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Russian soldiers' bodies being loaded into a refrigerator car. Kyiv, May 13, 2022

‘We treat the Russian dead better than they treat living Ukrainians’ An interview with the head of Ukrainian Railways, the backbone of Ukraine's evacuation efforts

Source: Meduza
Russian soldiers' bodies being loaded into a refrigerator car. Kyiv, May 13, 2022
Russian soldiers' bodies being loaded into a refrigerator car. Kyiv, May 13, 2022
Efrem Lukatsky / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Before Russia launched its full-scale war against Ukraine, Ukraine’s state railroad company, Ukrainian Railways, was often criticized for being ineffective and suspected of corruption. Now, Ukrainian Railways is providing shelter for millions of refugees, transporting foreign leaders on official visits to Kyiv, and delivering humanitarian and military cargo to towns throughout Ukraine. Even Russian propagandists have marveled at the efficiency with which the company has mobilized its railroads. Meduza spoke to Ukrainian Railways head Oleksandr Kamyshin about the changes the company has made since the start of the war, the fight against Russian collaborators in the company, and the task of storing Russian soldiers’ bodies in refrigerator cars.

Oleksandr Kamyshin, head of Ukrainian Railways
Ukrinform / Shutterstock / Vida Press

— How did the Ukrainian rail system work before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine?

— We fought for every ton of cargo, and for the first time in ten years, we’d recently seen an increase in cargo traffic — both compared to COVID-19 times and compared to pre-pandemic 2019. And then we raised freight tariffs. Our critics said the business community was against the tariff increase, but from January to January, we saw a rise in cargo traffic: 58%.

We started building new cars. We outfitted 70 kilometers (43 miles) of track with electricity and replaced our diesel locomotives with electric ones. In the past eight years, we’ve electrified three kilometers (under two miles) a year, but now we’ve done 20 times more than that.

— What changed after the invasion?

— We have some new responsibilities. For example, before the war, we didn’t store the bodies of Russian soldiers.

We currently have about 270 Russian soldiers in our refrigerator cars in various cities where there’s active fighting going on. The Russians are leaving their own guys on the battlefield, and we’re burning about 100 liters of diesel fuel every day to store the bodies, to maintain the temperature in the refrigerators. If the Russians don’t want their soldiers’ bodies, we can’t just take them and throw them away. We treat dead Russians better than they treat living Ukrainians.

We’re waiting for the Russian authorities, Russian mothers, to retrieve the bodies. But they haven’t requested them. Maybe because of Russia’s information fiasco, a lot of mothers don’t even know their children went to war. We’re willing to provide free tickets for Russian mothers to come pick up their children’s bodies. We’ll do everything for free: transport them here and back, and give up the body. We don’t need another country’s dead.

As for other changes, we’ve worked with Doctors Without Borders to launch two trains for injured civilians. One of them has a separate car with an oxygen generator and other cars for intensive care. It’s a pretty good hospital train; we built it in our own plants, in Ukrainian Railways facilities. Doctors Without Borders gave us a technical task, we were responsible for practically all of the equipment — and these trains are already operative.

We launched another initiative with the organization World Central Kitchen, an organization that collects money in the West and distributes it to Ukrainian restaurants so that they can feed people in Ukraine for free. They started giving out food in our train stations, and now they’re helping distribute it in the hot spots that still don’t have decent infrastructure and where people don’t have access to hot meals.

For example, when our passenger trains were experiencing delays due to active shelling, we gave free food to passengers whose trains were more than two hours late. We provided more than 7,000 meals a day throughout the country.

In terms of commercial traffic, our volume fell to one-fifth of what it had previously been for the first time. While before the war we were transporting 700,000 tons of cargo a day, that fell to 150,000 in the initial days of the war. We finished March with 257,000 tons of cargo a day and April with 296,000. In May, it will be more than 300,000. We’re restoring our traffic, and we’re currently at 40% of our pre-war volume.

— It was reported that Ukrainian Railways has lost control of 10% of its infrastructure.

— Of course some of our depots, tracks, and stations are on occupied territory. But as soon as Ukrainian troops beat the Russians back, we’ll return and restore everything.

— Have you assessed the damage?

— Of course. Ukrainian Railways is a business. Each day, we use international methods to estimate the direct damage, meaning destruction; indirect damage, including payments to the families of slain railroad workers, the rising costs of fuel and other expendable materials; and finally, lost profits. The final calculation won’t be possible until the war is over. After the victory, we plan to claim compensation from the Russian Federation in international courts.

Smoke from shells dropped over a railway station. Lyman, April 28, 2022
Jorge Silva / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

— Is the confiscation of over 3,000 Russian train cars an attempt to give compensation for the damage Russia has inflicted?

— The Verkhovna Rada passed a law allowing the forced confiscation of Russian assets. We’re following the procedure laid out in the law. Ukrainian Railways has done the first step: collecting information and submitting lists. The next step is for the authorities to get involved. We’re a law-abiding company; we comply with the law. These wagons will be given to us because we’re the state railroad transportation operator.

