The people of Ukraine have been fighting Russian aggression for more than 18 months. The Ukrainian railways have played a crucial role in the defense and survival of the state. But how have they managed to do this under constant bombardment by Russian bombs and with shortages of almost everything? In this article, we take a look at what the brave men and women of Ukrainian Railways are doing to overcome these obstacles, and what network operators can learn from them.
A Bunker in a Railway Museum?
On a recent visit to the Railway Museum in Augsburg, Germany I saw something I had not expected there. In a railroad museum, you expect to see steam engines, railroad cars, technical exhibits, and lots of people with cameras. But what I saw in the museum came as a shock to me: It was a one-person bunker. It looks like a concrete phone booth. The German Reichsbahn bought these during World War II to protect their railroad workers. If a train crew or maintenance personnel were out on the street and the air sirens went off, a railroad worker could take cover in a one-person bunker like this. Just looking at this bunker gave me the creeps – can you imagine standing in a bunker with bombs exploding all around you and hoping that one of them would not hit your bunker directly? And despite all of this, the railroad workers continued to work and keep the railroad system running.
That was in the Second World War – but unfortunately war has come to Europe again, and once again the railway system is one of the main targets the enemy is trying to destroy. However, the Ukrainian Railway continues to operate, even fulfilling more tasks than before the outbreak of the war. How do the Ukrainian railway workers do it, and can we learn something from their experience?
A Railway Under Bombs
A country’s railway system is usually one of the backbones of its economy. The Ukrainian railway system is no different. But the days when a railway was the only efficient means of transportation, as in the 19th century, are long gone. Planes, private cars and trucks have taken many travelers and goods from the railways. But what happens when all this is gone in an instant and you are under constant bombardment from the enemy? This is the situation that the Ukrainian Railway under its head Oleksandr Kamyshin found itself in when Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
From the first day of the war, all passenger planes were grounded and the roads were clogged with cars of refugees trying to get out of the country. This meant that for millions of people, the railroad was the only way to get west, away from the front. On some days, nearly 200,000 people a day boarded the overcrowded trains .
At the same time, the Russian army tried to take control of the railroad system. They attempted to capture key rail junctions, which would have allowed them to block Ukrainian transports and bring in their own supplies. In order to achieve this goal, the Russians also tried to kill the chief managers of the Ukrainian railway, so that Mr. Kamyshin and his staff had to be constantly on the run, staying in one place for only a few hours at a time .
Despite all the efforts of the Russian army in the first days of the war, the Ukrainian railway system did not collapse, nor was it brought under the control of the enemy. The Ukrainian army skillfully defended the railway junctions. At the same time, the Ukrainian Railway employees kept the trains running. Most importantly, they stayed at their posts to allow others to escape and to keep supplies flowing. 33 railway workers were killed in the first month of the war, and many more were wounded .
Management kept morale high by constantly traveling around the country, talking to their crews and showing their presence.
Another important factor was the resilience of the network. Whenever a track was destroyed by Russian bombing, track crews were on their way to repair it. Local railroad managers were given a free hand to make decisions on the spot, so hierarchy did not get in the way of quick repairs. This was often very dangerous because of unexploded ordnance.
Trains traveled slowly, only 60 km/h instead of 160 km/h as before the war, so that conductors could see if they had damaged track ahead. And if a track was blocked due to bombing, an alternative route for the trains could be found, as the Ukrainian rail network is well meshed and detours are often possible.
A vast network can only function if all people can communicate with each other. Nowadays, this is often done via cellular networks, but even this network had been damaged by bombing. Luckily, the Ukrainian railways still have a closed-circuit telephone system that connects all their railway stations. This system could not be destroyed by bombs and served as the communications backbone in the early days of the war .
The Second Phase of the Railroad War
Thus, in the crucial first days of the war, the railroad system kept rolling, which in turn helped to hold the front against the Russian invaders.
Contrary to the expectations of many Western observers, the war did not end after a few days, but continued for more than a year and a half. During this time, the role of the railroad in Ukraine has evolved even further.
For one thing, the Russians are no longer trying to occupy the railroads, since they have proven incapable of doing so. Instead, they only try to disrupt them by constant bombardment. But the constant bombardment has failed to stop operations. For one thing, the Ukrainians are still repairing their equipment at breakneck speed. Even bridges that take months or years to build in peacetime are now being rebuilt in less than a month . On the other hand, the Ukrainians have begun to retake large sections of their railroads, such as those around Kharkiv and Kherson. As each town is recaptured, one of the first tasks is to reestablish the rail connection, clear mines, and repair the infrastructure. Then the trains will roll into the cities again .
