Every day, at 7.30am, Leila packs her bags and hops on a train to go to work. She gets off nine hours later, but that’s flexible - as an informal seller, the train is her shop - passengers are her customers and sluggish sales mean she stays on the wagons for longer. In her seventies, Leila has been selling snacks and newspapers on the trains for the last ten years after her husband, the family’s sole breadwinner, died. Her regular itinerary takes her to the resort town of Borjomi, in central Georgia, from Ksani, the closest station to Dzalisi, her village.
The wagons crawling on that route are of a suburban train, better known as the elektrichka of Soviet memory. Currently 16 elektrichkas are in service in Georgia and provide an essential cheap and easily accessible means of transport - a ticket of GEL 2 ($ 0.75) takes you all the way through the 160 km between the capital of Tbilisi to Borjomi while for GEL 4 ($ 1.50) a passenger can travel from the capital to Kutaisi, Georgia’s third biggest city which lies 230km away.
Leila usually takes the morning train, but she has lots of options. There are about 16 cheap trains scheduled and operating in Georgia and the Georgian Railway, a company, which owns them, calls them suburban trains, even though there is also a train from Tbilisi to Kutaisi, the third biggest city in Georgia, 230km distance away and the cost is only GEL 4 (USD 1.50). The low fares are one of the main factors for their popularity - buses and marshutkas, widely-used mini-buses transporting up to 25 passengers, to Kutaisi or Borjomi cost GEL 10 ($ 3.87)
The train to Kutaisi is Leila’s alternative route - she would travel to Khashuri, a small yet busy transport hub in central Georgia, from where she’d either return home or continue to Tbilisi where she can stay with her daughter who lives in the capital.
A common sight in the USSR, elektrichkas remain in service in all post-Soviet countries, mostly connecting suburbs. Bustling with life, with passengers filling every possible empty spot, these slow and cheap trains are key for low-middle income people, especially those living in the rural areas of the country. Their network allows young people to reach schools, farmers to access markets, and families to maintain contact.
The elektrichkas connecting the capital with Sadakhlo and Gardabani, in eastern Georgia, where a sizeable Azeri community live, teems with Azeri women lugging large bags and buckets filled with herbs, peppers, nuts, tomatoes, potatoes. They travel for about an hour in the morning and in the evening to sell their veggies in the large Tbilisi market - at times they attempt a random sale to the travellers around them, taking naps and chit-chatting in between.
“They are hard-working people, harvesting several times a year,” Giorgi, a young army recruit who regularly serves as a guard on the train to Sadakhlo, tells Chai Khana. “They never stop and they always have something to sell.”
Georgian Railway, the state-owned national railway company, operates fast trains across the country, but the slow wagons remain vital. State-of-the-art double-deckers cover the 380km between Tbilisi and Batumi, on the Black Sea coast, in five hours, but make no intermediate stops, while others, like the train to the port city of Poti take just a few breaks. Then there are the so-called ‘modernized’ trains, in fact obsolete and rusty, are faster than Leila’s trains and they usually have long, also overnight routes.
Elektrichkas are in no hurry - they stop at every settlement providing villagers with key transport and vendors like Leila with essential an income.
Yet, their life is far from easy - their work is not legal and over the years sellers have mastered how to navigate the ban to sell on board as control is strict on the modern trains and loose on the suburban wagons.
Tina, a Khashuri resident in her mid-fifties, used to sell on board loaves of nazuki, traditional stone-baked spicy sweet bread, making up to GEL 40 ($ 14) - it is a small fortune in a country where the subsistence minimum is around GEL 160 ($ 58), according to the national statistics’ office (Geostat). Those golden days are gone. A few years ago, restrictions came into force and this basic trade was no longer allowed. Sellers like Tina then have improvised and started jumping on the wagons during the long stop in Khashuri and sell as much as possible before the n would depart again. Today even this is no longer allowed and Tina’s daily income depends on passengers’ willingness to get off to purchase her snacks.
“My income has dramatically been reduced,” she laments. “I have a pension, GEL 180 ($ 65) but is not enough. I have to think of other ways to make money soon.”
For her part, Leila has a plan. There are guards serving on all trains in Georgia and they are usually young recruits who have chosen this service as an option instead of serving in the army (military service is still mandatory in Georgia). There are two guards on each train on two daily shifts which changes every other day. Leila knows who to trust.
“Today I am lucky as Dato is on the shift,” Leila grins mischievously, “He is not strict and doesn’t prohibit me to sell.”
When Dato (not his real name) is there, Leila freely strolls up and down the four wagons from Tbilisi to Khashuri selling sweets and sunflower seeds. When he is not, she boards as a passenger - she would then secretly grab few items from her bag and whisper to passengers if they are interested in buying. She has previously been caught a few times and threatened out of the train, but it didn’t happen.
According to Dachi Tsaguria, a spokesperson for Georgian Railway, tickets’ sales are not enough to keep the elektrichkas in service and revenues from the freight unit are covering the operation and maintenance costs like the thorough check-up that all 16 operating ones went through in 2016.
“Conditions on cheap trains and, let’s say the train to Batumi, are completely different hence the difference in ticket prices. Yet we spend about GEL 30 million to maintain the system while keeping the prices low,” he explains to Chai Khana, proudly adding that Georgia boasts some of the cheapest train tickets in the world.
And they will remain, he says, specifically for the elektrichkas - the measured wagons fluttering across Georgia’s hills are vital for people on low-incomes and are crucial to keeping rural areas alive.