— How many employees have you lost due to layoffs, the mobilization, and shelling?

— 234,000 people work for us. Since the invasion began, about 7,300 of our employees have joined the war, 141 have been killed, and 197 have been injured.

But we’re still fully staffed. We do have people who aren’t working at full capacity for the time being, but we’re keeping them on our staff and paying them on time and in full. We’re a state company; our salaries are rather low, but we greatly respect our employees, and we guarantee them stable work and a stable salary. During wartime, stability is very important.

— How do you have the money to pay so many people if traffic has fallen to 40 percent of prewar levels?

— The government gives us support from the state budget, plus, as a state company, we perform extra tasks the authorities give us. For example, we evacuate people from areas affected by Russian shelling. We’ve evacuated almost four million people from central, southern, and eastern Ukraine to the west of the country, and about 600 thousand people to neighboring countries. The state pays us for this. We transport humanitarian cargo back for free.

— How has your own work changed since the war broke out?

— It’s just like the life of every Ukrainian — since day one, I’ve been working 24/7. We initiated the reopening of a number of factories in order to restore the traffic that was shut down after Russia attacked. Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov, Deputy Prime Minister Yulia Svyrydenko, and I traveled as a team to various railway plants; the three of us had at least five meetings in Ukraine’s regions. We asked the companies’ owners, the factory heads, and the metallurgical plants to resume their work, to start running again, and to send cargo. Because that provides work for us. It provides taxes for the country, paychecks for locals, and much-needed tons of cargo for the railroad.

— Did the business owners really not want to resume working and earn money?

— The businesses didn’t understand how to restructure their logistics and update their work. They included [the steel companies] ArcelorMittal Kryvyi Rih and Zaporizhstal. We helped them reconfigure the way they handled raw materials and finished products. Ultimately, we were asked to help launch both facilities. It was a big honor for both me and the team. Because both facilities had been working nonstop for 75 years. The last time they stopped working was during the Second World War; this was only the second time. They didn’t work for about a month.

— As far as I understand, you used to work out of your office in Kyiv, but now you’re constantly on the road. For instance, you and I are talking in Lviv. How many trips do you take each month?

— Quite a few. On the most active days, it’s important for me to be in the hot spots. We would go there and be with the local team. Being there helped me understand the situation, and I think my presence helped the team. Since the war began, I’ve been in Kharkiv, Dnipro, and Odessa over ten times, and I’ve been in Kramatorsk, Lyman, and Sloviansk more than five.

It was only scary the first few times. The first time you go to Kharkiv, it’s scary; the eighth time, you’re used to it.

— Is there some kind of staff car for the head of Ukrainian Railways to ride in?

— No, we travel on whatever’s available. Sometimes it's a motrice [a self-powered railroad car], sometimes it’s a heated freight car, and sometimes it’s the driver’s cab.

— Ukrainian Railways has faced criticism in the past for corruption. Have those accusations gone away during the war or not?

— This entire time, I’ve felt ashamed of several of our employees. There were two conductors who accepted bribes and allowed people to cut forward in an evacuation line. And there were two employees who got caught stealing fuel.

But we’re the biggest company in the country, the largest employer. 234,000 people work for us. And for every ten bad stories like this, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of cases of people acting like heroes. We have an internal program called Iron Heroes where we recognize these stories. These people go above and beyond. They’ve gotten people out from under attacks. They’ve restored infrastructure in record time and under fire. They’ve fed a huge number of passengers with food that they cooked themselves.

— In April, the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) caught four railway workers collaborating with Russia. How were they exposed?

— This is part of the work we do together with [law enforcement] agencies. Inside the company, we conduct regular screening procedures and report suspicious employees to the investigative authorities for them to confirm. In this case, people were giving information to the enemy. Yes, it’s unfortunate that those kinds of people are out there, but once again, that’s only a few of our 234,000 employees.

— About evacuation. How does it work? How did you manage to transport four million people?

— At our peak, we had 192,000 passengers a day. Some stations were sending 70,000 a day, and others were receiving 70,000 a day. The entire team did marvelous work; they truly showed themselves to be a capable military organization.

— What did this all look like from a passenger’s perspective?

— The most important thing is to get to the station. There, you’ll be given hot tea and a hot meal. You can access medical support, medication, and psychological assistance. And by the end of the day, you’ll be sent to western Ukraine, where it’s safer.

— Are the evacuations still ongoing?

— They’re wrapping up. Right now, we have one evacuation train from Pokrovsk in the Donetsk region to Lviv. 400 people took that train today; yesterday, it was 400. There have been days when we’ve only had 39 people on that route. Right now, there’s a new surge, because there’s intense fighting going on in the Donbas. Later on, if there’s a need, we’ll set up evacuation trains at a moment’s notice. We’ve become very flexible.

