KYIV, Ukraine (28 April) — The passenger train from Kyiv to Sumy was running Thursday morning with just a six-minute delay. The 200-mile route crosses territory scarred by more than two months of ground battles and aerial bombardment since Russia’s invasion began. Despite what appear to be concerted efforts by the Russian military this week to disable the vital Ukrainian rail network, this journey and dozens of others are providing a crucial means of military support and civilian escape through the country.
Rail also acts as a symbol of Ukraine’s defiance and the limits of Russia’s military power. After cities and towns were reduced to rubble, with thousands killed, the trains are still running.
Ukraine has one of the largest rail networks in the world, with 12,400 miles of track. Rail is one of the country’s largest employers, with more than 260,000 staff members. Before the war, it played a minor role in Ukraine’s agriculture and mining industries, but it has become a crutch for commodity industries as Russia maintains a blockade on the Black Sea. The movement of grain now is essential to maintain the country’s reputation as “Europe’s breadbasket.”
But the trains are no longer just for commodities and long journeys, as the network now moves military ordnance, refugees and humanitarian aid. Increasingly, it is transporting families back to areas previously held by Russian troops. It delivers foreign leaders, too: Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Kyiv on Sunday, arriving by train from Poland, as have several other Western officials.
Comment: Several commenters here took exception to my statement that the trains of Ukraine are still running. Well, they are running and running surprisingly well. The Ukrainian Railway (UZ) partnered with Deutsche Bahn (DB) two years ago to up their game. That explains a lot. In six years of living in Germany, I gained immense respect for DB. I depended on it for operations and used it in my daily life. European rail in general is head and shoulders about the US rail system and the UZ is striving to become an integral part of that European rail system. The UZ is massive, massive by itself and of massive importance in Ukraine. Here’s some statistics from 2020:
- Main track running length – 19,787 km
- Electrified track – 9,319 km
- Number of railway stations – 1,402
- Number of freight (goods) wagons – 85,200
- Number of passenger cars – 3,883 (in active operation – 2,681)
- Number of locomotives – 1,944 (electric – 1,627, diesel – 301)
- Average number of employees – 266,300 people.
- Passengers carried (2019) – 149.6 million.
- Cargo transportation (2019) – 312.4 million tons.
To give an idea of their ability to repair quickly, here’s a quote from Oleksandr Kamyshin, the head of UZ from 15 April.
“As soon as our troops regain control of the cities, we in the railways rush to restore rail connections to these cities. This is important for passenger transport, for the delivery of humanitarian aid, and for the resumption of cargo operations. The conquered cities must return to normal life and work as soon as possible.“
“One week ago, the Minister of Infrastructure Kubrakov set us the task of restoring the railway connection with Chernihiv. Today we traveled with the team on the first train Kyiv-Chernihiv. Within a week, the railway infrastructure team repaired numerous damage to the track, catenary, and cities. The most difficult task was to restore the bridge. They worked clearly and fulfilled the task of the Minister on time.”
The refugees got out. Quite a feat, but I see no reason for the Russians to interfere with that. Humanitarian supplies are also getting in. Even here, Russia would be foolish to interfere with that. At first, I would think Russia would want to keep all that rail infrastructure intact. They were planning on a swift victory, a change of government and being back to a working Ukraine firmly within Moscow’s sphere of influence long before today.
But now those trains are bringing tanks, artillery, ammunition and troops to the front lines. Just today there are photos of those Polish supplied T-72s already near the Donbas front. The UZ did that. Surely the Russians want to stop that flow. They try, but it seems a half-assed effort. They lack full air superiority which would allow their aircraft to roam the rail lines taking out every train they come across. Their precision rockets and missiles are either not precise enough or available in enough numbers, or both, to do the job. Their adaptive targeting is certainly not up to snuff. Either the Russians lack the capability to overwhelm the UZ’s recuperative powers or they are just flat incompetent. Hell of a choice.