Train travel in Azerbaijan is evolving, and new carriages and lines are destined to modernise the railway system over the following years. Nonetheless, Azeri railways are still grounded in their quirky, but ultimately loveable Soviet bedrock. Baku is connected directly to Tbilisi, Moscow, Rostov and Kharkov via several cities in Russia with comfortable overnight trains. Prices are reasonable, though no longer Soviet.
Direct connections to Iran and Turkey (via Georgia) might open in the near future.
Domestic trains are slow and cheap ways to sniff some couleur locale. For less than $5 you can cross Azerbaijan in reasonable overnight comfort including a reserved sleeping berth and clean sheets. A good deal for those wanting to save on accommodation or in need to make the most of their daylight hours.
Prices and timetables
Timetable information for all trains can be found on the website of Azerbaijan Railways (Azeri/Russian only). Timetables for trains to Russia are also available in English at Tutu and Rzd. Georgian Railways also has an English timetable for the Tbilisi – Baku train.
Prices for local trains are similar to the bus, and while buses are less comfortable, it will invariably take longer with the train. Also, before you leave, have a look where the train station of your final destination is located. In some towns (like Sheki for instance), the station is located a taxi or marshutka ride away from the town center, adding to the cost and duration of your trip.
Generally, there is always space left on an Azeri train, except during summer, Nauruz and New Year’s holidays, when booking in advance is safest. However, outside of the busy season it is still worth buying early to get the seat (up or down, not near the toilet, first, second, third class) of your choice.
Trains in Azerbaijan have the standard Soviet classes:
- obshye (general – just a seat)
- platzkart (Reserved – bunks in open wagon)
- kupe (Compartment – 4-berth wagon)
- SV/Lyux (First-Class – 2-berth wagon) options.
If you are confused about this choice, read the overview page on the Silk Road by train for seat buying and route planning advice.
You can book tickets (in English) for domestic and international destinations online at the online booking site of Azerbaijan Railways. You can buy maximum 4 tickets and you can pay with Visa or Mastercard.Online sales end 3 hours before departure and start 10 days earlier.
Most importantly, when you paid online, you have only received an order confirmation – this is not a ticket yet! You still need to collect your train ticket at an Azeri train station before getting on the train: bring your passport and printed order confirmation.
For trains to Russia and Ukraine, you can also buy tickets online through Tutu and Rzd. Watch out with Rzd: If the train you want to book has ‘ЗР’ under the train logo, the train is e-ticketable and you’ll get a print-at-home e-ticket. If there’s no ‘ЗР’, you have to collect a conventional ticket at a Russian railway station, meaning in Russia.
Tutu has similar issues: a warning will pop up if you have to collect the ticket in Russia.
In the train station
You can also buy tickets at the train station, of course. Do not forget your passport when booking! The train station also allows for a refund on tickets, which amounts to 100% to 30% of the ticket price depending on the time left before departure.
From a station that is not the train’s point of departure, only a limited amount of tickets are available for advance booking. Once this quota has been reached, further bookings are impossible until about half an hour before the train’s arrival, or whenever the ticket office has received word of the number of seats remaining.
Notes on routes and trip planning
Before 2013, crossing the border between Russia and Azerbaijan was not possible for foreigners. Restrictions have been lifted since, and train travel through Dagestan no longer poses any problems to foreigners.
However, the Baku-Derbent train is comparatively expensive and slow. Best to use buses and taxis to get across the Russo-Azeri border.
Trains might cross the Russia-Azerbaijan border one day before actually arriving in Baku/Derbent (depending on the timetable), so make sure that your visa for Russia or Azerbaijan is already valid one day before arriving in Baku.
Train to Iran
You can travel from Nakchivan to Mashad by train since December 2016. Reports are welcome.
Iran and Azerbaijan are hard at work to connect the 2 countries’ rail networks, but the project is running late and for now, you cannot yet travel from mainland Azerbaijan to Iran by train directly. There is however a daily overnight train service from Baku to Astara at the border with Iran.
Train to Georgia
For more details on the Baku – Tbilisi train, see trains in Georgia. Border procedures take about 1 hour on each side with 20 minutes travel in between. At the Georgian border stop, taxi drivers mass outside the train offering rides to Tbilisi. Good bargainers can catch a ride here for about 35 lari and arrive in the city an hour earlier.
Alternatively, there is an overnight train to Balakan via Sheki. Since it is a domestic train, it is much, much cheaper than the Tbilisi train. In Balakan, you can cross the border in the morning. Once on the other side, taxis and buses await to take you to Tbilisi (1.5 hours drive).
A similar cost-saver would be to get off the Tbilisi-bound train at the last stop before the border in Azerbaijan: Böyük-Kəsik. We are not sure how you would get to the border post at Krasniy Most (Red bridge) from there, though. Reports are welcome!
Domestic trains are slow, old, and not necessarily very comfortable. You are better off taking the bus if you are eager just to get somewhere. The train is more of an adventure.
The train experience
The operation of the samovar as well as the cleanliness and orderliness of the carriage is very much dependent on the personality and integrity of the provodnik. The provodnik is the ticket collectors/prison guard responsible for your wagon: at best a guardian angel, at worst a drunk gangster. Fortunately the former is much more common.
The only real problem is that carriages can be unbearably hot and, your compartment may not have opening windows. Air-conditioning only becomes effective an hour or two after leaving the station, and shuts down whenever the train makes a longer stop and the engine is turned off.
Another petty annoyance is that the train lighting is rarely switched on until the train is ready to depart, which can make finding your berth rather awkward at night. This does not result in panic or mass thievery, just the need for a torch.
Bicycles on the train
It is possible to take your bicycle on the train. Reports gathered in the bicycle on the train in Azerbaijan forum thread.