Over 32 hours of travelling, 43 train stations, 5 hours of stops and 1683 km of length. It is a railway road from Uzhhorod to Lysychansk, the longest in Ukraine. It is covered by a train travelling from the West to the East of the country.
Ukrainian Railways [UZ] are fourth in Eurasia, after the railways in China, Russia and India, in terms of freight transport. It is also the largest Ukrainian employer – it employs 272,000 people. In 2014, the Ukrainian Railways transferred over 440 million passengers. In the same year, the length of railway tracks was estimated at 21,640 km.
We decided to check what Ukraine looks like out of the train window and how it changes over this 1683 km.
A few hours remained until the departure of the train. The train composition is on the siding. The technical condition of the train is checked, including the condition of the wheels. Loading of coal for each of the carriages is also underway. It is needed to heat the carriages during a long journey in frosty weather.
The carriages inside are prepared by the service – conductors [prowadnicy], who have to take care of cleanliness and exchange the dirty bed sheets after the previous travel for the right amount of clean ones. They also bring water, both for the sanitary things and for drinking. The famous Ukrainian samovars are waiting.
Hundreds of window curtains are checked, carpets in the corridors and tablecloths on the tables in the compartments. Mattresses, pillows and blankets. Toilets must also be washed, and there is not too much time. The conductors not only serve the passengers while travelling by train but they also work as cleaners.
Whereas there is a forge in the technical back-up facilities, next to the jacks for the carriages, thanks to which you can change the chassis and make other required repairs. There is a huge anvil for machining metal parts in the forge.
In Uzhgorod, there is a blue and yellow flag flying freely on the water tower. It is said it was taken from the Donetsk airport, but it is difficult to verify that story.
The journey begins in Uzhhorod, a dozen or so km from the border with Slovakia and the European Union. It is the smallest peripheral city in Ukraine – in 2015, just over 115 thousand people lived there. In Uzhhorod, and even more often in other towns of the Transcarpathian region, you can hear the Hungarian language. Hungarians constitute more than 12% of the population of the region.
The town was founded in the 9th century, it was Hungarian for a long time, and later it was a part of Austro-Hungary. It is the centre of Transcarpathia. After the First World War, Uzhhorod was located in Czechoslovakia, and until 1938 it was the capital of Sub-Carpathian Rus. In October 1938, the Ukrainians living here announced the creation of the Carpatho- Ukraine. In March 1939, the Hungarian army entered the Lower Carpathians region, and Carpatho-Ukraine ceased to exist. After World War II, this territory was attached to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
The railway station in Uzhgorod was opened in August 1872 due to the opening of a north-east Hungarian railway a year earlier. So Uzhgorod had a railway connection with Budapest and Vienna. In 2004, the station was reconstructed.
The last preparations for the journey are underway. It’s the night.
The train sets off.
Volovets is a small resort located in the mountains in the Transcarpathian region. It lies at the height of almost 500 meters altitude above sea-level. In 1850, a ski jump was built there. Then it was the best place to ski jumping in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1862 Emperor Franz Joseph I came to Volovets, where he went skiing and even jumped from the local ski jump. Only its foundations have survived to this day.
There are several train tunnels and picturesque railway viaducts on the railway route between Lviv and Uzhhorod. The longest one – Beskidy tunnel, is 1764,5 meters long and it is the second longest tunnel in Ukraine. The longest one is the Lutuhynski tunnel (2063 meters long) in the Luhansk Oblast.
The whole section takes about 30 kilometers.
At times, the road from Uzhgorod to Lviv is like being in a fairy tale, especially during the first half of the trip. Tunnels, viaducts, outstanding landscape of mountains … You can see the National Park Skole Beskids. We are heading from Transcarpathia to Eastern Galicia. These are two multicultural regions where Ukrainian, Hungarian, Romanian, Polish, Jewish and German influences were blending. Regions that once were connected by Austria-Hungary.
We reach Lviv after 6 hours of travelling. The first railway station was opened here on November 4, 1861, along with the railway line Przemyśl – Lviv. Twenty days later, the railway management received permission to open regular rail connections between Lviv – Vienna and Lviv – Kraków. They were built quite quickly. In 1866, the rail connection to Chernivtsi was opened. Three years later the connection to Brody and to the border with the Russian Empire was established.
