‘Iron People’: How Ukraine’s ‘second army’ has united a country under siege

Click to play video: 'The ‘Iron People’: How Ukraine’s rail workers are keeping the country on track'

The ‘Iron Individuals’: How Ukraine’s rail staff are conserving the country on monitor

After a 12 months of loss of life, destruction and a resistance few anticipated, Ukraine remains to be steaming ahead, a country balanced on two skinny iron rails.

In some ways, the women and men of Ukrainian Railways are holding the country collectively, exemplifying the energy and resilience of a folks under assault.


“I think about us as surgeons who function on a physique, stitching it collectively,” says Lilia Semenova, the supervisor of a practice crew. “We sew this half, and that half … and the individual survives.”

World’s The New Actuality spoke to many staff throughout the country’s huge rail community, from executives, to station managers, to coach managers, to conductors and to trace restore crews. All of them say that regardless of fixed shelling, worry and tragedy, they by no means thought-about abandoning their posts.

“Each journey, I had a feeling that I may not come again,” says Semenova, describing the early weeks of Russia’s invasion. “It was scary, however there was no different method. I couldn’t pressure myself to sit down at residence and do nothing on this state of affairs.”

“Our households are anxious, our mates are anxious for us,” says practice driver Roman Shapoval. “And we’re anxious for the passengers that we supply within the practice. Nicely, somebody has to do that job, so we’re doing it.”

Practice driver Roman Shapoval on a journey from Kharkiv to Slatyne.

Dmitry Malik for World Information

Shapoval operates trains within the Kharkiv area, and has continuously encountered hazard close to the Russian border.

That’s the place Serhii Zelentsov runs a crew repairing tracks broken by Russian shelling. A lot of the realm has been devastated. However Zelentsov is unequivocal:

“There was not a single thought to go away.”

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Ukraine Railways, or Ukrzaliznytsia, is the only largest employer within the country, with some 230,000 staff. Their braveness has earned them the nickname “Iron Individuals.” Their nearly army dedication to obligation has made them Ukraine’s second military. The overall of that military is the corporate’s CEO, Oleksandr Kamyshin.

“Talking about head rely, we’re similar to the military. And talking about self-discipline, we [have] the identical self-discipline. And we by no means stopped. We stored operating from the primary day, from the primary hour of the battle.”


Because the chief, Kamyshin needed that sense of obligation to filter all through the group, so he imposed a code for himself and his fellow executives:

“We’ve a rule. We by no means ship our folks the place we’re not able to go ourselves. We go to the most popular locations to test the way it’s happening there to make choices, having boots on the bottom. And that helps our folks on the bottom to really feel that they’re doing one thing necessary. And if me and my staff are coming to them, they really feel safer. “

Ukrainian Railways CEO Oleksandr Kamyshin with monitor restore crews.

Ukrainian Railways

That is a lot completely different than the job Kamyshin had in thoughts when he was employed as CEO, six months earlier than the Russian invasion.

“After I stepped on this job, I undoubtedly didn’t count on this sort of battle,” he says.

Kamyshsin’s earlier expertise was managing investments in agriculture and media, and he was tasked with modernizing Ukraine’s Soviet-era rail system. That every one modified when Russia invaded. The directions from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy have been easy:

“Go and do your job to make the system run,” Kamyshin says.

Ukrzaliznytsia was very important to the economic system earlier than the invasion. Since then, rail traces have turn into lifelines.

Ukrainian Railways practice on the transfer at sundown.

Ukrainian Railways

Trains carried thousands and thousands of civilians away from the preventing, and despatched meals, water, medical provides and troops into sizzling zones. The rail community can be the primary driver of the economic system. Ukraine is a web exporter of iron, metal, grains and different agricultural merchandise. Russia was one in every of its greatest commerce companions. Trains have been essential to rerouting shipments to different ports in Europe.

Trains have additionally turn into central to Ukraine’s public relations technique, which has been dubbed “iron diplomacy.” Visiting celebrities embody Sean Penn, Angelina Jolie and David Letterman. Due to the closed air house, all international politicians have needed to journey out and in of Ukraine on trains, together with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and the leaders of France, Germany and Italy. The most recent, simply this week, was U.S. President Joe Biden. Kamyshin documented the visit on Twitter, calling the practice carrying the Commander in Chief #RailForceOne.

