The “men of iron” of the Ukrainian railroad saved more than 4 million lives during the great evacuation in the winter and spring 2022, including 1 million children. It was one of the largest and most extraordinary mass movements of people in recent European history. They even made space for 120,000 pets as they kept the railway running as a vital link in the fight against Russian imperialism.
“In all this time I haven’t heard one worker or brigade say they refuse to go east or south”, said Olexandr Shevchenko, deputy head of Ukrzaliznytsia, Ukraine’s national rail company. That commitment has come at a high price. The war has so far claimed the lives of 353 rail workers and a further 819 have suffered severe injuries while on duty.
Olena Frantsuzova, who worked as Chief Executive of Mariupol railway station through most of the occupation and barely made it out alive, paid tribute to her colleague Olena Brusenko, who ran Volnovakha station and was killed in an attack. When the station was hit by a Russian rocket, she rushed to put out the resulting fire, Frantsuzova said. Her attitude was “this is my station, how can I abandon it?” She was later buried in a mass grave.
Drivers, trackmen, conductors, and energy workers all made it clear they would work to save every life, Olexandr Shevchenko said. This often meant working around the clock to deliver people to safety.
He recounts the story of a colleague who arrived on a train with the capacity for 1,500 people and found more than 5,000 waiting at one station, including 3,000 children. He took the first group and immediately turned around to repeat the journey. This commitment to “continue coming back until you save everyone” led to the rescue of hundreds of thousands more people, Shevchenko said.
As the full-scale invasion unfolded, the railroad became the most important transport artery in the country and the first response service for saving lives. Its peacetime activities were soon supplemented by new tasks, like transporting the wounded, evacuating front-line cities, delivering troops and equipment to the front, and moving mail and humanitarian aid.
For many train conductors, the psychological impact was severe. Their passengers, “mostly women and children, were going practically nowhere, escaping the active war zone,” Shevchenko said. “They might no longer have a home, they may have already lost someone.”
The rail workers were often under the same stress as the passengers. Some were residents of the regions being evacuated, others were deprived of their loved ones and their property. Traveling constantly for 30 days, many no longer had homes to go to. They lived on the trains.
The company worked to maintain the psychological well-being of its conductors, who ensured the safety of those who did make it onto the trains, Shevchenko said. Rail workers have been vital to the war effort and rotation is necessary on every frontline.
The mental state of passengers on the evacuation trains wasn’t helped by not knowing where they were going. “We didn’t disclose the direction even at the time of boarding,” Shevchenko said. “There was no such thing as a regular train, our evacuation trains simply went west, and we determined the final destination on the way there.”
During attacks, the train lights were turned off and the windows closed as tightly packed passengers waited in complete darkness for the all-clear.
Trains for 700 sometimes carried 3,000 passengers. “Children rode on food carts, in bathrooms, on luggage shelves, on tables,” Shevchenko said. Sometimes the conductor “blocked the carriage with his body, locking the door and standing the whole time, because it was no longer possible to get further into the carriage.”
Thanks to the “shaggy conductor”, a dog named Nicole, one of the most peaceful evacuation routes for both passengers and crew was the one from Pokrovsk. Children played with the dog throughout the trip, allowing the team to get on with their work.
There are now children’s rooms in train stations and the company is working on introducing family-oriented carriages. UNICEF provided coloring books on trains and worked with the railway company to dispatch a special holiday service to bring festive performances and gifts to children near the frontlines.
Ukrzaliznytsia is also working to improve the accessibility of its trains. Many Ukrainian services have long been inaccessible for people with disabilities, and in a country, at war this is clearly unacceptable. As more and more soldiers and civilians suffer injuries resulting in amputation and other mobility-limiting issues, the company says it is working to implement solutions to make travel as inclusive and safe as possible.
Senior management has kept on the move to keep close to its most important activities. The team spent the first month of the full-scale invasion aboard the “Motrysa” command train, traveling to evacuation hotspots and coordinating services.
“You cannot control the actions of your people on the front lines remotely, from Kyiv or another city,” Shevchenko said. There has also been close communication with security and intelligence services to ensure “the highest possible quality and carefree delivery of our passengers from point A to point B,” he said.
As well as helping retake occupied territory, the railway has played a crucial role once towns and cities are liberated, entering them as quickly as possible after the military and demining units. Railway stations become gathering points for residents, providing food, electricity, and warmth — centers of civilization in the midst of the humanitarian crises the Russian soldiers leave behind. For example, in Kherson, the railway station was the first building in town with electricity, signaling the return of civilization.
The “Iron diplomacy” program, under which foreign dignitaries, including US President Joe Biden, traveled into the country, has added to the quality of the company’s services for all passengers, Shevchenko said. Ukrzaliznytsia is now implementing innovations to offer VIP passenger comfort for ordinary customers. If you travel to the frontline area by train, you can now order six types of natural herbal tea or filter coffee. “War is never an excuse.”
Kateryna Panasiuk is an author and journalist studying politics at the Ukrainian Catholic University. When war came to Ukraine, she set up a volunteer project to collect and share the stories of Ukrainians affected by the war.
Mykyta Vorobiov is a freelance journalist studying politics at the Ukrainian Catholic University. Forced to leave Kyiv when war broke out, he has since combined work at Lviv City Council with coordinating a journalism project and editing articles.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.