In the following years, the railway tracks in the region were getting longer, and the number of passengers grew. Therefore, in 1902 the construction of a new railway station began, and it was opened on March 26, 1904. At that time, it was considered one of the most modern railway stations in Europe.
Besides, the Lviv railway station still makes an impression. It has eight platforms and eight line tracks. Nowadays there are the ticket offices, several waiting rooms, a VIP waiting room, as well as a waiting room for official delegations, three bars, a restaurant, newsstand and beverage kiosks in the main hall. Travellers can also take a shower in a bathroom. Few people know there is a hotel at the Lviv station [one can enter it from the first platform], where you can rent rooms of various standards, also rooms for a couple of hours. A similar option can be found at other stations in district cities.
In addition to numbers that assign Ukrainian trains to appropriate category [e.g. passenger train, Intercity train, freight train, seasonal train], they also have additional letter symbols. The system is a legacy of the USSR and means regional affiliation or route directions: Letter D stands for Donetsk [management was in Donetsk], letter K stands for south-west [management in Kiev], letter L stands for Lviv (management in Lviv), letter O stands for south [management in Kharkiv], letter P stands for Dnieper Ukraine [management in the Dnieper], letters SZ stand for Odessa [management in Odessa].
In December 2011, due to UEFA Euro 2012, Ukrainian Railways introduced a new classification of trains, which was to be in line with the European Union: Eurocity, Intercity +, Intercity, Regional Express, Regional Train, Suburban Train, City Train, Euro Night, Night Express, Night Fast Train, Night Passenger Train.
Some trains have names, e.g. “Bukowina”, “Czornomorec”. In Intercity + trains there are carriages of the first and second class and a bar. There is also Wi-Fi. There are SW class carriages [double compartments] in night trains; they can take 18-20 passengers. In sleeping cars with quadruple compartments [kupe] there are seats for 36-40 passengers. The cheapest are travels on night trains with sleeping cars without compartments [plackartne], which have 54 seats.
Regardless of the type of carriage, there are two toilets in each. In all sleeping cars and daily trains, the first compartment is occupied by a so-called prowadnik, where you can order tea or coffee and buy small groceries [on some night trains, so-called company trains, a special menu has recently been introduced, and there is a coffee machine]. In IC + trains, passenger handling is provided by stewardesses and stewards.
Tickets can be purchased online and via a mobile application. Electronic ticketing and payments are of regular use. It is worth remembering, especially when travelling in the summer, that in compartments no. 3 and 6 in sleeping cars [kupe] the windows do not open, and the air conditioning does not work in all carriages. Recently, people buying tickets through the Ukrainian Railways web application can check if the carriage has air conditioning.
Mariana is 24 years old and works in a plackartnyj carriage no. 13. She comes from the Lviv Oblast.
– I studied at the railway technical secondary school in Lviv. I have been working at the railway since 2011, but I was on parental leave for three years – she says.
We ask her about the conductor’s working day.
– We start with an organisational meeting, where we get instructions. The manager reads telegrams concerning our train. Later he assigns carriages. We get coal, bedding, various equipment, and products: tea, biscuits, waffles. We prepare carriages to receive passengers; we get them cleaned – she says.
Carriages, which are assigned to them, change – once they travel on a sleeping carriage [four-seat], other times in the plackartnyj.
– We wait for passengers and check the tickets. We offer tea, coffee [first and second tea can be bought together with a ticket, or buy extra while travelling]. During one travel, we prepare around 150 cups of tea. Work can be tiring, but not too much. Sometimes in winter, it is harder because there are strong frosts, you need to throw more coal to the stove. But we handle it – says Mariana. [Heating on this rail connection takes place using coal – stoves in each carriage. The temperature reached and the time of its maintaining depends on the quality of the coal].
– We work for six days, and the seventh one is free. One can get used to it. All I need is 6 hours’ rest. It is good that we travel mainly during the day on this rail connection, so we do not feel like sleeping. It’s easier for me – she adds.
– What do you particularly like about this job?
She wonders for quite a long time.
– I don’t really know. Passengers are pleasant. I like everything – she answers.
