A muffled sound cuts through the dim room enveloped in long, dark curtains. A Soviet-era closed-circuit phone system blares a message in Ukrainian to six men, half of whom are dressed in military green. But they’re not military men, they’re the executives of Ukrainian Railways.
The seemingly obsolete system, dotted with buttons and knobs, connects them to all of Ukraine’s rail stations, of which there are about 1,450, according to Ukrainian Railways. When the cellphone service failed in key stations after the Russian invasion, the dated system became indispensable for their twice-daily meetings, which are held to get an overview of what is happening on the ground.
This meeting, near the Ternopil train station, in western Ukraine, lasts only 10 or 15 minutes, then it’s time to move again. The company leadership believes it is a prime target for Russian troops.
“The strategy is to move fast so that they don’t catch you, and don’t spend a long time at one location,” Oleksandr Kamyshin, the 37-year-old CEO of Ukrainian Railways, told CNN. Sporting an undercut ponytail, he commands the attention of the room, like a general in war. “Hours” is the longest they’ll stay in any one place, he said.
More than two weeks into the invasion, Ukraine’s rail system – one of the world’s largest – has become a lifeline, ferrying essential supplies in, and desperate civilians out of harm’s way.
The network says it has moved more than 2.1 million passengers domestically since the war began, plus roughly quarter of a million more who have gone to Poland. Some train cars have been refitted to carry medical supplies to the front lines and the wounded to hospitals.
The work of managing the vast network of around 231,000 employees comes down to this group of men, who declined a workspace in President Volodymyr Zelensky’s bunker. Instead, they have remained in near-constant motion since the war began, criss-crossing the country to check on colleagues and stay one step ahead of the Russians – even in the most dangerous parts of Ukraine.
“Our logic is quite simple. If we’ve got employees who are working on this station, and we believe that it’s safe for them, then we should go as well,” said Kamyshin.
After leaving the dimly lit meeting room, they board a single-car train headed for the western city of Lviv, about 80 miles away. In the center is a long conference table surrounded by seats loaded with flak jackets, helmets and a rifle case.
More typically, they find space in regular passenger cars to blend in with the masses. Those trains rattle along at just 60 kilometers per hour (37 miles per hour) in most places – down from 160 kilometers per hour (99 miles per hour) in peacetime – in part, because they’re overloaded with people.
“The decision to let as many people onto the trains as possible was a difficult one because any unfortunate event would affect way more people,” Kamyshin’s deputy, Oleksandr Pertsovskyi, who is in charge of the company’s passenger service, told CNN. The drivers are also moving more slowly because of the risk of hitting damaged rails.
A bombed section of track can temporarily break a link between major cities, but a downed bridge can put the route out of commission indefinitely.
Ordinary rail employees, most with no prior military experience, now sometimes find themselves repairing tracks amidst Russian shelling.
A week into the war, an undetonated bomb fell just a few feet from the tracks near Kharkiv and had to be safely defused and removed, Kamyshin said.
Pertsovskyi says 33 employees have been killed and 24 injured since the start of the conflict, the latest on Saturday evening.
Parts of the network are no longer under Ukrainian control. Other sections are damaged beyond repair – like the line that runs from besieged Mariupol to Volnovakha, a small city, but important rail hub. The train has not been an option for the hundreds of thousands of people who remain trapped in the city of Mariupol. Repeated attempts to create an evacuation corridor by road have failed.
“[The Russians] don’t want military supplies [going in], they don’t want people being evacuated, they don’t want humanitarian aid to come into the cities, otherwise, why don’t they let the Mariupol people get out?” said Kamyshin. “We constantly see them trying to cut the main lifelines of Ukraine: From Kyiv to Kharkiv, from Lviv to Kyiv, and the one that connects Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia,” he added.
Links between those major hubs are still intact. But if they were lost? “Don’t ask me how bad, but [it would be] really bad,” Kamyshin said.
The volume of track repairs and trains being rerouted means the railway has had to adapt.
Its leadership structure is now “flat” – managers are free to make decisions on the spot without seeking permission from superiors. Repairs can be done in a fraction of the normal time without all the bureaucracy. The train schedule is now drawn up each night for the following day, changing to adapt to developments on the ground – like the uncontrollable crowds recently seen on train platforms in the capital, Kyiv, and northeastern city of Kharkiv or the desperate attempts to board trains bound for Poland from Lviv in the early days of the war.
How the system still runs through all of it is “something which is surprising for the whole country and for the President as well,” said Kamyshin.
On a moving train, communications are a constant challenge, with cell coverage spotty or absent altogether in some areas. They have Starlink satellite internet systems courtesy of business magnate Elon Musk, but say they only turn them on when they are absolutely desperate. They say the satellites make it easier for the enemy to pinpoint their location.
Not only is the railway having to coordinate military and passenger trains, as well as aid shipments, but freight routes are also being ramped up. The Russians have cut off Ukrainian access to many Black Sea ports, which is how nearly 95% of agricultural output is normally shipped to markets abroad.
Now, Ukrainian Railways is attempting to compensate by sending more trains to Europe loaded with grain and produce. That’s no small feat, considering Ukrainian tracks have a different gauge size than most European countries, so cargo has to be reloaded at the border.
The work is never-ending, Kamyshin said. Sleep has been hard to come by, and none of the executives have seen their families since the war began on February 24.
That morning, Kamyshin took one last photo with his two children, one still asleep. They’ve since left the country.
While stoic throughout the interview, Kamyshin’s eyes redden and his voice cracks when the conversation shifts to his family.
“For me it’s easier when they know that they are safe, and I have time to do my job,” he said.
Roman Tymotsko contributed reporting from Lviv, Ukraine.