HomeRail NewsUkrzaliznytsia: a lifeline to millions

Ukrzaliznytsia: a lifeline to millions

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Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the nation’s trains have run back and forth, ferrying people from conflict hotspots and transporting humanitarian aid. With internal air travel impossible and roads blocked by military checkpoints, the country’s railway has become its only reliable system of mass transportation.

Not only has the railway kept refugees moving and delivered tonnes of aid, it has also transported troops to frontline cities and, with key southern ports closed by naval blockade, continued to export whatever Ukraine can produce under wartime conditions.

Vital asset

Ukraine boasts a highly developed rail network, with approximately 13,990 miles of track. National railway company, Ukrzaliznytsia, is among the largest in the world and, before the war, its freight and passenger transport capabilities played a key role in the country’s economy. The state-owned company is Ukraine’s biggest employer with 231,000 staff across 375,000sq miles of territory. Today, it is vital to the country’s defence and the movement of displaced citizens.

Ukrzaliznytsia has helped the Army by producing anti-tank hedgehogs and, in the early days of the invasion, helped to disrupt railway lines between Russia and Ukraine to cut off important supply routes for the attackers.

Since the war began it has evacuated over 3.5 million people. At the peak of the evacuation programme, 200,000 people a day were using the railway to travel west. The company made its service free of charge for everyone, giving priority to women and children. Railway stations across Ukraine were turned into help centres, offering food, shelter, and clothes ─ everything that that travelling from the conflict’s hotspots might need.

The cost

But this vast operation has come at a cost. Schedules have to be constantly updated because of Russian attacks; top speeds have been reduced so that, in case of sabotage, accidents are less likely to be fatal; and Ukrzaliznytsia’s leadership team must constantly stay on the move for fear of Russian targeting. This is all without mentioning that over 70 railway employees have been killed since the war began, both on and off duty.

The fact is that Ukraine’s railway is a prime target for attack. This truth was hammered home to us in the west by the missile strike on a rail station in Kramatorsk on 8 April, which killed over 59 people, including seven children. Oleksandr Kamyshin, head of Ukrzaliznytsia, called the strike “a deliberate attack on the passenger infrastructure of the railway and the residents of Kramatorsk”.

The future

For now, the evacuation programme is largely complete and Ukrzaliznytsya’s main focus has switched to ensuring the smooth flow of humanitarian aid and material for the war effort. The longer focus of the company is increase export and customs capacity on the Ukraine’s western borders. With the country’s southern ports out of action, rail exports via its western borders are vital both to the war effort and to rebuilding the country once the conflict is over, however long that may take.

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