Drinking tea is an essential point in travelling. It is the basic and the most common service for passengers. Tea is sometimes measured out, but the glasses remain the same – each of them is put in metal baskets with railway symbols. One has to pay for the drink, so many passengers come only for free boiling water.
– We have our dishes, but sometimes passengers come with theirs to take some boiling water. It is available 24 hours a day. We turn on samovars, and they constantly boil water, which is supplemented in Uzhhorod, Kyiv and Kharkov. The conductors prepare up to 1000 teas a day – says the train’s manager.
Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi railway station is the central station of Ukraine’s capital and the whole country. They are actually three stations in one place: central, southern and suburban.
The first railway station was built in 1870, along with the construction of railway lines running through Kiev. At the beginning of the 20th century, the number of passengers increased so much that a new station had to be built. World War I stopped it, and the construction of a new station building in the style of the Ukrainian Baroque was completed only in 1932.
In 2014, Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi served 6.3 mln passengers.
The station is connected with the centre by the Underground line called Wokzalna. You can get to Khreshchatyk street, the main street of the capital of Ukraine, in a few minutes.
The Ukrainian Railways use several types of locomotives in passenger transport. They have been made in Ukraine, former Czechoslovakia and cooperation with Germany [Siemens].
So the locomotive made in Czechoslovakia, ČS8, still pulls the carriages on the railway line from Kyiv to Kharkov. This eight-axle locomotive was produced in 1983-1989 by Škoda in Pilsen. It allows pulling trains with 16-19 carriages at speed up to 140 km/h. At a lower speed, it can pull up to 32 passenger carriages.
Leaving Kyiv and heading east, trains travel by the steep, right bank of the city and cross the Dnieper. It is the largest Ukrainian river – the fourth in terms of length and the third in terms of catchment in Europe.
In the times of the USSR, the river was widened because of the construction of the dams. Large water reservoirs were created then. The maximum width of the river is 18 km. Favourite resting places are located on the islands in the middle of the river in Kyiv.
We cross the Dnieper and the left-bank Kyiv. There are commuter districts of the capital there and the large Darnica railway station.
Mykola travels in a carriage with compartments. He returns to Luhansk. He spent some time in Kyiv with his son, who lives there with his wife and daughter.
– I do not find living there hard [in Luhansk], but they had left the flat and the city in 2014. It was not that dangerous, but the problem was that there were practically no jobs there. Everything is held back, only shops and marketplaces are opened. What can you do when you are out of work? There is nothing positive there – he says.
Mykola is on a Ukrainian pension, which he can get on the “Ukrainian side.” To reach his house, he must first get to Rubieżne from Lysychansk, then to Stanytsia Luhanska, and from there, on foot, crossing the bridge, to Luhansk, about 13 km further. Over 12,000 people pass through that point every day.
– I was born in Luhansk, I was a miner. The mine was called “Luhansk”; it was closed.. Currently, only one mine works nearby so what should people do? I am retired, so I live trying to make ends meet, but basically, what to do for a living? No one gets anything for free. The shops aren’t empty, but now everything is more expensive. My pension is enough for me; mining pensions are quite high.
In 2014, when the Ukrainian army was withdrawing from the suburbs of Luhansk, there were shootings and Mykola could see tanks and transporters burning. Many people got used to that war reality, but, as Mykola underlines, half of the people went to Ukraine to work and the other half to Russia.
32-year-old Andriy stands in the train corridor, he is going to get off in Sumy in a moment. He was in the visa centre in Kharkiv. He worked in Poland and wants to go there again, but recently he did not get a visa. He already worked in Wrocław, Lublin and Rzeszów. He earned PLN 3,200 nett a month.
– The salary in Sumy is five thousand hryvnias. Ten thousand hryvnias in Kyiv – he says.
However, Andrij likes working in Germany the most. A company from Rzeszów has sent him there.
– I earned 4.5 euros per hour. Poles earned 8 euros doing the same work – he adds and walks towards platform after a while.A young girl wearing a Ukrainian army uniform travels in a plackartnyj carriage. She serves in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. It’s normal to meet soldiers in Ukrainian trains since 2014. She goes to the Konotopa village because that is where her military unit is stationed. She has been in the army for a year and has signed a contract for three years.
