Ukrzaliznytsia is so vast it has long been referred to as “a country within a country.” There are 230,000 employees, from those on the trains themselves (locomotive drivers, their assistants, train attendants, conductors) to everyone at the station (stationmasters, security officers, ticket sellers, luggage-storage clerks, cleaners) and then everyone behind the scenes (track inspectors, car inspectors, signal maintainers, structural engineers, electricians, electronic-equipment engineers, locomotive electricians, greasers, train dispatchers, railcar loaders, railcar mechanics, switchmen, track workers and depot attendants, without whom passenger toilets would back up). Then there are depot and workshop jobs (hostlers, repairmen, carpenters and factory workers, to name a few). Ukrzaliznytsia does its own laundry, it has its own glass factory, a carriage factory, a steel-rail rolling factory and another factory that cuts the rails to size. There are railway schools for children, vocational schools, summer camps, sanitariums and hospitals. The 15,000 miles of tracks are government-run and controlled from the center, including stations, depots and factories.
Ukraine’s passenger and freight railways are grouped into six regional branches. In the first days of the invasion, the command cell held a call every hour with the heads of the six branches to gather information using an old Soviet-era technology, a closed-circuit system called a selector. The six branch heads then held their own selector calls with subordinates to collect information. Each regional branch has an average of four directorates, and each directorate has 50 to 100 railway stations, which also held their own calls. Selector call after selector call, information made its way up to Kamyshin from all over the country.
Because many traffic controllers and safety officers live along the tracks, Ukrzaliznytsia knew how many tanks passed the border, how many helicopters were landing and how many paratroopers had arrived. Rail workers literally counted parachutes on the tracks. Kamyshin could follow the Russian military’s progress in real time based on when it passed particular stations, and he told me that he fed the information to the military.
On Feb. 25, Russia hit Ukrzaliznytsia’s reserve command center with a cruise missile, but for the most part, the network avoided large-scale damage. The Kremlin was running a limited-strike campaign and did not actively target critical rail infrastructure, like bridges and train yards, because they assumed they would quickly take control of the country and depend on the same infrastructure. Ukrainians believed that because the Russians were relying on railways, too, they could safely gather people at stations for evacuation.
The command cell quickly made two decisions. First, all passenger trains would transition to evacuation mode: They would be free, with no tickets required, and as many people as possible would be allowed to board. Second, they would run at slower speeds, which would help limit the scope of the damage if the Russians struck a train or near a track. Ukrzaliznytsia would try to preserve the life it could.
Every day, the group drafted an evacuation train schedule that went live at 9 p.m. for the next day, posting it on their website as well as their Telegram and Facebook feeds. The railway had to juggle carriage, locomotive and track capacity: If one day the stationmaster in Kharkiv predicted they would need 42,000 people evacuated, they had to find enough trains to move 42,000 people. They checked nearby stations and depots; they looked at cities where the flow of passengers had decreased and brought trains headed there back to Kharkiv. The goal was to have no one sleep on the platform in the city closest to the Russian border.