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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #334

Taking a train early in the morning in wartime Ukraine is never a terribly pleasant experience, and I acquired a sense for the occasion as, at 450am, just before curfew was lifted, the hotel announced on the tannoy that Kyiv was under attack and could we all please descend to the air raid shelter. Obviously I wasn’t doing that and instead I packed my luggage and headed outside to the railway station, that was surrounded by all the men with guns and it was closed due to the air raid siren. Thankfully by now I know my way round this which is to walk through a hole in the fence and just ignore everything going on around you, and walk onto the relevant railway track because train drivers and train guards, it seems, also ignore air raid sirens and just keep the trains running anyway even if you can’t actually enter the station they’re stopping at.

My friend and colleague was not so lucky, because he’d broken the cardinal sin of all travel to Kyiv which is to stay in the hotel next to the railway station, no matter how overpriced and insalubrious it may appear, because your train is guaranteed to be leaving at an obscenely earlier hour in the morning and you don’t want to wake up 10 minute before the train departs on the other side of the city. So he arrived at the station five minutes after the train had left precisely on time and then he tried to board some knackered old sleeper also heading to Lviv just after my fast clean modern express train that he’d been booked on too. However the ticket types are different and he wasn’t lucky with the train guards. You can’t use a ticket for a modern express for a knackered old sleeper; these are two different classes of travel in the byzantine Ukrainian railway system. So he was left impotent as a second train to Lviv slid out of the station ten minutes after the one he had missed, and now he is facing six hours in Kyiv until the next train with nothing much to do around the railway station area which is totally grotty. You have to be well prepared if you’re going to travel with Ukrainian Railways, because they have very thin tolerance for casual mistakes.

The bitter sweet carriage attendant engaged me in Ukrainian, interested in who I am but she had a certain scowl about her that didn’t make me want to get acquainted with her. Lviv has been attacked overnight, damaging a residential neighbourhood, and there is widespread disquiet as this is the first time there has been such an attack successfully for several months although it is not clear that anyone has been killed or seriously wounded. Nevertheless it illustrates Russia’s grim and relentless war of attrition against the population centres she sees as being the loci of civilian resistance to her murderous political campaign for the domination of Europe. Train travel in Ukraine has become increasingly tiresome and mundane in my eyes and I have decided I prefer the exhausted old sleepers to first class sitting trains, because there is more privacy whereas on the first class trains everyone seems to use the carriage as social space to get to know one another, which when I am exhausted with fatigue from a poor night’s sleep is the last thing I really want to be bothered with. Nevertheless the daytime seating format trains are significantly faster than the long haul trains, reducing journey time from eight hours or more to five-and-a-half. Watching the wild wilderness flash past at speeds of up to 160 kilometres per hour, one really gets the sense of a Ukraine moving into the twenty-first century; those longer, older, slower trains are more appropriate for buffs of Soviet nostalgia of which I suppose I am one.

The main issue with these high speed trains is fitting them in between the schedules of the slower ones, and I don’t think the schedules of the slower ones have changed for many decades. Hence the two trains per day from Lviv to Zaporizhzhia, one at 26 hours and one at 17 hours. The journey could in principle be done in as little as 7 hours with modern high-speed Ukrainian trains but there isn’t spare space on the tracks given these lumbering old hulks. The middle of a war isn’t typically the best time to restructure a command economy such as a domestic railway system, and for years the railways were neglected as Ukraine developed its own internal air network, something now abandoned completely due to wartime conditions. Basically these old hulks of trains need taking off the rails and replacing with modern ones; or giant locomotives even more enormous and capable of pulling these heavy old carriages at high speeds need to be be acquired. Either way the Soviet-era timetables for Soviet-era sleeping trains need to be abandoned to procure contemporary twenty-first century efficiencies for trains but this is the sort of reform that will require expert foreign consultants pouring over the books and records off a decrepit old state railway system. It will come with European Union integration, in time, along with everything else, and funding for development of railway infrastructure will be rendered conditional upon institutional reform.

The basic problem with speeding up railways, of course, is that fast trains can;’t pass slow ones using the same tracks: a problem ignored by the Soviet system because it gave minimal priority to customer satisfaction or consumer comfort. The challenge involves finding time for good trains - that move slowly - and express trains - that move quickly - on the same tracks, and it should not be too difficult in a comprehensive railway network like Ukraine in which in fact there are lots of railway lines even to the smallest of destinations and therefore you can direct slower traffic onto slower and less used tracks, leaving the main railroad arteries between cities for high-speed inter-city transport. Nevertheless this does require mathematics and data analysis and Ukraine isn’t quite there yet.

I’m going to try to sit back and watch for the rest of this comfortable journey, that could be taking place anywhere in western Europe. Just for the next few hours, Ukraine feels absolutely normal.


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