The fact that Vladimir Putin travels across Russia in hiding in a so-called Ghost Train has been something of an open secret for many years. While the Russian government has never officially confirmed its existence, there have been many sightings of the locomotive and several high-profile leaks that provide plenty of details about the train and its inner workings.
Of course, it isn’t unusual for world leaders to travel in style. Presidents, prime ministers, and other royal heads of state often have their modes of transport to get them safely to their destinations, from Cadillacs to Air Force One. Taxpayers usually fund these vehicles, which are necessary to ensure leaders can travel in privacy while quickly getting to where they need to go without being put in danger.
Putin himself has an array of vehicles at his disposal. There’s a $1.7 million armored car designed to withstand explosive and chemical attacks along with his private Ilyushin Il-96 jet, a luxurious aircraft that allows Putin to host guests in complete comfort while in the air. However, the secretive Ghost Train is perhaps the most bizarre and high-tech vehicle that Putin uses.
It is entirely private and unidentifiable
According to reports, one of the major reasons that Putin has taken to using this train to travel around Russia more frequently in recent times is that it is much harder to track than other forms of transportation. While world leaders and other important officials often use airplanes to get around, this can unintentionally make them very visible. After all, it is difficult to hide a huge jet that needs a lot of preparation and requires an airport to take off and land.
There’s also the added fact that aircraft are easy to track electronically. Easily available websites and apps allow users to chart almost every civilian aircraft in the world via transponders and radar. Trains, on the other hand, generally don’t have this sort of tracking as they don’t need transponders for the same safety reasons as airplanes do. As former Russian Federal Security Service (FSO) captain Gleb Karakulov explained to CNN, “The train, it is used in order to somehow hide these movements.”
For added secrecy, Putin’s train also doesn’t have any identifying numbers like standard trains in Russia and also does not appear on timetables, meaning it isn’t announced at any stations it passes through. All of this makes it difficult to know exactly where the locomotive is without seeing it in person and ensures Putin can travel in relative secrecy. There is also a suggestion that Putin is afraid his presidential jet could be shot down, making the train safer for him.
Cost tens of millions of dollars to build and features more than 20 cars
The secrecy surrounding Putin’s Ghost Train makes it difficult to know exactly how much money has been spent to build and outfit the vehicle. However, that doesn’t mean that there is no information about the potential cost of the train available, as leaks have provided some idea of how much has been spent on constructing each section. The Telegraph suggests that the custom-made train has likely cost at least 6.8 billion roubles, which is roughly the equivalent of $75 million.
Other reports indicate that the train is also expensive to run and keep in top condition. A report from news.com.au reveals more than 1.45 billion roubles have been spent on maintenance alone since 2014, which is equivalent to nearly $16 million to keep the train running. This cost is entirely borne by the taxpayer rather than Putin’s own personal fortune, which Fortune estimates could run into billions of dollars.
The cost of the train can be explained by just how large it is. In total, there are 22 carriages that are interchangeable and can be configured in a number of different ways. These range from living quarters and recreational spaces to custom storage solutions for luxury cars and boardrooms.
There’s a number of health and fitness centers
One of the more recent revelations about Putin’s car is the range of health and fitness equipment that it contains. CNN reported on leaks provided by the Dossier Center, a Russian investigation center based in London, that detail the efforts put into ensuring that Putin can stay fit and healthy while using the train to travel around Russia. The most prominent of these is a large gym that houses weights, resistance equipment, and cardio machines. Much of the gym equipment is top-of-the-line, including American-made Hoist Fitness machines.
Outside of the gym, the train also has carriages that contain a beauty room that is soundproofed to prevent any spying and comes equipped with anti-aging machines and massage tables. There’s also a Turkish hammam steam room that contains a steam bath, showers, and a spa. According to Business Insider, much of this is likely a result of how Putin is obsessed with his appearance and paranoid about getting sick.
Putin often conducts business on the train
While much of the train’s interior is a closely guarded secret, it has become well-known that Putin has a special study on board that has been specifically designed for him to hold meetings with other officials. Metrópoles published photographs showing Putin in the study, revealing a large ornate table, several chairs, a separate desk, and a large television screen. The style of the room has seemingly been carefully selected as well, with the table, chairs, curtains, and wall all featuring a brown wooden tone in addition to dark green fittings.
In the images, Putin can be seen talking to several officials while a television crew films in the background. This gives an indication of just how large the study is, considering that it is built into the train itself. Being able to hold meetings on board the vehicle allows the Russian president to discuss important issues or be kept up to date with events without having to pause his journey — important for a world leader who doesn’t necessarily want to make his whereabouts known or to expose himself by having to disembark any more than is absolutely necessary.
The train features espionage equipment and sophisticated communication technology
Since Putin’s train is used for transporting Russian heads of state and holding important meetings, secrecy is of the utmost importance. The president must be kept safe but also be able to communicate with other officials and military leaders without risking the information being heard by enemies. That’s why the train comes equipped with a suite of espionage equipment and sophisticated communication technology.
The most obvious signs of this equipment come in the form of white domes that are designed to sit atop the Ghost Train and other official government transports, which are visible in public videos released by the Kremlin. According to CNN, these domes contain an array of advanced communications antennas and can be found on several carriages on the secret Ghost Train that Putin regularly uses. Up to eight of the carriages on the train carry vital equipment, such as communications centers with satellite links, making it a mobile command station for Putin.
