Shortly after Russian missiles rained down on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities on Monday, Oleksandr Kamyshin, head of the state-owned Ukrainian Railways, posted a solemn tweet. “As of 21.00 we have 42 trains delaying [sic],” he observed after a missile landed next to Kyiv’s main station.
Kamyshin went on to explain that 14 trains were more than an hour late, two trains were delayed by between 30 and 60 minutes, and 26 trains by less than 30 minutes. “I feel sorry for [the] inconvenience,” he added. “We do our best to get back on schedule.”
If the situation in Ukraine were not so ghastly — and Russia’s attacks not so brutal — this might read like satire. Particularly for readers in the UK, where trains are famously held up by announcements of “leaves on the line”, or in the US, where the parlous state of Amtrak has long been the butt of jokes and political fights. But Kamyshin is utterly serious, and it is humbling to watch, especially from the peaceful west.
In the past, Ukraine’s railways were tainted by scandal. But, today, keeping trains running on time and informing everyone of delays has been embraced as a foundational component of Ukraine’s civil society. It is a defiant mark of normality. It reflects a desperate effort to keep the economy afloat. It is also essential to move people around, be they refugees, the injured, diplomatic delegations or Ukrainian troops. Rolling wheels, in other words, are part of the country’s military and psychological fight.
I saw this first-hand during my recent visit to Ukraine, where I briefly met Kamyshin and his colleague Serhiy Leshchenko, a government adviser, at Kyiv railway station. The two men were young, cheery and unassuming. Kamyshin, who sports a hipster man-bun and beard, wouldn’t look out of place in a rock band. But ever since Russia invaded in February, their team has been consumed with the issue of logistics.
In the first phase of the assault on Kyiv, senior rail managers took different sleeper trains across the country, to avoid the risk of being captured, or injured or killed in a missile strike. Later, after Russia withdrew from Kyiv, rail managers continued to tour the country, frantically trying to repair broken tracks and maintain morale with deft social media posts in both Ukrainian and English.
When Russian missiles knocked out the power station near Kharkiv in September, for example, Kamyshin took an intercity train there from Kyiv, quickly announcing that “out of 6 trains delayed, as of night only 2 are still delaying, +36 and +48 minutes”. A few days later, he gave a further update. “#Kharkiv is heavily shelled. Railway infrastructure damaged… One train departed +28 min and another one departed +9 min. #KeepRunning.” And when the Ukrainian army made a lightning offensive in the east and seized back villages such as Balakliya, Kamyshin’s team posted tweets explaining how a service car was moving along the tracks removing mines, broken tracks, phosphorus bombs and other unexploded munitions.
The tweets and accompanying images are compelling. (When they found a Soviet-era Russian bomb on the tracks, Kamyshin grimly joked that it was dated 1976, “which is older than me”.) Then, a few days later, another triumphant post: “20+ passengers travel by train from #Kharkiv to #Balakliya this morning. #KeepRunningOnSchedule.” Below was a photograph of passengers sitting in a railway car, as if it was the most normal thing in the world.
This courage has come with a very heavy human cost. Two military engineers were killed by mines when they cleared the tracks to Balakliya. Indeed, more than 240 railway workers have perished since February.
And the struggle intensifies. In revenge for the attack on the Kerch bridge, President Vladimir Putin announced plans to destroy more of Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, which suggests more missile strikes on railway sites. But the Ukrainians remain defiant. “Even after the shelling of our capital by dozens of cruise missiles @Ukrzaliznytsia are doing our best to transport the passengers in time,” declared Leshchenko late on Monday. Another colleague added, “Even 100 rockets won’t stop us! Keep moving!”
A few days before Monday’s missile strikes, Kamyshin posted a haunting photograph taken through the window of the train that he had (yet again) slept on. “Another morning starts in #NightTrain. Look how beautiful…” he remarked of the golden autumn trees swathed in seasonal fog, somewhere in his war-torn land.
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