Railway Workers Are Ukraine’s ‘Second Army’

The railway system is called the “iron road” in Russian and the “ironery” in Ukrainian. “It’s not for nothing that we are called the iron people,” train driver Yurii Yelisieiev, 42, says of Ukraine’s railway workers.

Since Russia launched its full invasion in February, Ukraine has relied on its railway system to evacuate civilians, bring foreign dignitaries to Kyiv and move humanitarian supplies, essential goods, exports and weaponry. “It’s the backbone of the Ukrainian economy,” says Serhiy Leshchenko, a supervisory board member at Ukrzaliznytsia, or Ukrainian Railways. “It’s the backbone of the Ukrainian state. And in terms of a target, it’s second only to the military. ”

Alexandr Kamyshin, CEO of Ukraine’s railway system


Photo:

Jillian Melchior

On June 5, four missiles struck a railcar repair facility in Kyiv. Russia claimed the facility housed military vehicles, but Ukrainian Railways says it was used to fix grain hoppers and other cars for cargo exports. In April a missile struck the railway station in Kramatorsk, in the Donetsk region, as civilians gathered to flee. Some 60 people, including children, were killed. The Russians have targeted bridges, substations and other rail facilities.

The Kyiv School of Economics Institute, which is tallying war destruction, estimates that between Feb. 24 and June 8, Russians inflicted $ 2.7 billion in damage on the railway infrastructure and rolling stock.

“Some people say railway men are the second army,” says Alexandr Kamyshin, CEO of the Ukrainian railway system. War has claimed the lives of some 165 of his employees. Another 252 have been injured and five captured by Russia.

Mr. Kamyshin, 37, makes a point of traveling everywhere he asks his railway workers to go. That includes multiple trips to Kramatorsk, as well as nearby Lyman. “If it’s not safe, then we should take those people out. If it’s safe, then I can go there, ”he says. “When people see that I can go there, they go as well.” With some 230,000 employees, the railway is the largest state-owned enterprise in Ukraine, and there have been “zero train attendants or track managers or any other managers who refused to do their job because of the war.”

When war erupted, Mr. Yelisieiev was on a regularly scheduled train trip to the western city of Lviv. He spent the next weeks helping run evacuation trains from Kharkiv, a city under attack near the Russian border, to Kyiv and then to the relative safety of Lviv. The evacuees included his own family.

Yurii Yelisieiev, a train driver


Photo:

Jillian Melchior

“I will remember those train rides for the rest of my life,” Mr. Yelisieiev says. Panicked civilians crowded onboard, and mothers passed their toddlers through the train windows “because they were afraid the children would be trampled.” Some 2,000 to 3,000 people crammed onto trains that usually had a capacity of 600. “The state of tension was felt” even from the driver’s cab, he says. He shared his snacks with young children and let a nursing mother feed her baby in his compartment.

Illya Prudnik, a 20-year-old train steward, recalls how once at the Kharkiv train station, artillery hit so close that he could feel the vibrations from the floor as everyone dived to the ground. During one journey, he got a message on his radio of an unwell passenger several cars down, but the train was too packed to make his way through. When it pulled into a station, he grabbed his first-aid kit and sprinted down the platform to help.

Train drivers had to rest so they could stay alert, but in the early days of the war the stewards sometimes stayed awake for as long as 45 hours, Mr. Prudnik says. The journey was also emotionally grueling. “When you are a steward and talking to people, they tell you stories,” he adds. “You are trying to encourage them, to lift their spirits. . . but of course it is pretty stressful to be in the midst of this every day. ”

Illya Prudnik, a railway steward


Photo:

Jillian Melchior

Anastasia Tregub, 24, fled Kyiv in early March by train amid rumors that Russia may conduct a nuclear strike on the city. “It was very scary to be on that train,” she says, but the railway workers kept calm and cared for the passengers. “I needed to have a person to talk with because I was alone,” she recalls. One steward “talked to me all the time, as much as I needed at that time. . . . They were so kind to me. ” The railway workers, she says, “are our angels. They rescued and helped a lot of people from Ukraine, so I am very appreciative of them for that. ”

Mr. Kamyshin says the evacuation trains have brought some 3.8 million people to safety, including about a million children. They also rescued some 120,000 pets. In the southwestern city of Uzhhorod in March, I met refugee families who escaped with only small bags — and their beloved cats.

The war has shut down air traffic, and Russia has seized key port cities and blocked the Black Sea. Most adult Ukrainian men under 60 can’t leave the country during wartime, which limits who can drive across the borders. And the traffic lines at points of entry stretch for miles.

By day 20 of the invasion, Mr. Kamyshin says the railway felt the evacuation of civilians was “established, it’s on track.” So “we started focusing on cargo again, and since then we are constantly working on increasing the cargo export.” He estimates the railways move 300,000 tons of cargo daily. Roughly half of Ukraine’s trains run on diesel, which it now self-supplies by rail.

Unfortunately, the heroic efforts of railway men can not solve the problem of transporting Ukrainian crops, which feed the world. Secretary of State Antony Blinken estimated last month that there were some 22 million tons of grain “sitting in silos in Ukraine right now.” Russia knows food shortages can induce political crises and may hope to use a man-made famine as diplomatic leverage.

Mr. Kamyshin estimates that before the war 90% of Ukraine’s grain was exported via seaports. “We can do 10% more” by rail, 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, there’s a lack of infrastructure on the Europe side” to handle the grain, including too few storage facilities. Already, trains are increasingly backed up at the border.

The railway system has not always been revered in Ukraine. For years, it had a reputation for corruption and inefficiency. But railway workers’ heroism throughout the war has helped elevate its stature. “We just do our job,” Mr. Kamyshin says. “No one sees any other option.”

Ms. Melchior is a Journal editorial page writer.

Journal Editorial Report: Paul Gigot interviews military analyst Seth Jones. Images: AP / Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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