Lvov, Ukraine –
Ukraine wants Canada to lend its expertise — and donate essential parts of its railways — to sustain a faltering passenger and freight rail system where landmines and missile strikes threaten to cut off the country’s lifeline.
The rail system has been vital to the war effort, and has been since the early days of the invasion, which began just a year ago this week.
Millions of people used trains to flee occupied cities and flee to neighboring countries. Thousands of wounded soldiers and civilians were transported by rail to hospitals in safer parts of the country.
The railway is also Ukraine’s way of getting aid and soldiers to front-line areas, where the fighting is intensifying, and returning people and supplies to lands that have returned to Ukrainian control after the departure of the Russian occupation forces.
Oleksandr Bertsovsky, CEO of Ukrainian Railways, said that constant attacks on railways and other critical infrastructure have rendered 20% of the system unusable. He added that more than 300 railway workers were also killed.
“They often have to leave immediately after the bombing, as it is still dangerous, to start repairs,” he said in an interview from the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
Bertsovsky said the state-owned railway company, known in Ukraine as Ukrzaliznytsia, operates almost like a paramilitary unit to guard essential goods and people moving across the vast country.
But he added that Ukraine was looking to do more than fix what was damaged.
The company wants to build a better and more modern system and has asked Canada for help.
“Canada is a large industrial company, so of course there may be certain types of equipment or certain technical solutions,” he said.
One of its aims is to bring the track gauge – the distance between the tracks – closer to the standard in the rest of Europe. This will not be an easy task, given that there are 20,000 km of tracks in Ukraine.
The railway also hopes to replace the destroyed stations with stations that will better serve Ukrainians after the war, including those with permanent disabilities.
“Unfortunately, there are many, even young people, who have been maimed by this war, and our main task is to make our railway facilities fully accessible,” he said.
He said Canada can provide equipment, engineering and advice to rebuild damaged buildings to accessibility standards.
Canadian Transportation Minister Omar Al-Ghabra helped broker an agreement last fall between Canadian railway companies and Ukrainian railways in response to a request from the Ukrainian government to support the system’s resilience and rebuilding, including the acquisition of parts from Canadian manufacturers.
“Our members are gathering equipment and expertise to help our Ukrainian friends keep trains running, despite Russian incursions, while planning for the future,” Caroline Healy, executive vice president of Canadian Railways, said in a written statement.
The Canadian Federation of Railways represents Canada’s three major railway companies: Canadian National Railway, Canadian Pacific Railway and Via Rail, as well as Canadian Railway Manufacturers.
The association works in areas where Ukraine needs it most and where to find it in Canada.
Bertsovsky said Ukrainian workers had already repaired hundreds of miles of railway and nearly a dozen bridges damaged during the war. But he said sometimes they are just temporary solutions.
Perhaps the most prominent example of this is the main bridge between Kiev and the nearby suburb of Irpin, which was occupied by Russian forces at the start of the war. Ukrainian forces destroyed the bridge over the Arbin River linking the two cities to prevent Russian tanks from advancing into the capital.
“It’s like a big, big devastation,” Pertsovsky said. “The river is under the bridge and it looked as if it had been completely destroyed.”
Once the Russian forces withdrew from the suburbs, he said, it took less than a month to restore passenger rail service. Meanwhile, the bridge between the port city of Odessa and the neighboring region of Bessarabia was attacked more than 30 times.
“They kept attacking it and (they) haven’t yet been able to stop the process completely,” Pertsovsky said.
Labor has a huge human cost. Landmines left after the Russians left make repairs too dangerous for the workers.
He said the missile attacks on power stations made it difficult for trains to operate although the deployment of diesel trains during power outages now happened quickly and smoothly.
Stations like Lviv’s have been turned into what Pertsovsky calls “fortresses of invincibility,” where city dwellers can come to warm up, charge their electronics, and sleep on station benches when Russian bombing cuts the electricity. Community electricity.
Although the tent city for refugees and social services that used to stand outside Lviv train station is now packed, there is only one tent left. There, volunteer Roman Mazur, among others, sleeps when he’s not handing out hot tea to travelers leaving or returning to Ukraine.
Inside, the tent is filled with boxes of food and other supplies to help people along their journey.
The statues that flank the station’s ornate entrance are covered to protect it from damage in the event of nearby explosions, but the trains still run on time.
As more land is reclaimed, Berszowski hopes to repair more railroads to these towns and communities.
“The revival of occupied cities is now a top priority,” he said.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on February 21, 2023.