Director General of Ukrainian Railways Oleksandr Kamyshin during an interview with AFP, at Kiev railway station on June 13, 2022 (AFP / Sergei SUPINSKY)
They evacuate millions of Ukrainians, transport foreign leaders visiting Kiev, transport millions of tons of grain: Ukraine’s railways have played a vital role since the Russian invasion nearly four months ago, as “a second army,” said Director General Oleksandre Kamyshin.
“Some say that the railways are the second army (…). When the war broke out, we had to react quickly and we did,” Kamychine, director-general of the Ukrainian State Railway, told AFP. company Ukrzaliznytsia (UZ), from the VIP lounge at the Kiev station.
It is by train that “3.8 million people have been evacuated from eastern and southern Ukraine to the west and 600,000 from the west to neighboring countries such as Poland, Romania or Moldova since the start of the war,” he says.
Due to the Russian bombing campaign targeting in particular the railway infrastructure that Moscow suspects carries Western weapons, “dozens of bridges have been destroyed, but we are constantly rebuilding them”, underlines Mr Kamychin, referring to the example of the Irpine- bridge in the suburbs of kiev.
A bridge “was rebuilt in 29 days, when it would normally take months,” he says. But “it will take years to rebuild the infrastructure” of Europe’s third largest rail network (23,000 km of track), after Germany and France.
– Heavy losses –
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the work of the employees of UZ, the largest Ukrainian listed company with 230,000 employees, has been praised both at home and abroad, such as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson who paid tribute to the “iron people” during his visit to Kiev in April, as did his Canadian colleague Justin Trudeau, who came in May.
Ukrainian families fleeing the city of Kramatorszk wait for a train on a platform on April 5, 2022 in the Donbass region (AFP/FADEL SENNA)
This success can be explained in particular by the simplification of the decision-making process and the reduction of bureaucracy, “something that we started to change from day one” of the war, explains Mr Kamyshin, a 37-year-old man at the imposing build, hair pulled back and shaved on the sides, “viking” style.
People step into Sloviansk station on April 12, 2022 in the Donbass region (AFP / RONALDO SCHEMIDT)
He undertook reforms upon his arrival in August 2021 at the head of the company, which was criticized before the conflict for its Soviet operation and quality of service.
UZ employees pay a high price in this conflict: 166 were killed, 252 were injured and five were taken hostage, Mr Kamyshin said. But “about 90% of the network” remains under the control of the Ukrainian company. Even when the Russians were in the Kiev region in March, the UZ still checked “up to 75%”, he says.
– Blocked grains –
However, freight activity collapsed and freight transport now represents only 40% of pre-war volume.
Previously, Ukraine exported “50-60 million tons of grain per year and the UZ transported half, from all over Ukraine to seaports. Last November 4.1 million tons of grain was transported by rail, a record month. Now that is four times less”, he complains.
A train at Novozokitarivka station in eastern Ukraine on May 13, 2022 (AFP / Yasuyoshi CHIBA)
But the blockade of Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea, especially Odessa, has paralyzed this traffic. Ukraine is trying to develop alternative rail routes, in particular via Poland and Germany, but the volumes transported are much lower.
As for the possible delivery of western weapons by rail, Mr Kamyshin does not want to talk about that. The Russian army regularly states that it carries out strikes on railway installations that it believes are used for this purpose. Notably, in April, it hit a road and rail bridge several times on a strategic axis connecting the Odessa region to Romania.
– TGV Kiev-Warsaw? †
Given the heavy financial losses of the UZ and the major damage to the network, the renovation will cost “a lot of money”, “that’s why we are waiting for a Marshall Plan”, he says about the support of the United States to Europe for reconstruction after the Second World War. world war.
People board a train at Kiev station on May 12, 2022 in Ukraine (AFP / Sergei SUPINSKY)
One of the UZ’s long-term plans is a Kiev-Warsaw high-speed railway in the “feasibility study” phase, he said.
Ukraine is also an important rail axis for the new “silk roads”, which will allow long convoys of containers to connect China to Europe. But since the beginning of the war, the Ukrainian road has been completely blocked.
Before the conflict, he says, “container traffic was constantly increasing. We would be happy if we could find a way to bring Chinese goods back to Europe, but without Russia.”