By Jonathan Landay
FASTIV, Ukraine (Reuters) – A salvo of rockets brought the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine to Fastiv, a quiet town full of blossoming cherry trees and nestled in vast farmland hundreds of miles from the front lines.
The April 28 strike, which injured two people, hit an electrical substation that supplies power to a confluence of railway lines that form a major hub of networks connecting central Europe, Russia and Asia.
The damage was quickly repaired, Ukrainian officials said, and a Reuters visit last week revealed no lasting impact. Trains ran between Kiev and the southern port of Odessa, taking passengers to the station of Fastiv, a city of 45,000 inhabitants 75 km (45 miles) south of the capital.
Officials said the attack was part of an escalating Russian attack on infrastructure, aimed in part at crippling rail deliveries of weapons supplied by the West, as well as reinforcements supporting Ukrainian forces fighting in the east and south.
So far, Moscow’s efforts have failed, turning Ukraine’s state-owned railway into a leading symbol of the country’s resilience.
“The longest delay we’ve had is under an hour,” said Oleksandr Kamyshin, 37, a former investment banker who runs the trains as CEO of railways, Ukraine’s largest employer.
“They didn’t hit any military train.”
The Russian defense ministry has said Ukrainian facilities that supply power to the railways have been targeted by missile strikes because trains are used to deliver foreign weapons to Ukrainian troops.
The railway system is not only affected because it is critical to military supplies, Ukrainian officials said.
Moscow’s “goal is to destroy critical infrastructure as much as possible for military, economic and social reasons,” Deputy Infrastructure Minister Yuri Vaskov said in an interview.
With Russian warships blocking the ports of the Black Sea, downed bridges and checkpoints blocking roads, and a fuel shortage leaving snarling trucks on the road, Ukraine’s 22,000km track is the main lifeline of the struggling economy and a gateway to the outside world. .
Trains have evacuated millions of citizens who have fled to safer parts of the country or abroad.
They have started transporting small grain shipments to neighboring provinces to bypass Russia’s maritime blockade. Ukraine was the world’s fourth largest grain exporter in the 2020/21 season, and war-disrupted exports have disrupted global food chains and fueled global inflation.
Internally, trains distribute humanitarian aid and other cargo. They enabled the restart of the AcelorMittal steel plant in Kryvyi Rih by bringing in workers and bringing products out, Kamyshin said. They transport civilian victims in Doctors Without Borders hospital cars.
Since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, he said, trains have distributed more than 140,000 tons of food and will have carried some 1 million pounds of state mail by mid-May.
Dozens of civilians have been killed in Russian attacks on some of the 1,000 stations, including dozens in an April attack on the station in the eastern city of Kramatorsk.
That did not deter the passengers.
Daily passenger traffic has reached as many as 200,000 passengers, Kamyshin said in an interview on Saturday as he drove a train over a bridge that had been repaired after being badly damaged during Russia’s failed advance to Kiev from the suburb of Irpin.
Also, the 230,000 railway employees have not stayed home, although 122 have been killed and 155 others injured on the job and in their homes, Kamyshin said.
Moscow denies attacking civilian targets in what it calls a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine and rid it of what it calls anti-Russian nationalism fueled by the West. Ukraine and the West say Russia has started an unprovoked war of aggression.
Reuters was unable to independently verify claims made by Kamyshin and other Ukrainian officials about their successes in preserving the railways in wartime.
UKRAINE’S ‘LIFE LIFE’
Helena Muskrivska, 56, Irpin’s stationmaster, said she worked the first four days of the Russian attack, helping to evacuate about 1,000 people and relaying local developments to Kiev via a landline. She took documents and equipment home when things got too dangerous.
“I was here when the Russians entered the station. I didn’t want to see them face to face,” Muskrivska said.
A group of current and former American and European rail drivers formed the International Support Ukraine Rail Task Force in March to raise money for protective equipment, first aid kits and financial aid for rail workers.
“A lot of money is being raised for Ukraine everywhere, but none of it is going to the railroads,” said Jolene Molitoris, former head of the US Federal Railroad Administration and chairman of the group. “It’s the lifeblood of the country.”
The group also wants to finance the purchase of heavy machinery, rails and other equipment that the railways are looking for.
Kamyshin said he is racing against the Russian attacks and deploying teams of workers and coordinators around the clock to repair tracks and divert trains. “It’s all about hours, not days.”
He and his top staff are constantly on the move, taking trains to inspect damage and repairs in Ukraine, he said, adding: “Once they break it, we fix it.”
Kamyshin said his top priority is to redirect grain exports from Ukraine’s southern ports to Poland, Romania and the Baltic states to revive the economy. He said Russia would remain a threat even after what he called the inevitable defeat.
“This crazy neighbor will stay with us,” he said. “No one knows when they will come again.”
(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk; editing by Frances Kerry)