wclosed windows and soft lights, a darkened train stops on a station platform, which is also turned off. When the train stops, the carriage attendants throw boxes of humanitarian aid at the station operators waiting on the platform.
Crowds of passengers, who had arrived at the station hours earlier to avoid being on the road during the cornering hours, look for the right carriage in the inky darkness, before the train sets off again with a screech of wheels and a long hiss of steam.
This scene has repeated itself repeatedly in stations across Ukraine over the past month, as Ukrainian railways have been engaged in one of the most impressive elements of Ukraine’s war effort. Several million people traveled west to safety on evacuation trains, while the carriages returned east filled with tons of humanitarian aid.
Ukrainian railways employ more than 230,000 people, and nearly all of its employees have remained in the country to work, according to Oleksandr Kamyshin, the company’s CEO. While stations in areas under Russian occupation are now closed, trains have also continued to travel to cities such as Kharkiv, which has been under constant Russian fire.
Since the war began, 64 employees have died and 71 were injured, he said, counting employee accidents at work and at home.
“If the track has exploded, we’ll fix it. If we can get somewhere, let’s go. It could be dangerous for our personnel, but then that train can save thousands of other people from danger, “Kamyshin said in an interview with Kiev Central Station. He and a small seven-person” mobile command center “has spent the last month crossing the country on trains to show support for staff working in all parts of the country.
“We have several special carriages for our use, but we don’t use them outside the west of the country because the Russians may be able to identify them,” he said.
At the height of the evacuation program, 200,000 people a day were traveling west on trains made free for all, with priority given to women and children.
There were heartbreaking scenes at Kiev’s central station during the early part of the war, as residents feared the capital could face the same fate as Mariupol, Kharkiv and other cities, and were quick to get out as quickly as possible. The trains were often crowded, uncomfortable and sweaty inside, but they did their job. In the first two weeks of the war alone, 2 million passengers were rescued.
Dmytro Yaroshenko, 36, has worked on the railways since he was 20. He is now the conductor of train 82, which connects Uzhhorod in the far west, on the border with Slovakia, and Kiev.
“We turn off the lights for the part of the journey around Kiev and wherever it can be dangerous, as well as if the train stops. Who knows who might be hiding in the bushes, “she said, on a recent trip to the Ukrainian capital.
He said he had no qualifications to continue working during the war and saw his role as part of the overall Ukrainian war effort.
“It is painful that our soldiers, our women and our children die. But nerves and hysteria don’t help. In these moments it is best to take control of yourself and stay calm, ”she said.
Working on trains is a way of life in Ukraine, and Yaroshenko talks about his team with sincere pride. Number 82 is “one of the best” in the country, he said. He wore an elegant navy uniform with gold buttons embossed with the Ukrainian trident.
“I have 25 carriage attendants and we are like family. We have New Years parties together, we have our group on Viber. They need to look at their boss and take an example from me that I’m not panicking, “she said. On his he days off, she helps guard a roadblock near her home village.
The train director is responsible for travel and passenger safety, a role that has taken on added significance in wartime. Before each departure, Yaroshenko checks various WhatsApp and Telegram groups where train operators share the latest information. Last Thursday, he was alarmed by reports that a train had been targeted near the city of Vasylkiv, outside Kiev, and several windows had been blown up.
It was revealed that, in fact, a Russian missile had hit a nearby fuel depot and the shock waves had broken the windows. The track was undamaged and Yaroshenko’s train could travel as planned.
As the war progressed, little things changed: there is no more fresh linen in the sleeping cars, because some of the places where they were laundered are now under Russian occupation.
Most trains arrive late, because they stop to load and unload humanitarian aid and have to wait outside the big cities if air raid alarms sound when they should stop. Their maximum speeds have been reduced, so that, in the event of sabotage, accidents are less likely.
But surprisingly, most of the trains continue to run.
In recent years, Ukrainian railways have undergone a significant reform program and have installed a young and trained management team in the West. Kamyshin is only 37 years old. However, he said the wartime necessities forced him to go back to some of the old ways.
“We had implemented European things and we have become a place for discussion rather than decision, we have lost this culture of vertical command. In wartime, we brought it back, ”she said, adding that part of this quick decision-making process would be maintained after the war ended.
Kamyshin said the evacuation program is now “practically completed” and the rail leadership’s goal is now to help build export and customs capacity on the country’s western borders to increase rail exports, after the advance. Russia has put Ukraine’s southern ports, which handle much of its export trade, out of the game.
“Once the ports are unlocked, the cargo will go through them again, but we’ll still have this crazy neighbor. And this crazy neighbor could cause trouble for years. So we need to develop these western corridors and have them as Plan B, with the ability to significantly extend them at any time. “