– Why am I in the army? My husband is also a soldier. I work in the army canteen. Now I’m coming home. I don’t take this train often but it is warm inside, and that’s the most important thing! – she and her older friend, who also serves in the army, laugh together. – Now I only dream about taking a bath – she adds at the end.
A young woman and two children are sitting in the same carriage.
– Now and then we take this train. It is hard to travel with children during the day, and they do not want to sleep at night – she says.
The boy is about two years old, and his name is Żenia. He wants to play all the time. You can see that he is bored. The little one comes up to say hello and offers us some cookies.
The land between Sumy and Kharkiv is part of the so-called Sloboda Ukraine. It is a historical and geographical region that was created in the mid-seventeenth century in the area of current north-eastern Ukraine and south-west Russia. After the Khmelnytsky Uprising, a mass migration of people from the then right-bank Ukraine, which belonged to the Republic of Poland, began. At the same time, the Russian colonisation continued from the north. Sloboda Ukraine had its own Cossack regiments, and it enjoyed autonomy, but Russia exercised authority over it. In 1765, the independence of the region was abolished. As a result of the Ukrainian fights for freedom in 1917-1921, a significant part of Sloboda Ukraine was incorporated into the Ukrainian People’s Republic.
– Would you like some coffee? – the conductor [prowadnik] asks. – Wojtek has paid – he adds, laughing. That’s obviously a reference to Wojciech Balczun, the former head of the Ukrainian Railways.
The conductors do not want to introduce themselves. They come from the Sumy Oblast. He has been working as a conductor for 24 years, and two months on this railway route. He spends a week at work; then he has seven days off. They serve in one of the plackartnyj carriages, i.e. without compartments. The tickets here are the cheapest ones.
– You see, these carriages are really old. The wheels will fall away – he laughs.
– The wagons should’ve been better – his friend adds.
– It is a cheap, so called “social” train that goes through all of Ukraine. Paying so little, you can’t get a really good one. Once I was travelling to Poland, many were travelling. We were smuggling vodka and cigarettes. You, Poles, you managed to develop, and we … I do not believe anymore. I do not believe in our State – the man explains.
They complain about railway salaries , which are about 7-8 thousand hryvnias [over 1 thousand PLN]. At least you know you gonna get that money, they add.
– They give me credit in the shop because they know that the Ukrainian Railways pay on time – says the woman.
Not only them have problems with the money. The train is full of people – some get off, others get on. In the opinion of the conductors, it is clear that during the last 4-5 years everyone has become poorer. Earlier, as they say, it was different.
– Ukraine is like a great depression – he answers when we ask about the passengers.
– Once people were happier. They got on and immediately started to feast; they were eating sausage and drinking vodka. It was fun. And now people are upset because they are poor, they have no money. It’s a cheap “social” train – the man explains.
A young girl with low neckline interrupts. – Can I get a cup of coffee?
The conductor looks at her cleavage for a long time.
– Can I get a knife as well? – the girl asks.
– Yes, but be careful. You gonna stab someone, and I’ll be the one responsible – he laughs.
– You see for yourself, what a hard work! – he jokes, slowly turning his eyes away from the girl.
Ivan Ivanovich is the train manager. He has been the railwayman since 1991.
– I started working when the Soviet Union collapsed. In 1995, if I remember correctly, I was already a manager. I’ve been working on this position for over 23 years. Earlier, I travelled on the following routes: Uzhhorod – Kharkov, Uzhhorod – Khmelnytskyi, Uzhhorod – Chernivtsi, Uzhhorod – Lviv and Kyiv. These were the rail connections, and later some of them were quietly cut off. Last year there was also a train called Uzhhorod nr 13, and two trains to Kyiv, but they were also cut off. Since January 1, 2018, we began to travel this railway line between Uzhhorod and Lysychansk.
Ivan Ivanovich was born 18 km near Mukachevo, in Zakarpattia Oblast.
– The hardest moments in this job? We were having different problems at different times. There used to be newer wagons, but they already got old. That’s why sometimes we have to argue with the passengers. Because someone has bought a ticket and wants to travel comfortably, but the carriages are old. So they come to us and complain: “Why this train has got such old carriages? We were travelling by other trains, and there were new ones”. But that’s not our business. We try to ensure that all the existing standards are respected. Well, obviously not everything is perfect. Sometimes passengers even write complaints – Ivan says.