U.S. President Joe Biden walks alongside the practice platform throughout a go to to fulfill with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv.

Evan Vucci / Getty Pictures

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Because the world’s sixth-largest passenger rail system, using folks in each nook of the country, Ukrainian rail staff have additionally turn into a key supply of army intelligence.

With business air site visitors grounded, and street journey harmful or unimaginable, conserving the trains transferring was abruptly, actually, a matter of life and loss of life. Kamyshin says 97 per cent of trains have arrived on time. He’s energetic on social media, typically utilizing the hashtag #keeprunning.

At instances, sticking to that motto has been painful.

“We pay the very best value once we lose our folks and once they lose their well being. In order that’s the heaviest price of this battle for us. However in the meantime, we maintain standing. And we’ll face up to.”

Kamyshin says greater than 300 staff have been killed throughout the battle, and lots of extra injured. Many are those that laid down their railway instruments and picked up weapons to hitch the army resistance. However that doesn’t make the lack of colleagues any simpler, nor the hazard to staff any much less actual.

A person mourns the victims of a Russian assault on Kramatorsk station.

Andrea Carrubba / Getty Pictures

For a time, the Kremlin didn’t assault important infrastructure. Moscow deliberate to make use of rail traces as provide traces when its military pushed deeper into Ukrainian territories, so it didn’t goal the system. However when it turned clear Ukraine’s defence was stronger than anticipated and its rail infrastructure was important to that defence, the battle moved into a completely different part. Trains, tracks, stations and staff have been now truthful sport.

“I haven’t seen such tears in my life. A sea, an ocean,” Semenova says.

She narrowly prevented the lethal shelling of Kramatorsk station final April that killed greater than 50 folks. She was on an evacuation practice filled with 5,000 folks, however needed to go away 10,000 extra behind on the platform. Hours later, the station was shelled.

“I imagine angels carried us of their arms on that day,” Semenova says.

Practice supervisor Lilia Semenova throughout a second of reflection.

Dmitry Sanin for World Information

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After Kramatorsk, Semenova stored going to work, helming evacuation trains throughout battlefields in jap Ukraine for a month straight, with out a day without work. However she’s hardly the one rail employee who has skilled the fires of battle.

In Might, the practice station in Slatyne, 30 kilometres north of Kharkiv, was hit with heavy shelling. The constructing was gutted. Solely its partitions nonetheless stand. On the skin, the phrases “welcome to hell” are scrawled in graffiti.

“Welcome to Hell” – graffiti written on the partitions of Slatyne Station, destroyed by Russian shelling.

Dmitry Malik for World Information

There’s additionally a plaque on the station wall, figuring out it as a part of the Southern Railway. Slatyne is definitely northeastern Ukraine, however the infrastructure was constructed and rebuilt by the Russians, beginning within the late 1800s. Tracks have been destroyed by battle and rebuilt a number of instances by the Soviet Union all through the twentieth century — however Ukraine was all the time within the southern a part of the centrally managed empire.

Many points of the outdated, sprawling community have been inefficient in a trendy economic system, and set to be up to date under Kamyshin’s management.

There have been too many traces, the worker rolls have been bloated, and a part of the system ran on diesel as an alternative of electrical energy. However, as of Feb. 24, 2022, all these points abruptly turned advantageous. Trains may very well be rerouted endlessly on numerous traces to evacuate folks and ship provides; there have been all the time loads of folks to run trains and restore injury; and energy couldn’t be knocked out by hanging electrical producing stations.

Ukrainian Railways CEO Oleksandr Kamyshin at Kyiv Central Station.

Dmitry Sanin for World Information

Communications additionally turned swift and environment friendly. Each morning, Kamyshin speaks with the heads of the corporate’s six regional branches through a Soviet-era closed communication system. He gathers info and delivers orders. Selections are made rapidly, with a minimal of debate.

“Making a resolution was extra necessary than making the best resolution,” Kamyshin says. “It was worse not making a resolution reasonably than making the fallacious resolution as a result of the fallacious resolution, it’s one thing you possibly can appropriate and make a higher resolution. However not making a resolution — it’s a catastrophe.”

Click to play video: 'Ukrainian Railways proves unstoppable during Russia’s war'

Ukrainian Railways proves unstoppable throughout Russia’s battle

At simply 38 years of age, Kamyshin is unequivocally the “new guard” within the Ukrainian railway community. However there is no such thing as a query who’s in cost. When he requested Leonid Loboyko come out of retirement to handle the country’s giant rail hub in Kyiv, Loboyko agreed to assist instantly.

