Ukraine’s Railways Endure Two Years of War, Remaining Operational: Despite enduring ground invasions and relentless missile attacks over the past two years, Ukraine’s rail network, known as Ukrzaliznytsia or UZ, has remained operational. Even before the conflict, UZ was a source of pride and practicality in the country, and now it plays a crucial role in sustaining the war effort, achieving almost cult status.
In the absence of viable air travel, trains have reemerged as the primary mode of long-distance travel in this conflict-ridden nation. Although rail services faced disruptions initially, passenger numbers have rebounded to pre-invasion levels, with 24.9 million passengers carried in 2023. Anticipating further growth, UZ expects this number to rise to 27.5 million in the current year.
Despite challenges posed by evacuations, transportation of supplies to the front lines, and the deployment of railway employees in the conflict, UZ remains determined to pursue ambitious expansion plans.
For international travelers, the train has become the optimal choice, particularly for those journeying through Ukraine. The significance of the railway is evident at the main station, bustling with life as passengers attend to last-minute shopping or consult electronic departure screens featuring trains bound for distant cities like Odesa and Lviv, and even further destinations like Warsaw and Vienna.
In a digital era where 80% of sales are handled online, the traditional ticket offices at the station have made way for ‘Iron Land,’ a UNICEF-supported initiative. This space provides a friendly and welcoming environment for families on the move, reflecting the evolving landscape of travel services in Ukraine
Despite the danger of aerial attacks, UZ employees continue to risk their lives to move passengers and cargo in areas of eastern Ukraine. This, says Yarema Dul, project manager at UZ’s Strategy and Transformation Department, comes at a cost.
“Long hours, tough conditions and the constant threat of attacks are having a detrimental effect on their physical and mental health,” he says.
“We have a strong responsibility towards our colleagues.”
UZ, says Dul, provides financial, physical and psychological support for injured employees and relatives of those killed in action, through its “Iron Family” program. “We show them that, to us, they are important,” he adds.
To date, around 500 families have received assistance with priority given to those displaced from front line regions, according to UZ.
More than 10,000 UZ employees are currently serving in the armed forces; 573 have been killed and almost 1,500 injured since February 2022, the railway company says.
Ukrzaliznytsia’s Commitment to Accessibility and Support for Veterans
In addition to offering medical and psychological assistance teams for UZ workers affected by combat operations, Ukrzaliznytsia (UZ) is actively preparing for a future that includes an increasing number of disabled veterans. Accessibility improvement is a key focus in UZ’s modernization plan, endorsed by Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska.
Initiatives encompass passenger lifts at major stations, accessible toilets, modified passenger cars featuring accessible cabins, and specially trained attendants providing support for deaf passengers. Currently, UZ boasts 55 accessible passenger cars, with all new or modernized cars incorporating accessibility enhancements. Over 10,000 staff members have recently undergone additional training to better serve individuals with disabilities.
Yarema Dul emphasizes the broader impact of accessibility, stating, “Accessibility helps everyone, not just the disabled,” and highlights the need for support from international partners to establish contacts, share best practices, and acquire new equipment and skills.
Oleksandr Pertsovskyi, head of UZ’s Passenger Division, expressed to CNN Travel, “We’re not just fighting; we’re setting positive goals too. We are open for business, and we want people to know that. With many Ukrainian families settling in Poland and Germany, for example, they are looking to us to provide reliable, quality transport so that they can visit their homeland and their relatives. It’s a sign that the situation is changing; it’s safer, and they feel more comfortable about returning home.”
Ukrzaliznytsia (UZ) also holds a remarkably significant role in Ukraine’s cargo sector, playing a critical part in sustaining the country’s wartime economy and supporting war efforts. Yevhen Liaschenko, chairman of UZ’s management board, notes that rail transport constitutes 65% of the country’s freight traffic, a notable contrast to the EU average of 20%. Despite UZ’s cargo division facing substantial challenges since February 2022, Liaschenko emphasizes the stability of rail transport in Ukraine, stating, “It’s important for us to be a reliable partner for our people, our veterans, and the economy.”
As Ukrzaliznytsia (UZ) charts its course for the future, the focus increasingly turns westward. A bold $25 billion investment plan outlines the addition of 3,300 kilometers (2,050 miles) of new standard gauge lines integrated into the EU’s Trans-European Transport Network. Given Ukraine’s use of wider 1,520-millimeter tracks inherited from the Soviet Union, necessitating wheelset changes for trains crossing borders, this initiative aims to enhance connectivity with neighboring countries.
To complement this ambitious plan, an estimated $9 billion is deemed necessary for the repair and modernization of the existing UZ network, spanning 19,700 kilometers and ranking among the world’s longest. While the complete conversion of the network to the standard 1,435-millimeter gauge is deemed impractical, strategic upgrades on key international routes, particularly from western Ukrainian cities such as Lviv to Warsaw, Budapest, Prague, and Berlin, are envisioned to foster economic ties and establish sustainable inter-city links.
Beyond passenger benefits, the cargo division stands to gain significantly in the long term. The gauge difference currently hampers rail-based import and export operations, which are slow and costly. Rail was initially envisioned as Ukraine’s secret weapon to maintain its status as one of the world’s largest grain exporters when Black Sea ports faced blockades by the Russian navy. However, difficulties in addressing track gauge disparities and establishing priority corridors through Poland and Hungary to EU ports have led to a decline since 2021, as indicated by UZ figures.
Yevhen Liaschenko emphasizes UZ’s commitment to swift implementation of changes while envisioning a future that extends beyond wartime efforts
Even in the midst of war, normal life persists, and we are transitioning our focus from short-term emergency assistance to long-term improvements and modernization,” says Yevhen Liaschenko. “Our responsibility is to be a stable partner.”
Despite the challenges of the ongoing conflict, Ukrzaliznytsia (UZ) reports significant achievements in 2023, including the repair and renewal of 289 kilometers of track, reconstruction of 15 bridges, construction of 528 new freight cars, and the repair of approximately 9,000 others.
The international “railway family” is rallying to support their Ukrainian counterparts during this challenging time. Network Rail from Britain and Swiss Federal Railways are providing engineering support to rebuild damaged infrastructure. The Global Ukraine Rail Task Force (GURTF), established in 2022, is actively raising funds to assist Ukrainian rail workers and their families.
In January, GURTF handed over $135,000 to UZ management and labor union leaders in Kyiv, enabling the purchase of over 6,000 food packages containing essentials such as cooking oil, rice, pasta, and salt. These packages have been distributed to families displaced from front-line areas due to the conflict.
Andy Bagnall, CEO of UK rail lobby group Rail Partners, emphasizes the global railway community’s solidarity with Ukrainian railway workers. He notes that highlighting their achievements in challenging circumstances is a small contribution to something they experience every day.
Regardless of the developments on Ukraine’s battlefields in 2024, it is evident that the country’s railway personnel are not only surpassing their duty to keep the nation moving during the conflict, but they also have a forward-looking perspective focused on the aftermath of this tragic situation.
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