The Real Life Heroes from Ukrzaliznytsia

Todays heroes don’t wear capes anymore, they are the railwaymen and women of Ukrainian Railway (Ukrzaliznytsia) of whom some are working from underground bomb shelters, and the railway Executives led by Oleksandr Kamyshin aboard ordinary passenger trains to keep Ukraine’s rail network running, evacuating civilians from heavily bombed areas every day. They use no cell phones, no zoom, just a Soviet-era closed circuit phone system that connects every station crisscrossing the country to stay off the radar of the Russians. They do have Starlink internet systems (courtesy of Elon Musk) but they barely ever use them because it makes it easier to target their location.

People gather on a platform at the train station in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 26. (Jack Losh Photos for Foreign Policy)

Some of the 231,000 employees of UZ had their houses destroyed, and sent their loved ones to safety (some of them finding refuge with FTE members all across Europe)  so they can stay behind risking their lives to do a job that has never been as important as it is now. 33 were killed, 24 injured so far and sadly counting.

Timetables are drawn up the night before and often have to be changed in response to panic scenes on railway stations. Every day the network is hit by Russian bombs, small damage breaks the link between cities temporarily and demolished bridges indefinitely. They have to react fast and repair the tracks even under artillery shelling. For now, all of the major hubs are still connected by Ukrainian rail.

Almost 2.5 million civilians have already crossed from Ukraine into Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania since the start of the invasion. The country’s rail network is one of the largest in the world. UZ transported 2,436,726 civilians during the three-week-period of war from the eastern and central part of Ukraine to the western part of the country and more than 280,000 to neighbouring countries. Also humanitarian aid is transported by railways estimated 5,800 tons in passenger cars and over 837 tons in 484 cargo wagons.

Highlighting also the great work and effort from the Polish Railways.

Before the war, less than 1,000 passengers travelled between Poland and Ukraine every day. Now it is between 20,000 and 25,000. Poland being a safe haven bordering the Ukraine, having already 1 million refugees in their country and getting thousands out by the day in collaboration with UZ.

Turning trains into a lifeline, major RUs like DB, PKP, CFL, DSB, NS, ÖBB, BLS, SBB, SNCB, SNCF, Lyria, Thalys, Eurostar, etc. now offer free cross-continental travel to people fleeing Ukraine. Cargo trains are also being deployed to bring food and medicine.

The decision to offer free journeys was praised by the head of the EU’s transport directorate, Henrik Hololei, who called it “real European solidarity in action”.

The message from UZ CEO Oleksandr Pertsovskyi is the following: The next chapter will be reconstruction. A prosperous Ukraine in which railways will play a very important role. He believes in a very large European railway network and that one day this nightmare will end. They will rebuild and invite enthusiastic travellers and rail experts to work with them.

The whole FTE community is disheartened but not resigned: we hope for a quick end of the war, and for the social, political and economic recovery of the Ukraine and our dear colleagues from UZ. Our thoughts and support are with them.

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