The unsung hero keeping war-time Ukraine up and running

In peaceful times, solid rail infrastructure is often taken for granted

A train leaves from the train station in Odesa, southern Ukraine, on March 23, 2022. AP

Bigger by far than France and slightly smaller than Texas, Ukraine is Europe’s second biggest country.

The war has shown how vital the railways are to keeping that nation on the move and forging its identity. At this juncture there could be said to be two things holding Ukraine together, its national spirit and its rail network.

In Ukraine the communications corridors are long and involve many stops. The overnight sleeper trains snake through the country. On a 17-hour journey from Kyiv to Sevastopol a decade ago, I witnessed how Ukrainians of all stages of life travel, converse, eat and sing together while sequestered between two tracks.

The neat carriages allow for contemplation of the vast horizons. The fertile soils of the Ukraine prairies filled with the long stems of sunflowers pass by in an impressionistic blur.

The towns ordered around the central railway stations stood handsome and well kept. The war has put much of that equilibrium into the abyss.

When the Ukrainian people needed, it the railway system was there. Evacuees will soon total 4 million outside the country. As many as 12 million have been displaced both inside and out.

Without the long reach of the railways there is no doubt that process of displacement would have been much worse for all forced to flee.

Instead, television screens have filled with sights from the railway platforms. People filled with emotion stand at closing doors. Children place hands on windows as the carriage pulls away from their loved one.

The train is the vehicle for so much of humanity’s pain, not just in one city or two but in hundreds.

The specialist website The Man in Seat 61 has demonstrated how the Ukraine network has continued pretty much intact over the last month of war. It has published a map that identified about two dozen major stations that have been shut down. These are located in the east and the south of the country. At a time when heat maps and other illustrations have overstated the scope of the Russian advance, the railway dots marked in green are a good proxy for the progress of the battle.

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The war has shown how vital the railways are to keeping that nation on the move and forging its identity

The railways say a lot about Ukraine’s economic history. Crossing the border from Poland means a change of gauge.

The Donetsk area of the country lies in the basin of the Don river, where entrepreneurs developed the iron and mining industries that led the world.

The collapse of the Soviet Union could have resulted in the collapse of the railways too but fortunately that did not happen.

The Middle East has not been so fortunate. Its railways, so instrumental in the revolt against the Ottomans at the end of the First World War have become defunct. About 15 years ago the only bit of the Iraqi railway functioning was a remote spur near Ramadi.

Ukraine has kept its lifeline so far. Movement of troops, arms, food and fuel is a key military need when a country is defending itself.

As we have seen it has been the primary means by which people have got themselves out of the line of fire. Trains to Poland and elsewhere are a sign of continuing connection and support from the outside to the beleaguered nation.

Russia has its own proud railway tradition writ large too. One of the symbols of the end of the Cold War for Generation X was a trip on the trans-Siberia express. All the way to or from Asia to Europe.

The iron rail is broken at Russia's frontiers. The last train to Finland and the EU as a whole was scheduled for Sunday. Since the invasion it had been jammed packed on every trip with 700 passengers.

Those onboard could only be Russian or Finnish citizens. They had to have a Covid pass but could not use the Sputnik vaccine to obtain one.

The only Russian train now passing through European territory is the Russian service that goes through to the enclave of Kaliningrad. It passes through Lithuania and highlights another flash point for Europe.

The Lithuanians last week used the stations on their territory that the Kaliningrad stations have to pass through to display images of death and destruction from Ukraine. That’s the kind of defiance that is now written into the history of the region.

Complex ties that underpin the conflict have been highlighted by Ukrainian praise for railway engineers and network workers in Kremlin-allied Belarus. This has been directed at sabotage of the lines carrying Russia troop and materiel resupply to the Ukrainian front lines.

The linkage of labour and sympathy despite the tensions of the times and the propaganda curtain says something timeless about the ties forged across the railways. Progress is often blunted by war and recession but the railways continue to be a symbol of a better world of connection across the divide.

Published: March 28, 2022, 4:00 AM
Damien McElroy

Damien McElroy

Damien is a  foreign correspondent who has covered politics and conflict across Europe, the Middle East, the US, Africa and Asia. Before joining The National in 2017, he worked for The Sunday Times and Telegraph titles as an editor and roving reporter. He started his career in China and has a degree in finance.