The Ukrainians are fighting to restore the bombed out railway network in Kherson | So Good News
IIn most European countries, a wave of bad weather is enough to bring train schedules to a halt. In the UK leaves on the line cause chaos.
In Ukraine, where missiles, artillery fire and mines are everyday occurrences, railway staff simply continue to fix the track and get the trains running again. Even under fire.
And this is the message that Ukraine’s railway chief, Oleksandr Kamyshin, is trying to deliver, standing at the newly opened railway station in Kherson, a front-line city liberated from Russian soldiers just days ago and still under fire.
The city was retaken after Moscow ordered a withdrawal to the east bank of the Dnipro River. But the Russian troops have not gone far; at some points they are only 400 meters away on the other side of the water.
This is what Ukrainian soldiers who liberated the area last week have told The independent how civilians in Kherson have come under sniper fire. Protective boom in the background.
But in the waiting room of Kherson’s passenger terminal, Kamyshin – the 38-year-old head of Ukraine’s national railway company Ukrzaliznytsia – explains how the first trains will arrive here in just a week, ready to bring in food and aid as well as a ferry. people away from the front line.
The line from Kyiv to Mykolaiv, a city 100 km to the west that has been under heavy bombardment, opened this week and the connection to Kherson will be established shortly.
“We are Ukraine’s second army; we have to keep running. Boots on the ground, that’s our style, says Kamyshin as he directs a mass of traffic around him.
Yaroslav Yanushevych, the governor of Kherson, is also here, as are senior railway managers, international aid workers, engineers, doctors and volunteers, all busy at work.
“Until the actual moment we can run the trains, we are already here working,” continues Kamyshin, a father of two.
He explains how Kherson’s train terminal is open and serving as a humanitarian hub while it waits for the wagons to start rolling in.
Residents cluster around the station’s Starlink internet connection points, some reaching out to family members for the first time in weeks to let them know they are alive.
The railway company has set up generators so that residents, deprived of electricity, water and gas for months, can charge their phones.
They have partnered with World Central Kitchen (WCK), an international food aid charity, whose workers distribute food parcels to crowds of people waiting outside. Doctors Without Borders, or Doctors Without Borders (MSF) – another partner – staffs a temporary station that provides consultations and medication.
“We are the first to bring in food, bring in medicine, bring in generators,” Kamyshin continues. “For many Ukrainians, the railway is changing their lives. We don’t just run trains, as you can see.”
Outside, residents crowded around a charging point say it’s a lifeline.
“The opening of the track will make a big difference for us. We have been cut off from the rest of Ukraine since March, says Boris (50), a local businessman who, together with his wife Tetiana (44), is waiting for a food parcel.
Boris’s brother, Maxim, director of a local cultural institute, tells how he spent four days in a Russian-run basement interrogation center while they beat and tortured him for information.
When he was released, he had to make the treacherous journey into Ukrainian-controlled territory by back roads through Russian checkpoints. The rest of their family is on the east bank of the river, which is still Russian-occupied. They have no idea if they are alive as there is no internet or mobile phone connection.
“We haven’t had electricity, water or mobile network for so long. To finally have a connection and a way in and out means a lot, says Boris with relief.
It has been quite an achievement.
Kamyshin took over the role of CEO of the railway just four months before President Putin invaded Ukraine in February this year. He was technically still on probation. It has literally been a baptism of fire.
His motto has been that the trains must continue to run no matter what.
And because of this, despite being under constant bombardment, Ukraine’s railway network has turned into one of the main lifelines of the conflict.
Like arteries, the tracks criss-cross the country, and quickly became an important evacuation route for fleeing civilians and wounded soldiers when Russia launched its invasion, especially given that roads were bombed and air traffic to Ukraine ground to a halt.
Ukraine’s trains – and their now famous blue and yellow stock – became one of the only ways out of the country.
At the start of the war, millions of terrified people piled into wagons to flee, starting the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.
The tickets were free. As many as possible were squeezed on board. There were often extremely harrowing scenes, with families desperate to move on, storming wagons as incoming shelling sounded in the background.
Men of fighting age, who by law must stay inside Ukraine, were filmed tearfully saying goodbye to their loved ones on the platforms.
Trains snaked their way through the country, turning off their lights in case they could be spotted by planes and drones. They drove slower so that if they came under fire it would lessen the impact of a crash.