It’s particularly hard during winter.
– Basically, you have to heat up the carriages, and the electrical equipment does not work, because there are no spare parts, so you have to use coal. It is very hard during really low temperatures, everything freezes, and you have to defrost. If there is good coal, like now, and there is no such freezing, then there is no problem. But when the temperature reached -34 ° C, and the coal was like a powder, it was nothing to burn in fact. Reaching the right temperature was impossible. But there are also problems during summer. Not all of the air conditioners work because of high temperatures. Besides, they are not in all carriages. Also, the passenger comes and says: “They told us at the ticket office that there would be air conditioning in the compartment”, and there is neither a freon nor spare parts. There are some problems during summer and some others during winter. However, we try to make the passengers feel comfortable – the man adds.
After arriving in Lysychansk Ivan Ivanovich and the rest of the crew will go back to Uzhhorod. The coal and clean linen await them there again. They will prepare the carriages for the next travel.
– We will go again, and then I have a week break, sometimes 10 days off, depending on the schedule. The train is our second home. We spend most of our time there – Ivan says.
The man emphasises that two years ago many new young people wanted to work on the railway, but they soon began to quit.
– I understand them because salaries are not appropriate for the work we do. If they paid more, the young would work here. They graduated at the railway university, they come here and get to know how the system works, and they give up immediately. They prefer to go abroad, to Poland for example. You can see a significant outflow of the workforce. No one wants to work here. The old employees got used to these conditions. No matter how hard it is, they will work anyway. Anyway, when the salaries go up a bit, prices go up too – Ivan says.
The man underlines his work is very responsible.
– The conductor should be responsible for heating, and he is also a cleaner and a psychologist. He should be able to provide first aid and protect people from fire. Every possible non-standard situation? The conductor should know all the instructions. We try to do our best. We are glad when we finish work, and there are no complaints. Passengers are also different – some have not yet entered the wagons and are already starting to criticise – he says.
– This railway connection is called “social” because of the cheap tickets. But no matter how cheap it was, people still hold a grudge. The prices are much higher when you take a night train – the train manager says.
– Can I get some boiling water – the passenger interrupts.
– Yes, of course, the tap is over there, and so is the conductor– the manager replies.
– Is the boiling water all right, nothing is wrong with it?
– Why do you assume something is wrong with it? – The manager flinches at him and laughs at the same time. – The prices are much higher in faster trains, and the carriages are more modern. For example, train nr 92 between Lviv and Kyiv. There are many more modern carriages there, and our train … well, you see for yourself. Every year they write them down for decommissioning because they have already worn out. We do not know how long they will keep us on this railway line – he adds.
The train is full of passengers. On this longest railway line in Ukraine, one train takes 2,000 people in both directions. And few of them travel from the beginning to the end.
– As our first president Leonid Kravchuk said: “We have what we have.” I just wanna be healthy, after so many years there is no sense changing jobs. If our political magnates do not raise the retirement age, I could take a rest in 2019 – Ivan emphasises.
1,5 mln people live in Kharkov, a city located in the north-eastern part of Ukraine. It is an important industrial, scientific and academic centre. It is also an important transport hub. The local railway station was built in 1869, but it was already expanded in the years 1896-1901 and became one of the largest in the Russian Empire. In 1952, a new, socialist realism style building was put up in the place of the old railway station destroyed during WWII.
Serge was born in Cameroon. He is 31 years old and studies medicine in Kyiv. He has lived in Ukraine for 7 years.
– Ukraine is standard, although a slightly different country. There are good and bad people living here, the same as everywhere. It all depends on who you meet. I don’t believe people, many have fooled me in my life. There are some friends, but I have only one close friend from Morocco – says Serge. – This train is needed. There are trains in the same category in Cameroon. They are more expensive than here. They are called VIP trains [something like Ukrainian Intercity].
– Do you think about returning to Cameroon?
– It is my country. Sooner or later I’ll be back. But for now, I have other plans. I don’t want to say about it right now. Only God knows – that’s my secret. About 25 million people live in Cameroon. It’s a normal country, but our president is a fool. Many people who study in Europe want to come back and work in Cameroon, but politicians do not give us a chance. That’s why people stay abroad. If you are not the son of a president or a minister, you will not get a good job. It is not normal. Obviously, there is also corruption in Ukraine. It is everywhere – Serge sums up.
