In two days Russian troops retreated from Kherson on November 11, the general director of the Ukrainian Railways, Alexander Kamyshin, accompanied by Ukrainian special forces and a small team of railway workers, arrived in the city. They reached the central station before the arrival of the regular army to secure the city, and set to work. Six days later, the first echelon from Kiev rolled into liberated Kherson.

“It was a magical day,” says Kamyshyn. “We saw the faces of people who saw the train, crying, waving their hands. Believe me, it was unforgettable. It’s one of those days that will be remembered forever.”

Since Russia launched an intense attack on Ukraine a year ago, Kamyshyn and his colleagues have worked non-stop to keep trains running in Ukraine. They have moved 4 million refugees and more than 330,000 metric tons of humanitarian aid, sending trains right to, and sometimes beyond, the front lines of conflict. With air travel virtually impossible, Ukrainian Railways has brought at least 300 foreign delegations to Kyiv as part of a program it calls “iron diplomacy.” Earlier this week, a train called “Rail Force One” secretly transported US President Joe Biden to the Ukrainian capital for a symbolic visit.

All this work took place under almost constant attack. “[The Russians shell] roads, stations, bridges, power stations, cranes — everything is being shelled,” says Kamyshyn. “250 people died, 800 were injured. Here are only railway men and women. This is the price we paid in this war.”

Speaking via Zoom from Kyiv, Kamyshyn is tight-lipped, with a ready supply of one-liners. (When asked how trains could be brought to Mariupol, a city devastated by Russian bombing, he said simply, “very soon.”) He says a full-scale Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, was not entirely unexpected, and the government had reserves in case war. “Institutions like Ukrainian Railways always have a plan. The problem was that the plan was on paper. It was completely irrelevant.”

The railway workers of Kamyshyn and Ukraine had to make countless small but extremely important decisions that had not been part of the plans before the invasion. They refused to sell tickets so that anyone who needed to go could do so immediately. They slowed down trains to limit casualties in the event of a derailment or sabotage. They changed the rules regarding pets so that evacuees could take them with them when they fled. Ukrainian Railways estimates that 120,000 animals traveled over the past 12 months.

During the first three weeks of the war last year, as Russian troops advanced into central and southern Ukraine, the railroad’s main focus was on evacuating and transporting humanitarian aid to cities that were being bombed and shelled. Passenger trains went west to the Polish border with refugees, then returned to the front, filled with supplies.

In Mariupol, a Black Sea port city near the Russian border that was bombarded relentlessly until resistance finally collapsed in May 2022, railway workers managed to send trains on and off several times before the tracks were destroyed. Crews on the scene were able to evacuate by road, but two trains are still there.

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