The railway company was looking for more carriages to cope with the massive movement of people. In the meantime, they transported humanitarian aid, supplies and essential infrastructure to the worst affected areas.
With Ukraine’s Black Sea ports blocked, trains became the only way to export food and grain, made even more difficult by the fact that Ukraine uses a Soviet-era gauge that is larger than the rest of Ukraine. Europe: a hangover from the USSR when the line was built and which the railway company hopes to change to further integrate the country with the rest of the continent.
For now, they want to keep the trains running as long as they can and return to newly liberated areas as soon as they can. In Izyum, northern Ukraine, trains were running just four and a half days after the Russians were forced to retreat.
But it has cost big. Kamyshin tells The independent that almost 300 railway workers have been killed and more than 600 injured since the conflict broke out. The company has a workforce of 231,000 people, and those who are not in occupied territories or those who have not been evacuated are still coming to work. The senior leadership is believed to be on the target lists of Russian soldiers, their proxies and collaborators; they have to navigate it.
On April 8, cluster munitions were used at the railway station in Kramatorsk city, in the eastern region of Donetsk, killing at least 60 people, many of whom were trying to evacuate. Kamyshin was at the railway station the day before the attack.
Four months later, on August 24 – Ukraine’s Independence Day – another 25 people were killed in a missile attack on the Chaplyne railway station in the central-eastern Dnipropetrovsk region.
Russian forces also cordoned off all the territory they captured and have since relinquished with anti-armor and anti-personnel mines as their soldiers retreated. The railway workers say they are specifically targeting critical infrastructure such as railway tracks. In the newly liberated areas, The independent have been shown tripwires by demining teams: boobytraps are widespread.
“The biggest danger for us today is the mines,” says Roman Chernitski, one of the railway managers in charge of infrastructure, who was also busy at the Kherson railway station.
“Just a few days ago, seven railway workers were injured, some critically, by mines when they were trying to fix the track to Kherson,” he says with a painful pause.
– This is the most difficult part for us. There are no safe jobs in Ukraine.”
But despite the dangers, the Ukrainian railway company says it has so far fixed a total of 2,000km of tracks that were in frontline or occupied areas.
Of the 60 main railway bridges destroyed by Moscow’s bombardment, Chernitski says 20 have been renovated. Three bridges in Irpin, just north of the capital Kyiv – an area that saw some of the worst fighting early in the war – are due to open next week.
In Kherson, Chernitski says, they are repairing 60 broken sections of the railway line. Twenty areas have already been fixed, although it has been less than a week since Russian forces left.
Just outside the city on the bombed-out road from the neighboring city of Mykolaiv, railway workers are busy working on a section of the line framed by apocalyptic destruction.
Missiles and artillery shells have chewed up the muddy landscape around them, and incoming fire remains a risk. Miners were busy clearing the track to allow them to work. At the side of the road, dozens of anti-tank missiles are lined up in neat rows, cordoned off with red and white warning tape.
And now the main focus will be the bitter winter. In interviews with The independent, Ukraine’s top energy officials have accused Russia of “energy terrorism” and of unleashing a wave of attacks on power infrastructure the world has never seen. Rights groups such as Amnesty International have claimed that the attacks constitute a war crime.
Millions of homes have been plunged into darkness and cold, and water supplies have been cut off in cities from Kherson to the capital, Kyiv. This will be a deadly nightmare as temperatures continue to drop and winter rolls in. On Wednesday and Thursday, Russia once again unleashed a barrage of missiles on its energy infrastructure, plunging several cities, including the capital, into darkness.
And this is where railway stations will come in, says Kamyshin. He wants them to become the humanitarian heart of the cities and towns where they are located.
“For example, we have 10,000 ovens; we only need 2,000 for our stations, but we have received more for the people, he says, pointing to the makeshift wood stoves, made from scrap metal, which can be stationed inside or outside homes.
“The stations will provide electricity, stoves, internet, food, medical equipment – everything.”
As the sound of incoming fire rumbles ever louder, he personally ushers crowds in “so we don’t have a repeat of Kramatorsk,” he adds grimly.
“The train station might be one of the only places where people can stay warm and get food in the winter,” he says as families gather inside, around an adapter to charge their phones, immune to the deadly boom in the background.
“I have to be ready for anything and we have to keep running.”