The ‘Iron People’: How Ukraine’s rail workers are keeping the country on track
After a year of death, destruction and a resistance few expected, Ukraine is still steaming forward, a country balanced on two thin iron rails.
In many ways, the men and women of Ukrainian Railways are holding the country together, exemplifying the strength and resilience of a people under attack.
“I imagine us as surgeons who operate on a body, stitching it together,” says Lilia Semenova, the manager of a train crew. “We stitch this part, and that part … and the person survives.”
Global’s The New Reality spoke to many employees across the country’s vast rail network, from executives, to station managers, to train managers, to conductors and to track repair crews. They all say that despite constant shelling, fear and tragedy, they never considered abandoning their posts.
“Every trip, I had a feeling that I might not come back,” says Semenova, describing the early weeks of Russia’s invasion. “It was scary, but there was no other way. I couldn’t force myself to sit at home and do nothing in this situation.”
“Our families are worried, our friends are worried for us,” says train driver Roman Shapoval. “And we are worried for the passengers that we carry in the train. Well, someone has to do this job, so we are doing it.”
Shapoval operates trains in the Kharkiv region, and has frequently encountered danger near the Russian border.
That’s where Serhii Zelentsov runs a crew repairing tracks damaged by Russian shelling. Much of the area has been devastated. But Zelentsov is unequivocal:
“There was not a single thought to leave.”
Ukraine Railways, or Ukrzaliznytsia, is the single largest employer in the country, with some 230,000 workers. Their courage has earned them the nickname “Iron People.” Their almost military dedication to duty has made them Ukraine’s second army. The general of that army is the company’s CEO, Oleksandr Kamyshin.
“Speaking about head count, we are comparable to the army. And speaking about discipline, we [have] the same discipline. And we never stopped. We kept running from the first day, from the first hour of the war.”
As the leader, Kamyshin wanted that sense of duty to filter throughout the organization, so he imposed a code for himself and his fellow executives:
“We have a rule. We never send our people where we are not ready to go ourselves. We go to the hottest places to check how it’s going on there to make decisions, having boots on the ground. And that helps our people on the ground to feel that they are doing something important. And if me and my team are coming to them, they feel safer. “
This is a lot different than the job Kamyshin had in mind when he was hired as CEO, six months before the Russian invasion.
“When I stepped in this job, I definitely didn’t expect this kind of war,” he says.
Kamyshsin’s previous experience was managing investments in agriculture and media, and he was tasked with modernizing Ukraine’s Soviet-era rail system. That all changed when Russia invaded. The instructions from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy were simple:
“Go and do your job to make the system run,” Kamyshin says.
Ukrzaliznytsia was vital to the economy before the invasion. Since then, rail lines have become lifelines.
Trains carried millions of civilians away from the fighting, and sent food, water, medical supplies and troops into hot zones. The rail network is also the main driver of the economy. Ukraine is a net exporter of iron, steel, grains and other agricultural products. Russia was one of its biggest trade partners. Trains have been crucial to rerouting shipments to other ports in Europe.
Trains have also become central to Ukraine’s public relations strategy, which has been dubbed “iron diplomacy.” Visiting celebrities include Sean Penn, Angelina Jolie and David Letterman. Because of the closed air space, all foreign politicians have had to travel in and out of Ukraine on trains, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and the leaders of France, Germany and Italy. The latest, just this week, was U.S. President Joe Biden. Kamyshin documented the visit on Twitter, calling the train carrying the Commander in Chief #RailForceOne.
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As the world’s sixth-largest passenger rail system, employing people in every corner of the country, Ukrainian rail workers have also become a key source of military intelligence.
With commercial air traffic grounded, and road travel dangerous or impossible, keeping the trains moving was suddenly, literally, a matter of life and death. Kamyshin says 97 per cent of trains have arrived on time. He is active on social media, often using the hashtag #keeprunning.
At times, sticking to that motto has been painful.
“We pay the highest price when we lose our people and when they lose their health. So that’s the heaviest cost of this war for us. But meanwhile, we keep standing. And we will withstand.”
Kamyshin says more than 300 employees have been killed during the war, and hundreds more injured. Many are those who laid down their railway tools and picked up weapons to join the military resistance. But that doesn’t make the loss of colleagues any easier, nor the danger to employees any less real.
For a time, the Kremlin did not attack critical infrastructure. Moscow planned to use rail lines as supply lines when its army pushed deeper into Ukrainian territories, so it did not target the system. But when it became clear Ukraine’s defence was stronger than expected and its rail infrastructure was critical to that defence, the war moved into a different phase. Trains, tracks, stations and employees were now fair game.
“I haven’t seen such tears in my life. A sea, an ocean,” Semenova says.
She narrowly avoided the deadly shelling of Kramatorsk station last April that killed more than 50 people. She was on an evacuation train packed with 5,000 people, but had to leave 10,000 more behind on the platform. Hours later, the station was shelled.
“I believe angels carried us in their hands on that day,” Semenova says.