Trains no longer have to carry refugees out of the country. Instead, many people are now returning on night trains, traveling across the country, even to towns close to the front lines, which are under constant threat of rocket and artillery fire. The windows of these trains are covered with black tape. The tape keeps the light in, making the trains harder for the enemy to see. But it also prevents the windows from shattering if something explodes near the train .
Not only Ukrainians use the trains now. The foreign heads of state, ministers and advisors that flock to Kyiv also travel by train. They often travel in special carriages or at least in special compartments. This is a revival of the private cars that kings and wealthy people used to have in the 19th century, but which have fallen out of fashion since the advent of the airplane.
Even more important is the role the railroads now play in transporting goods. They bring in Western military supplies and ship out grain, coal or iron. Previously, most of these goods were shipped through the Black Sea ports of Odessa, Mykolaiv and others. But these routes are now under constant attack by the Russian Navy. So alternative routes are needed to get exports going and bring in the much-needed dollars to keep the economy going. This is very challenging. Even though the railroad is predestined to be a bulk carrier, it is almost impossible to achieve a capacity that can rival that of large ocean-going vessels. For one thing, you need a lot of cars, many more than were available. And even if you had all the cars, you couldn’t just send them to ports outside the country, because all the surrounding countries use standard gauge railroads, while Ukraine has a broad gauge railroad. So you either have to reload the shipment onto other cars at the border or change the bogies. But this only gets you so far, because the Ukrainian wagons need a wider gauge than in Western Europe, so they will not fit through tunnels and other infrastructure. Transloading means you need even more cars. Then there is the problem that you need facilities in the destination ports, such as Hamburg, to transfer the grain from rail to ship. These facilities have yet to be built.
Some progress has been made, however, as some old broad-gauge railroads to Romania and Moldova have been reopened and can now carry Ukrainian grain to ports on the Danube.
Lessons from the Ukrainian Railway
Ukraine is a country at war. While we all hope that the war will not spread further and that it will end soon, there are already some lessons to be learned from the experiences and creative solutions that the Ukrainian railway has found to keep the trains rolling.
One lesson is that it is crucial not to rely on a single mode of transportation. In special circumstances, one or more modes of transportation may be out of service. Even without war, these things can happen. After the eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, air travel in Europe was grounded for several days. People took trains instead wherever possible.
Heavy draughts can mean that river barges can no longer travel, which means that coal, grain and other bulk goods have to be shipped by train again.
Climate change means that extreme conditions may occur more frequently in the future, so it is important to think about this when designing transportation systems. Keep in mind that the loss of one mode of transportation may cause an unexpected spike in demand. Then another mode will have to pick up the slack.
Another lesson we can learn is that a network must be redundant. If the network is critical to the survival of the economy or the state, then it must allow for several different routes between key points. Unexpected disruptions happen. Floods can destroy bridges. Hackers can disrupt pipelines. An accident can block a route for days.
We must also remember that communications are absolutely critical. They have to work, even in a disaster. German authorities learned this the hard way during the flooding of the Ahr valley in 2021, when the mobile phone network was destroyed by the water. It is now being rebuilt to rely more on satellite communications to be more resilient in case of the next flood (see heise.de).
Last but not least, compatibility is of the utmost importance. Ukrainian exports are severely hampered by the fact that their railways use a different gauge. If they had the same gauge as the rest of Europe, trains could run without problems, and they could also buy surplus material from the West. All this because the Russian Empire decided to have a 5-foot gauge instead, before the European networks were connected in the 1850s, and by then it was too late . This decision still has effects almost 200 years later, because these interfaces are hard to change (see also my other article on this topic).
What can we learn from the brave Ukrainian railroad workers?
First of all, in order to survive in a war or disaster, you need a means of transportation that is resilient and not easily disrupted by the enemy. How can you do that under constant bombardment? First, you need a network that has redundancies, so you can send your trains another way if one line is damaged. Second, you need to repair damage as quickly as possible, even if it involves difficult things like bridges. And finally, you need to have communications that work under extreme conditions.
But the most resilient network is nothing without the people who operate it. You need people who are dedicated, hardworking, resourceful, and above all, very, very brave. Like the men and women of Ukrainian Railways.