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Supporting the Iron People of the Ukrainian Railway

Supporting the Iron People of the Ukrainian Railway

Rail Partners - Supporting the Iron People of the Ukrainian Railway
16 January 2024
Andy Bagnall, chief executive

Published in Rail Business Daily

I am privileged to have just returned from a trip to Kyiv by sleeper train to visit colleagues from the Ukrainian branch of the global railway family, Ukrzaliznytsia – or Ukranian Railways in English. The visit was timed to coincide with the delivery of thousands of food parcels paid for by donations from Britain's rail industry. Last September Rail Partners raised just over £106,000 in donations at an event in support of Ukrainian railway workers and their families, as part of a larger effort by the Global Ukraine Rail Task Force. We visited to show solidarity with our colleagues and raise awareness of their ongoing need for support.

UZ’s vital role in keeping people, goods, and military personnel on the move

In Ukraine, the men and women of Ukrzaliznytsia, UZ for short, are known as the ‘Iron People’ – an apt description given they have played a critical role in the war effort by keeping the trains running despite the aggression Russia has visited on their country.

In the earliest days of the war, UZ carried over four million refugees to the safety of evacuation across the borders to Poland, Czechia and Moldova – many of them from areas in the immediate path of the advance of Russian troops. UZ is vital to the economy of Ukraine - even before the war two thirds of goods were moved around the country by rail, and one quarter of all passenger journeys were by train. After the Russian Navy closed the Black Sea ports, rail freight provided the vital artery to allow Ukraine’s vast grain exports to continue, the receipts of which are so critical to the wider economy and Ukraine’s war effort. The rail network has of course also been important to the war effort directly, moving troops and materiel to where they are needed. 11,000 of UZ’s Iron People have left the railway to serve in the country’s armed forces.

British rail companies’ support for UZ workers

It was to support these efforts of the brave men and women of UZ that led Rail partners to organise the fundraising event ‘Rail partners with Ukraine’ in September last year. The money raised by our members train companies and the wider rail industry has paid for the equivalent of 7,000 food parcels, now being distributed in the country. Each parcel costs £15 and consists of staples, such as flour, rice, pasta and tinned fish and meat, all sourced in Ukraine.

I was joined on the trip by Steve Montgomery, managing director of First Rail, and David Brown, managing director of Arriva Trains, whose organisations were the biggest contributors to our fundraising efforts. There were also contributions from other corporate donors  Govia, Transport UK, Angel Trains, DRS, Freightliner, GB Railfreight, MTR, Oxera, Porterbrook, Serco and Trainline, as well as many other individual donations.

It was a great privilege to meet Yurii Niemchykov in person during our visit, who had spoken at the event alongside his colleague, Oleg Yakovenko. You can still watch their presentation from the event on our website here.

The impact of war

The first meeting of our day in Kyiv, however, was with Oleksandr Pertsovskyi, the head of UZ’s passenger services. A charismatic leader, Pertsovskyi had the obvious respect and admiration of his junior colleagues who talked about his work in glowing terms as we waited for him to join the meeting. In a tour of Kyiv station, we saw the reality of the invasion through a passenger carriage that had been used to evacuate civilians fleeing the Russian tank column that advanced on Kyiv from Belarus in the first month of the war. Preserved next to the ‘diplomatic platform’ used to greet the many international leaders who have visited Kyiv by train in the two years of the war (including the visit by Rishi Sunak, the day after our visit), the carriage bore the scars of that moment, riddled with the holes of bullets and shrapnel. But Pertsovskyi also showed us, at the other end of the station, their attempts to run the railway as normally as possible. The grand waiting hall of the station was still given over to a spectacular exhibition celebrating the different traditions of Christmas around the world.

And, more permanently, the ticket office of the station, no longer used for retail as ticket sales have been almost entirely switched to digital channels, has been converted to ‘Iron Land’ - with a children’s rail-themed play area and library. Pertsovskyi explained that he did not want thousands of children’s enduring memory of the railway to be the trauma of evacuation and in most cases separation from at least one of their parents. He wants to offer a better experience of the railways especially as women and children are increasingly making return visits to see the men of their families as the war drags on and their exile becomes semi-permanent.  

We had a small amount of time to drive around the city and see some of the damage from air strikes, particularly concentrated around the city’s power station, itself in the middle of residential and commercial buildings. The most recent damage was from the strikes just before New Year’s Eve a fortnight ago. The air raid siren sounded only once while we were there (of course, inconveniently) when we were just about to have lunch in a restaurant, so not close to the shelters in the train station. Fortunately, our UZ colleagues quickly scanned the government Telegram channels on their phones and reassured us it was likely a Russian reconnaissance flight rather than a missile strike so we continued our lunch looking out over the wide, frozen solid, Dnieper river.

The delivery of food aid to UZ workers and families 

We next met Oleksii Semerun, the leader of UZ’s main labour union the Trade Union of Railway Workers and Transport Builders of Ukraine who explained how the contents of the food parcels we have funded were sourced and assembled before being cargoed eastwards and distributed to staff of UZ through the union’s regional and local structures. It is a great example of the union and company working in partnership.  

Some of the recipients are engineers working at or near the front line either to repair damaged infrastructure or simply to keep the trains moving to take men and supplies to the front and evacuate the wounded in the other direction. Other recipients are rail workers and their families who had previously lived in territory now occupied by the Russian army – forced to flee from their homes by the fighting, many are in temporary accommodation and dependent on the government or charity from friends to get by, and some of the funds we raised have also paid for basic household supplies for these workers. Other recipients still are rail workers who had left UZ to join the armed forces and now returned wounded and unable to work, or the families of similar workers who hadn’t returned at all. I was proud to see our logo on those boxes. In the scheme of what I saw it was a drop of aid in the ocean of Ukraine’s need. But it is what we were able to do.  

Continuing support for UZ’s Iron People

Looking to the future, Ukraine, and the men and women of the Ukrainian railway, need more than immediate food aid. While the Global Ukraine Rail Task Force and its charity partner, We Aid, continue to collect donations - and you can still donate here if you wish to – the Chairman of UZ, Yevhen Liashchenko, and his colleagues in the finance and social policy teams who we met in the afternoon took us through their long-term plans.  

The ‘Iron Shift’ programme as they call it aims to provide rehabilitation for wounded rail workers, support for the children of staff who haven’t come through the war, and to make the railway accessible, not least for the steady stream of veterans returning from the front with life changing injuries. There is also a huge amount of reconstruction required. The scale of the challenge is immense, and they will need ongoing assistance to rise to it. 

Rail Partners will continue to support our colleagues in UZ however we can. If you work in rail, or the supply chain, or the accessibility space, or if you are just interested and think you can help, do get in touch. 

For photographs of the trip to Kyiv, visit railpartners.co.uk/ukraine

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