How Ukraine’s Trains Kept Running Despite Bombs, Blackouts, and Biden

Two days after Russian troops retreated from Kherson on November 11, Ukraine Railways CEO Alexander Kamyshin arrived in the city accompanied by Ukrainian special forces and a small team of railway workers. They reached the central train station even before the regular army arrived to secure the city, and got to work. Six days later, the first train from Kyiv rolled into liberated Kherson.

“It was a magic day,” Kamyshin says. “We saw the faces of the people seeing the train, crying, waving their hands. Trust me, it was unforgettable. That’s one of the days to remember forever.” 

Since Russia began an intense assault on Ukraine a year ago today, Kamyshin and his colleagues have worked ceaselessly to keep Ukraine’s trains running. They’ve moved 4 million refugees and more than 330,000 metric tons of humanitarian aid, sending trains right up to—and sometimes beyond—the front lines of the conflict. With air travel all but impossible, Ukraine Railways has brought at least 300 foreign delegations into Kyiv in a program it calls “iron diplomacy.” Earlier this week, a train dubbed “Rail Force One” secretly carried US president Joe Biden to the Ukrainian capital for a symbolic visit.

All that work has taken place under near constant attack. “[The Russians shell] tracks, stations, bridges, power stations, cranes, they shell everything,” Kamyshin says. “Two hundred and fifty people died, 800 people injured. That’s only railwaymen and women. That’s the price we paid in this war.”

Speaking over Zoom from Kyiv, Kamyshin is taciturn, with a ready supply of one-liners. (Asked how it was possible to get trains into Mariupol, a city being flattened by Russian bombardments, he said simply: “very fast.”) He says Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, wasn’t entirely unexpected, and the government had contingencies in place in case of war. “Institutions like Ukrainian Railways always have a plan. The problem was, that plan was on paper. It was totally irrelevant.”

Kamyshin and Ukraine’s rail workers have had to make countless small, but enormously consequential decisions that weren’t part of the pre-invasion script. They abandoned ticketing so anyone who needed to travel could do so immediately. They slowed down the trains to limit casualties in the event of derailment or sabotage. They changed the rules on pets so that evacuees could bring them as they fled—Ukraine Railways estimates 120,000 animals have traveled over the past 12 months.

During the first three weeks of the war last year, as Russian troops pushed into central and southern Ukraine, the railway’s main focus was on evacuations and on moving humanitarian aid into towns and cities being bombed and shelled. Passenger trains went west toward the Polish border carrying refugees, then returned to the front filled with supplies. 

In Mariupol, a port city on the Black Sea close to the Russian border that was bombarded relentlessly until resistance finally collapsed in May 2022, rail workers managed to get trains in and out several times before the tracks were destroyed. The stranded crews were able to evacuate by road, but two trains are still stuck there.

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