Dossier Center’s leaks also reveal that the train is heavily armored to protect it from attack. Almost every surface is bulletproof — including all walls, windows, and doors — making it invulnerable to conventional attacks short of a direct hit by a large explosive. These defenses, combined with the secretive way the Ghost Train moves around Russia, make it one of the safest places for the Russian president to be.
A special entertainment system was developed for the train
Although many of the carriages on the train have been designed to allow Putin and other officials to carry out state business or maintain their health and fitness, there are some recreational options as well. The train has a fully stocked restaurant along with a large dining room, as well as a bar. There’s also a cinema room that allows passengers to watch television shows and movies on a large screen.
Leaked documents reveal that this cinema contains a unique entertainment system that had to be specially built for use on the train to meet Putin’s demands. Since the train regularly moves through tunnels and under bridges, it is not uncommon for it to lose connection to television signals. This would interrupt the broadcast and lead to portions of the show being lost. However, Putin requested that a special buffering system be put into place so that broadcasts on the train prevent these blackouts when the signal is lost.
It also houses plenty of medical equipment
Over the last few years, Putin has demonstrated paranoia about getting sick. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Reuters published photos in which the Russian president could be spotted forcing officials and visiting leaders to sit as far away as possible from him at comically long tables. He has also introduced a special disinfection tunnel to his official residential palace in Novo-Ogaryovo, requiring all visitors to go through the facility that sprays a fine disinfectant mist designed to kill bacteria over those inside. As such, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that he also keeps advanced medical equipment on his private train in case anything goes wrong while he is using it to travel.
A medical suite on-board the train comes equipped with a variety of life-saving technology that can be used in an emergency. This includes several patient monitoring systems designed to track vitals along with a ventilator and defibrillator, all things that could be used to treat someone suffering from an acute medical emergency. Presumably, there is also a trained medical professional on board the train, as much of the equipment would be impossible to use by those without the correct qualifications.
Work is only done with the supervision of the FSO
The fact that the train essentially acts as the personal transportation of the Russian president and other high-ranking officials within the Russian government means that it ultimately falls under the jurisdiction of the Federal Guard Service of Russia. The FSO is primarily responsible for the safety and protection of Putin and other important figures within the country. Every single element of the train comes under the control of the FSO, meaning that new equipment and carriages have to be specifically approved by the agency before they even begin construction.
Reports indicate that this can sometimes cause conflict among the various parties responsible for maintaining and building the train. Leaked documents show a senior figure from Russian Railways writing to a high-ranking FSO official to gain approval for a project to construct new living quarters.
Control over the train extends to those working on it, who are often kept in isolation for up to 45 days. They are essentially on standby in case Putin decides to travel and are kept separated from the general public for safety and secrecy reasons. Former FSO captain Gleb Karakulov told CNN, “Our employees were in quarantine specifically for this special train. Since the beginning of the war, guys said that they left to somewhere in the direction of Valdai for 40 or even 45 days.”
Putin’s homes have railways built to them and secret stations nearby
Having a secret train would not be much use to Putin if it had to stop at normal stations where anyone could see it. That would not only expose the vehicle to prying eyes but also put him in danger as it would mean he would have to disembark in public areas. To combat that problem, investigative site Proekt has revealed that the Russian president has had a series of secret railway lines and train stations built around the country.
Many of these hidden structures have only been confirmed through eyewitness accounts and satellite imagery in the last few years, indicating they have been built relatively recently. According to those who have seen these stations, they are under constant heavy guard by security forces and are protected by security fences to stop anyone from being able to approach them. Several stations have been discovered that are close to the residences of the Russian president, including at Novo-Ogaryovo, Sochi, and Dolgie Borody.
Business Insider suggests that Putin uses these secret rail networks to covertly travel between his main residences throughout Russia. The land needed to build the private stations has reportedly been seized from locals by the FSO. The train lines also apparently pass through a series of secret underground bunkers, with former FSO official Gleb Karakulov confirming to The Guardian that the secret railway means that the train “cannot be tracked on any information resource. It’s done for stealth purposes.”
A trainspotter who tracked the train is now forced to live in exile
The secret nature of Putin’s private train means that there is very little public information about it. Outside of leaked documents and accounts from officials who have defected from Russia, the only information about the train comes from amateur trainspotters and eyewitnesses who have seen the train in person. One of the most high-profile individuals who has attempted to track the train is Mikhail Korotkov. In 2023, Korotkov became well known on the internet as someone who had been successfully able to capture images of the train on several occasions.
Over the course of several years, Korotkov was able to track the locomotive and photograph it. In an interview with The Washington Post, he confirmed that he had first tried to get pictures of the rare train because of the challenge of finding it. Using tips from fellow trainspotters across Russia, Korotkov set up a blog where he posted pictures of the train online for others to see. However, he quickly closed down the blog in 2022 when he believed he was sent warning messages by the Federal Security Service, who revealed details of private conversations Korotkov had with his friends.
Korotkov now lives in exile out of fear that he could be arrested or even jailed for his blog and his opposition to Russia’s war with Ukraine. He has since spent time living in Kazakhstan, India, and Sri Lanka and has no plans of returning to Russia.