the huge distances that creep by almost unnoticed when crossing Siberia by rail.

Another very practical benefit of using the local time is that you get to travel across continents without suffering from jet lag. This is especially useful travelling east, where by shortening your day by just an hour at a time you can avoid the onset of the fatigue usually suffered by passengers making the journey by air. Travelling west you find yourself winding your watch back each day, and the possibility of an extra hour in your comfy berth.

I have experienced at first hand many times the disconnection of the scheduled trains running on Moscow time but yet the restaurant carriage operating in local time. This can mean that one passenger enjoying a late evening drink can be sat next to someone looking to order breakfast, neither sure what the right time actually is. In fact the last time I had my most easterly breakfast on the scheduled Trans-Siberian to Vladivostok, my carriage guard (known as a “provodnitsa”) was slightly disappointed at my refusal of an ice cream at 10.00am local time! So if you come across rail passengers on the platform looking a little shell-shocked, this is probably the reason why!

Moscow Skyline At Red Evening Light

Matthew Woodward is a writer and train adventurer. He has completed several Trans-Siberian rail journeys, from his home in the UK to places including Shanghai, Singapore and Tokyo.