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After Kramatorsk, Semenova kept going to work, helming evacuation trains all over battlefields in eastern Ukraine for a month straight, without a day off. But she’s hardly the only rail worker who has experienced the fires of war.
In May, the train station in Slatyne, 30 kilometres north of Kharkiv, was hit with heavy shelling. The building was gutted. Only its walls still stand. On the outside, the words “welcome to hell” are scrawled in graffiti.
There is also a plaque on the station wall, identifying it as part of the Southern Railway. Slatyne is actually northeastern Ukraine, but the infrastructure was built and rebuilt by the Russians, starting in the late 1800s. Tracks were destroyed by war and rebuilt several times by the Soviet Union throughout the 20th century — but Ukraine was always in the southern part of the centrally controlled empire.
Many aspects of the old, sprawling network were inefficient in a modern economy, and set to be updated under Kamyshin’s leadership.
There were too many lines, the employee rolls were bloated, and part of the system ran on diesel instead of electricity. But, as of Feb. 24, 2022, all those aspects suddenly became advantageous. Trains could be rerouted endlessly on various lines to evacuate people and deliver supplies; there were always plenty of people to run trains and repair damage; and power couldn’t be knocked out by striking electric generating stations.
Communications also became swift and efficient. Every morning, Kamyshin speaks with the heads of the company’s six regional branches via a Soviet-era closed communication system. He gathers information and delivers orders. Decisions are made quickly, with a minimum of discussion.
“Making a decision was more important than making the right decision,” Kamyshin says. “It was worse not making a decision rather than making the wrong decision because the wrong decision, it’s something you can correct and make a better decision. But not making a decision — it’s a disaster.”
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At just 38 years of age, Kamyshin is unequivocally the “new guard” in the Ukrainian railway network. But there is no question who is in charge. When he requested Leonid Loboyko come out of retirement to manage the country’s large rail hub in Kyiv, Loboyko agreed to help immediately.
“He found me, made me return, and gave me new life. I’m grateful,” Loboyko says. “The management handles everything. It’s tough, there’s no help, but they make the right decisions and choose the right direction.”
Loboyko started working in the railway system in 1974, during the Cold War era of the Soviet empire. He worked his way up to senior management before retiring a few years ago.
“I never thought I would return,” he says incredulously.
He shows us around Kyiv station, pointing out evacuation centres and warming stoves if the power is out. Starlink connectivity and charging stations for cell phones. Play centres for children. Stations have become safe havens in the event civilians have to flee attacks with nowhere to go.
Loboyko spent much of his career working with Russians before Ukraine gained its independence. The experience of returning to work and helping protect Ukrainians has changed him, especially his views on Russians he once worked alongside.
“I have a completely different opinion about those people,” he says. “I don’t know if we can ever restore our relationships.
“The Russian Ministry of Murder” is what Yurii Philippov calls the Kremlin.
Philippov is the director of Ukrzaliznytsia’s carriage repair facility in Kyiv. Russia hit the facility with five missiles early in the morning of June 5, 2022. Russia claimed it was targeting military vehicles being housed at the factory.
Kamyshin shot back on Twitter. “That’s (a) lie. We don’t have any military machinery on our factory. Only freight railcars that help us export grain and iron ore.”
“They may as well claim that we housed Martians,” Philippov says tersely.
He believes Russians were targeting civilians to cause panic. But it didn’t work. He says after the bombing, rail employees from nearby plants came to help clean up the damage.
“This was the brotherhood, and it exists. We try to help each other in hard situations.”
To call the war a ‘hard situation’ is an understatement of epic proportions. NATO estimates at least 30,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed, and more than 100,000 soldiers have been killed or injured.
Millions of families have been separated, including Oleksandr Kamyshin’s. He sent his wife and two sons out of the country last year.
“That’s the highest price I am personally paying for this war. Not seeing my boys. I’ve got two boys. I’ve got two sons. I really miss them.”
The stoic finance guy, turned rail reformer, turned wartime leader, does not seem like the crying type, but speaking of his sons, and his employees, he lets his guard down for just a moment.
“This war made me much more emotional than I was before,” he says. “Before this war, I cried once every two years. Now I cry once a month. There are some topics that trigger me.”
One of those topics is the courage of rail workers.
“I always shake their hand and say something like, Thank you for what you do. And you know what they say? They usually say, ‘Come on, we’re just doing what we have to do. We’re just doing our job.’”
Kamyshin has often said when Ukrainian soldiers retake territory from the Russians, the tanks go in first, followed by the trains. Re-establishing service is key to restoring confidence in Ukrainians.
“The locals were telling us that they wouldn’t return here,” says track repair worker Serhii Lukhanin.
He’s been working with the crew repairing damaged tracks near Prudyanka, a region close to the border that was hammered by Russian bombs for six months last year.
“But when they saw the track repairmen work, along with suppliers, they realized that they can return. We inspired them with hope,” he says.
Nobody blames those who have left the country, but rail workers know they are key to defending their country. They aren’t about to give up.
“Leaving our places, where we worked and lived? We never thought about it,” Lukhanin says.
“Our family, my colleagues have never thought about it. After all, it’s our land, our homes.”
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