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People arrive at the central train station from Pokrovsk, in the eastern part of Ukraine on April 11, in Lviv, Ukraine.Joe Raedle/Getty Images

War has taken a quarter of Ukraine’s railway tracks out of service. Every day, Russian forces attack train stations, sometimes as many as five. Russian rockets and missiles have fallen on railways, bridges and even moving trains.

Yet the carriages and locomotives keep rolling.

Ukrainian Railways, a state operator once criticized for its bloated work force, has become an unlikely champion of the country’s wartime resistance. Trains have been a key lifeline for people seeking to flee violence, evacuating combat zones and the country. They have delivered medical services to distant parts of Ukraine. They are increasingly being used to revive parts of the economy in areas free of fighting. And they have become the transport of choice for the world leaders who have begun mustering shows of support in Kyiv.

The prime ministers of Poland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic all came by train. So did EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

“Stations and trains are the safest places in the country,” Ukrainian Railways chief executive Oleksandr Kamyshin said in an interview.

A bloody attack last week gave new cause to question that boast. A missile strike on the Kramatorsk train station killed 57, including five children, who were among a crowd of thousands waiting for evacuation. “For the children” was written in white paint on the remains of a missile casing found at the station.

But the Kramatorsk bombardment was not an isolated event. “They attack from one to five stations a day. Every day we get a few stations attacked,” Mr. Kamyshin said.

In nearly 50 days of war, Russian forces have fired on schools, hospitals, maternity clinics and airports. Destruction of railways has formed part of the broader offensive on civilian infrastructure. Roughly 25 per cent of the country’s 22,000 kilometres of track is not operating at the moment, Mr. Kamyshin said.

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, Ukraine’s rail system has come under more than 10,000 attacks.

Mr. Kamyshin has seen evidence of strategic attempts to heighten disruption. A day before the Kramatorsk strike, Russian forces shelled the single rail bridge that connects the country with its eastern Donbas region, part of which has been under Russian control since 2014.

That was, he said, “an explicit attempt to cut off the Donbas cities from Ukraine.”

“Thank God they are not that good at war and the shelling was not that harmful. Within a half day we restored the bridge,” Mr. Kamyshin said.

Since the beginning of war, Ukrainian Railways has become “passionate about fixing everything within hours,” he said. “Once they stop shelling, once the fires stop, people run, repair and hide again.”

That work can be dangerous. Eighty-eight railway workers have died in the war, many at their homes – but some while performing their work. A further 93 have been injured.

To protect the system, railway staff have used “light masking,” keeping trains dark at night and even turning off lights in some smaller stations. They have also partnered with aid organizations to turn the railway into a delivery system for help. Trains have delivered meals made by World Central Kitchen, a humanitarian group that provides food in crises, and carried staff for the organization to liberated cities once service is restored.

Ukrainian Railways has also worked with Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders) to refurbish several carriages into mobile medical outposts on trains evacuating injured people.

Before the war, critics denounced bloat at Ukrainian Railways. Now, having a large contingent of people – the railway employs 321,000 – is “something which helps the whole country,” Mr. Kamyshin said. They have worked with little rest. Sunday marked only the second day off for some personnel since the start of the war, he said.

One of the most pressing tasks has involved rebuilding severed connections to cities that returned to Ukrainian control after the Russian withdrawal from central and northern parts of the country. It took less than a week to restore service to Sumy. Trains will move to Chernihiv by Thursday, Mr. Kamyshin said.

Between 30,000 and 40,000 people a day are moving toward western Ukraine, away from combat areas. Another 10,000 are moving to neighbouring countries. The Russian retreat has set in motion a sizable reverse movement as well, with roughly 40,000 people a day now travelling from west to east, amid a growing return to parts of the country that are no longer war zones.

Moving people has not been the only priority. Russian attacks on cargo ships and the discovery of naval mines in the Black Sea have closed Ukraine’s seaports, stranding millions of tonnes of agricultural and mining products. The country has not typically used land transport for such exports, but trains are now the only alternative for moving large volumes of bulk commodities.

Doing so has not been easy. Most of Ukraine’s track uses a wider Russian gauge incompatible with the European Union’s standard gauge, adding an impediment to moving goods across borders to Poland and Romania. Trans-shipment is slow, and at the moment it is only possible to export a million tonnes of grain per month.

“Our priority now is to increase it up to five,” Mr. Kamyshin said. It’s not clear how long that will take. Ukrainian Railways sees itself as a key to helping “the country restore the economy,” he said, and some recovery has begun. But even with the ports out of service, the railway is only loading 300,000 tonnes a day of cargo, including iron ore, grains and coal – down from 700,000 before the war.

Mr. Kamyshin said his greatest need is not equipment or expertise, but a safe umbrella for operations, repeating calls by the country’s political leadership to block Russian access to Ukrainian airspace. Foreign governments have refused, unwilling to impose a measure whose enforcement would bring their militaries into direct conflict with Russia.

But attacks from above are something “we can’t protect from,” Mr. Kamyshin said.

“If you help us to close the sky, the rest we can do ourselves.”

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