A train evacuating people from Pokrov. Donetsk region, May 24, 2022
Carlos Barria / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA
Evacuation train. Pokrovsk, Donetsk region. May 24, 2022
Carlos Barria / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

— The trains going east to west are full of people. What do you transport on the way back?

— The volunteers organized very quickly; they load the trains up with humanitarian aid. In the passenger trains alone, we’ve transported more than 10,000 tons of aid.

Today, we’re more focused on our cargo trains. More than 5,000 cargo trains have carried humanitarian aid from the west to the east. Half of that was food, and the rest was medication, clothes, baby food, and hygiene supplies.

In one of the stations, I heard a complaint from the director that children were taking toys [that volunteers had brought]. We immediately organized a large shipment of toys to our stations and asked children to choose toys to take home. For a child leaving home, the chance to pick out a toy is just a small comfort we provide.

— Ukrainian Railways has also turned into a diplomatic express service for many of Kyiv’s foreign guests. Why are they taking trains instead of cars?

— We have a program called Iron Diplomacy for foreign politicians, celebrities, and businessmen. We’ve transported a lot of these people safely to and from Kyiv. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, presidents and prime ministers from many other countries like Poland, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, and Spain — quite a few politicians. As well as celebrities, such as Bono from U2.

— Do you have any kind of special armored cars for them?

— They travel in regular, decent cars; we haven’t outfitted them with anything special. These people are traveling to Ukraine during wartime to show their support for Ukraine. As for security, I’m not going to reveal any of our secrets. Passenger safety is our number one priority.

— Does Ukrainian Railways transport foreign weapons to the front?

— I can’t comment on that.

— Can you at least say yes or no?

— We transport 30,000 passengers a day. We transport humanitarian aid. In my view, that’s the most important thing; that’s what we focus on. Cargo traffic is inseparable from our country’s economy.

— Have there been any cases where passenger trains have been targeted by shelling?

— Our stations and passenger trains are shelled constantly. We’ve had employees be killed from shells hitting passenger trains. In my view, attacking passenger trains or train stations goes beyond any rules or laws of warfare.

We’re taking every measure to reduce the number of victims. I can’t reveal all the nuances, but we’ve sacrificed both speed and comfort in the name of safety.

For example, during evacuations, we’ve slowed down our trains to minimize the number of victims in case of a derailment. We had one case when the tracks under the train were compromised, but it resulted in zero victims. We’ve sacrificed comfort in order to evacuate people. We’ve allowed people to board without tickets, and we’ve allowed two to three times more people than usual on our trains.

Russian troops are intentionally destroying our railroad infrastructure in order to stop train service. But we just repair it and continue working according to schedule. And that’s what we’ll continue doing.

A woman comforts her son after arriving at an evacuation point in Zaporizhzhia. April 17, 2022
Ed Jones / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

— There’s a bottleneck between Ukraine and Europe — the tracks have different width. For readers who don’t know, can you explain how this happened?

— Historically, we were part of the Soviet Union, where tracks were 1,520 millimeters wide. But this war has shown who our true brothers are, and what direction we need to move in. In Europe, the tracks are 1,435 millimeters wide. As a result, we’re working on narrowing our track gauge, which will allow us to integrate into Europe more quickly. We’re starting the narrow gauge at the border, and we’ll develop it inward from there. We’ll no longer be connected to Russia.

— What difficulties does the difference in track width cause?

— Right now, it takes some time to transition a car from one track to another, slowing down the transport of both goods and passengers.

— Ukraine’s ports are currently blocked, with millions of tons of cargo stored there: grain, ore, metal. Is it true that the railway system doesn’t have the capacity to export all this cargo?

— We’re prepared to transport that cargo. It was us who managed to deliver it all to the port, so clearly we can remove it, too. The problem is that the same volume would have to continue to European ports, and they’re not able to accept so much cargo. The second problem is that cargo travels more slowly and is harder to transport in European countries, because there’s less rolling stock on narrow tracks.

But Europe has still always been reasonably effective. If you have 100 tons of cargo, their terminals are prepared for 100 tons of cargo. But when you start having new, larger volumes of cargo, their terminals can’t handle it. We have dozens of millions of tons of cargo. And we’d told Europe, we have a new business offer for you: just develop your infrastructure and we’ll come to you. And even when our ports are unblocked — and they’ll definitely be unblocked — we’ll continue to use you to some extent. Europe’s very happy about this new cargo volume, because it will be quite profitable for them. They won’t find this amount anywhere else. So European countries are already working on expanding their infrastructure.

— You came to the railroad industry from the business sector. And your contract was up on March 31, which means you could have washed your hands of all this and gone back into business, where you’d probably make more money. You could have given this position to someone else. Why did you stay?

— Above all else, I’m a Ukrainian and I love my country. I didn’t even consider leaving. Right now, everybody has their own personal front. I spend a lot of time traveling around the country, and when I see railroad workers on the front lines, I always go up to them and thank them. And what do they say back? “We’re just doing our job.” When you work with people like that, nothing scares you.

Interview by Andrey Yanitsky

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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