“He discovered me, made me return, and gave me new life. I’m grateful,” Loboyko says. “The administration handles every part. It’s powerful, there’s no assist, however they make the best choices and select the best course.”

Loboyko began working within the railway system in 1974, throughout the Chilly Conflict period of the Soviet empire. He labored his method as much as senior administration earlier than retiring a few years in the past.

“I by no means thought I might return,” he says incredulously.

He reveals us round Kyiv station, stating evacuation centres and warming stoves if the ability is out. Starlink connectivity and charging stations for cell telephones. Play centres for youngsters. Stations have turn into protected havens within the occasion civilians should flee assaults with nowhere to go.

Kyiv station supervisor Leonid Loboyko factors out provides donated by Unicef for the consolation of evacuees.

Dmitry Sanin for World Information

Loboyko spent a lot of his profession working with Russians earlier than Ukraine gained its independence. The expertise of returning to work and serving to shield Ukrainians has modified him, particularly his views on Russians he as soon as labored alongside.

“I’ve a fully completely different opinion about these folks,” he says. “I don’t know if we are able to ever restore {our relationships}.

“The Russian Ministry of Homicide” is what Yurii Philippov calls the Kremlin.

Philippov is the director of Ukrzaliznytsia’s carriage restore facility in Kyiv. Russia hit the power with 5 missiles early within the morning of June 5, 2022. Russia claimed it was focusing on army automobiles being housed on the manufacturing unit.

Injury from a Russian missile assault on the carriage restore plant in Kyiv.

Dmitry Sanin for World Information

Kamyshin shot again on Twitter. “That’s (a) lie. We don’t have any army equipment on our manufacturing unit. Solely freight railcars that assist us export grain and iron ore.”

“They might as properly declare that we housed Martians,” Philippov says tersely.

He believes Russians have been focusing on civilians to trigger panic. However it didn’t work. He says after the bombing, rail staff from close by crops got here to assist clear up the injury.

“This was the brotherhood, and it exists. We attempt to assist one another in onerous conditions.”

To name the battle a ‘onerous state of affairs’ is an understatement of epic proportions. NATO estimates at the least 30,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed, and greater than 100,000 troopers have been killed or injured.

A father says goodbye to his spouse and little one at Kyiv Central Station.

Emilio Morenatti / Related Press

Hundreds of thousands of households have been separated, together with Oleksandr Kamyshin’s. He despatched his spouse and two sons out of the country final 12 months.

“That’s the very best value I’m personally paying for this battle. Not seeing my boys. I’ve acquired two boys. I’ve acquired two sons. I actually miss them.”

The stoic finance man, turned rail reformer, turned wartime chief, doesn’t seem to be the crying kind, however talking of his sons, and his staff, he lets his guard down for simply a second.

“This battle made me rather more emotional than I used to be earlier than,” he says. “Earlier than this battle, I cried as soon as each two years. Now I cry as soon as a month. There are some matters that set off me.”

A type of matters is the braveness of rail staff.

“I all the time shake their hand and say one thing like, Thanks for what you do. And you already know what they are saying? They often say, ‘Come on, we’re simply doing what we’ve got to do. We’re simply doing our job.’”

Kamyshin has typically mentioned when Ukrainian troopers retake territory from the Russians, the tanks go in first, adopted by the trains. Re-establishing service is vital to restoring confidence in Ukrainians.

Serhii Lukhanin on the job, repairing broken tracks close to Prudyanka, Ukraine.

Dmitry Malik for World Information

“The locals have been telling us that they wouldn’t return right here,” says monitor restore employee Serhii Lukhanin.

He’s been working with the crew repairing broken tracks close to Prudyanka, a area near the border that was hammered by Russian bombs for six months final 12 months.

“However once they noticed the monitor repairmen work, together with suppliers, they realized that they’ll return. We impressed them with hope,” he says.

No one blames those that have left the country, however rail staff know they’re key to defending their country. They aren’t about to surrender.

“Leaving our locations, the place we labored and lived? We by no means thought of it,” Lukhanin says.

“Our household, my colleagues have by no means thought of it. In any case, it’s our land, our houses.”

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