Twenty minutes for a cigarette and some shopping on the platform. Kupiansk Junction, located in the eastern part of the Kharkov Oblast, as its name indicates, is an important connection point, related to the located nearby Kupiansk. The city was founded in 1895 when a railway connection was opened between Kharkov and Balashov in Russia. In 1901, the construction of another railway line was completed, and the town became an important transportation hub in the Russian Empire, later in the USSR and independent Ukraine. In 2009, a new railway station was built.
We enter the Luhansk Oblast. Historically, it is the territory of the Swoboda Ukraine, and the neighbouring towns were often founded by Ukrainian Cossacks. This is also the land which – like many others in Ukraine – suffered because of the Holodomor, deliberately caused by the communist authorities of the USSR. According to estimates, in 1932-1933 about 3.3 mln people died of hunger in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Together with other USSR regions, it could have been from 6 to 10 mln people. Only in Svatove, through which we pass, 1296 people out of 20,000 residents died.
The farther to the south-east of Luhansk, the more these lands change. Some of them were settled by the Don Cossacks – the most numerous Cossack army in the Russian Empire.
It is also an area which was a part of the ATO (Anti-terrorist Operation in the East of Ukraine) aimed against armed pro-Russian fighters. There were clashes in the Rubiezne area. The town we pass came under Ukrainian control in July 2014.
Lysychansk is an important industrial centre located in the north-western part of the Luhansk Oblast. It is part of the agglomeration of Lysychansk – Sievierodonetsk.
The development of the city is connected with coal mining in the Donbas, which was started in the 18th century. In 1806, the first mining secondary school in Ukraine was opened.
In May 1879, a railway station with a railway connection to Popasna was opened. However, only the opening of another railway connection to Kupiansk in 1895, allowed to connect Lysychansk to other centres of the Russian Empire. The present railway station was built in 1961. From 22 May to 28 July 2014, the city was under the control of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic. As a result, the railway connections have been suspended. The railway traffic was resumed after the liberation of the city by the Ukrainian units at the end of September 2014.
It is 4 am and Irina Szestapałowa, wearing a uniform and full make-up, is waiting for us at the train station in Lysychansk. In principle, she waits almost every day as she is the manager of the railway station there.
It’s freezing cold so we go to her office to have some tea. It is difficult not to speak about the war in Lysychansk. Every resident has felt it directly, for many it is still a part of life because their families live close to the front line.
– People were mainly dying because of their curiosity – they were looking out of the window when they heard the gunshots. And the bullets are flying everywhere. It’s interesting for many, and yet you have to hide. They say: “Prepare a special suitcase in case of emergency”. We had a bag of medicines, water and documents, of course. If the documents are lost, it is complicated to reconstruct them. The most needed things are water and documents. You have to take to the shelter. A pillow and the mattress will be useful there too – Irina says.
– We went to take my mother, but older people are very difficult to convince. She said: “Oh dear, I am a “child of war”, I know what it looks like”, she laughed. “I will not leave the apartment”. And there they were shooting, the windows were broken, the balcony fell down. “Mom, let’s go, let’s go!”, I shouted. We ran to the car I had rented, making a stop from time to time. I shouted, “Mom, get down!”, as the bullet flew. We lay, laughed, then there was silence, we got up and run to the car again. Somehow I managed to take her. When the situation calmed down, she returned to her home – Irina describes.
Her story is like an extended monologue interrupted by serving tea.
We take a walk to see the station hall, waiting rooms and ticket office. Many people wait for the train by which we have arrived, and we will be returning soon.
– Many people left their homes and their dogs. But there were also those who took the dogs with them – Irina says.
Just to confirm her words, a homeless dog runs into the room. The manager tries to chase him because it is forbidden to let the dogs into the waiting room, but she did it half-heartedly.
We’re waiting for the sun. We want to film the train. The soldiers patrolling the area of the station were informed that we would be launching a quad. We can put our backpacks into the compartment. We leave at 6.25 by the same train to Uzhhorod.