The railway system is called “iron road”; in Russian and “ironary” in Ukrainian. About Ukraine’s railway workers, 42-year-old train driver Yuri Yelisiev says, “It’s not without reason that we are called Iron Man.
Since Russia launched its full offensive in February, Ukraine has relied on its railway system to evacuate civilians, bring foreign dignitaries to Kyiv, and transfer humanitarian supplies, essential goods, exports and weapons. “It is the backbone of the Ukrainian economy,” says Serhi Leshchenko, a supervisory board member at Ukrzaliznytsia, or Ukrainian Railways. “It is the backbone of the Ukrainian state. And in terms of targets it is second only to the army.
On 5 June, four missiles struck a railcar repair facility in Kyiv. Russia claimed that military vehicles were housed at the facility, but Ukrainian Railways says it was used to fix grain hoppers and other cars for cargo exports. In April, a missile struck a railway station in Kramatorsk, Donetsk region, as civilians gathered to flee. About 60 people, including children, died. The Russians have targeted bridges, substations and other rail facilities.
The Kyiv School of Economics Institute, which is assessing war destruction, estimates that between February 24 and June 8, the Russians incurred $2.7 billion in damages on railway infrastructure and rolling stock.
“Some people say that the railway people are the second army,” says Alexander Kamyshin, CEO of the Ukrainian Railway System. The war has claimed the lives of about 165 of its employees. Another 252 were injured and five were captured by Russia.
Mr Kamyshin, 37, makes it a point to travel everywhere to ask his railroad workers to leave. This includes several trips to Kramatorsk as well as to nearby Lyman. “If it is not safe, then we should throw those people out. If it’s safe, I can go there,” he says. “When people see I can go there, they go too.” With some 230,000 employees, the railway is the largest state-owned enterprise in Ukraine, and has “zero train attendants or track managers or any other managers who refused to do their jobs because of the war.”
When the war broke out, Mr. Yelisiev was on a regularly scheduled train journey to the western city of Lviv. He helped steer evacuation trains from Kharkiv to Kyiv, a city under attack near the Russian border the following week, and then to the relative safety of Lviv. His own family is also among those evacuated.
“I will remember those train rides for the rest of my life,” says Mr. Yelisiev. Panicked citizens crowded the ship, and mothers passed their children through the windows of the train “because they feared the children would be trampled on.” About 2,000 to 3,000 people were on board the trains with a capacity of around 600. “The tension was felt,” he says, even from the driver’s cab. He shared his breakfast with young children and allowed a nursing mother to feed her baby in her box.
20-year-old train steward Ilya Prudnik recalls how once at Kharkiv train station, artillery struck so close he could feel the floor vibrate as everyone dived to the ground. During one trip, he received a message on his radio about an unwell passenger, with several cars down, but the train was so packed he couldn’t make his way. When he entered a station, he grabbed his first aid kit and ran to the platform for help.
Train drivers had to rest so that they could remain alert, but in the early days of the war the stewards sometimes stayed awake for up to 45 hours, Mr. Prudnick says. The journey was emotionally grueling. “When you are a steward and talk to people, they tell you stories,” he adds. “You’re trying to encourage them, to lift their spirits . . . but of course it’s stressful enough to be in the middle of it every day.”
Anastasia Tregub, 24, fled Kyiv by train in early March amid rumors that Russia might launch a nuclear attack on the city. “It was very scary to be on that train,” she says, but the railway staff remained calm and looked after the passengers. “I needed a person to talk to because I was single,” she recalls. One steward said “talking to me all the time as much as I wanted at that time. , , , He was very kind to me.” She says, “Railway employees are our angels. He saved and helped a lot of people from Ukraine, so I appreciate him very much for that.
Mr Kamyshin says evacuation trains have brought about 3.8 million people to safety, including about a million children. He also saved about 120,000 pets. In March in the southwestern city of Uzhhorod, I met refugee families who had fled with only small bags and their beloved cats.
The war has shut down air traffic, and Russia has seized major port cities and blocked off the Black Sea. Most adult Ukrainian men under the age of 60 who cannot leave the country during the war can drive across borders. And traffic lines stretch for miles at the points of entry.
By the 20th day after the attack, Mr. Kamishin says, the railway realized that civilian evacuation “has been established, it is on track.” So “we started to focus on cargo again, and since then we’ve been working steadily on increasing cargo exports.” They estimate that the railways carry 300,000 tonnes of freight daily. About half of Ukraine’s trains run on diesel, which it now supplies by rail itself.
Unfortunately, the heroic efforts of railway personnel could not solve the problem of transporting Ukrainian crops, which feed the world. Secretary of State Antony Blinken estimated last month that about 22 million tons of grain “is sitting in silos in Ukraine right now.” Russia knows that a food shortage can lead to a political crisis and hopes to use the man-made famine as a diplomatic advantage.
Mr Kamyshin estimates that before the war 90% of Ukraine’s grain was exported through ports. By rails “we can do 10% more”, maybe “20%, but not five times more. And that’s the point that should be clear to everyone.”
Ukrainian railway tracks differ in width from most European ones. For a train to cross the border, its wheels must be swapped to fit the tracks, says Mr. Leshchenko. “Even if you had enough railway cars with switching systems, the European side lacks the infrastructure” to handle grain, including very few storage facilities. Already, trains are being rapidly backed up at the border.
The railway system in Ukraine has not always been revered. Over the years, it has had a reputation for corruption and inefficiency. But the valor of the railwaymen during the entire war has helped him to elevate his stature. “We just do our job,” says Mr. Kamyshin. “No one sees another option.”
Ms. Melchior is a Journal editorial page writer.
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