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PBS News Hour | Ukrainian Railroad Workers Create Lifeline During War | Season 2024

AMNA NAWAZ: When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Ukrainians desperately tried to take trains to leave the country.

Since then, the Ukrainian railway has played a crucial role in evacuating people from frontline cities, transporting world leaders, and transporting cargo and Ukrainian troops.

Special reporter Volodymyr Solohub of “News Hour” and videographer Pavel Sookhodolskiy wrote this report.

VOLODYMYR SOLOHUB: The first days of the large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine brought chaos to the country’s largest company, Ukrainian Railways.

As millions of people tried to flee, the train network was running at full capacity.

The company had to adjust its timetable every day to get thousands of people across the border.

The Ukrainian railways have become a lifeline for the country from day one of the large-scale Russian invasion.

They carried people out of the country to a safe place and brought in much-needed relief supplies and goods.

Ukrainian Railways has become the safest way for world leaders to travel to Ukraine.

Heads of state, prime ministers and presidents, including President Biden, all took the overnight train from Poland to Kiev.

President Zelensky recognized the crucial importance of the railway system during the war and last fall rewarded the railway workers for their dedication and courage, thanking them for their contributions.

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, President of Ukraine (through interpreter): I would like to thank all of you and all the employees of our railways.

These are 220,000 people who, despite all the dangers, ensure that our country keeps running.

VOLODYMYR SOLOHUB: The Ukrainian railway network was also attacked by the Russians. The wagons were pierced by shrapnel, the tracks were blown away by explosions, and the personnel were killed or wounded.

And it was a train station that was the scene of one of the most horrific Russian attacks of the war, in Kramatorsk, when dozens of people were killed by a cluster bomb that hit a busy platform.

According to Ukrainian Railways, nearly 30 workers have been killed and more than 90 injured in the line of duty, and more than 1,700 have been wounded on the battlefield as of April this year. Andriy Sobkovskiy, 22, got his first job at the age of 18 with Ukrainian Railways as a train conductor.

But 10 months after taking office, he was called up for military service and in April 2022, three rockets hit the base where he was stationed.

ANDRIY SOBKOVSKIY, Ukrainian railway worker (through interpreter): I was stuck under a concrete plank.

I was sleeping in bed when it happened, and the board broke in half and fell on my legs.

A man to my right died instantly.

He was simply crushed by the rubble.

A man to my left was also conscious the whole time, and I tried to help him.

VOLODYMYR SOLOHUB: Andriy had to wait 12 hours before he was rescued.

As a section of the ceiling crushed his legs, he thought of his loved ones and his future.

ANDRIY SOBKOVSKIY (through interpreter): I thought about my family, about the loss of my legs.

I realized that even then: even if your limb is crushed by something for two hours, that’s it.

I knew right away that I was going to lose both legs.

VOLODYMYR SOLOHUB: Two years after losing his limbs, he is still in rehabilitation.

He now has a special car to get around in, but the biggest help he gets comes from his family, even though they were all very shocked at first.

ANDRIY SOBKOVSKIY (through interpreter): It was very difficult.

It turned out that it wasn’t my family that supported me, but that I had to support my family.

It was the hardest for my grandfather.

He is 70 years old and a former soldier himself.

He took my injury very seriously.

We were very close and I spent most of my childhood with him.

VOLODYMYR SOLOHUB: It is for people like Andriy that the Global Ukraine Rail Task Force raises money.

Earlier this year, a delegation of representatives of railway companies from different countries came to Ukraine.

And they came bearing gifts.

NICK BROOKS, Co-Chair of the Global Ukraine Rail Task Force: We are here to show our solidarity with the Ukrainian rail system in this war of aggression started by Russia.

We come first of all to support the Ukrainian trade union.

VOLODYMYR SOLOHUB: Nick Brooks is co-chair of the Global Ukraine Rail Task Force, an initiative of the rail industry from Europe and North America to support Ukrainian rail companies in the wake of the Russian invasion.

NICK BROOKS: In fact, we believe that the Ukrainian Railways are a second army of Ukraine.

It is the backbone of the country, the backbone of society and the backbone of the economy.

VOLODYMYR SOLOHUB: The support of European and American colleagues is clearly appreciated by the leadership of Ukrainian Railways.

OLEKSANDR PERTSOVSKYI, CEO of the Passenger Company of Ukrainian Railways: Psychologically, it is a huge sign for our employees that they are in solidarity with the entire railway community.

It is not. They feel that they are already the largest community in Ukraine, but the realization that they are part of the huge railway network and that they are not alone is a very powerful message.

VOLODYMYR SOLOHUB: Ukrainian trains carry not only presidents and prime ministers, but also perhaps more precious cargo: the men and women wounded at the front and those returning home.

And with the end of Russia’s war against Ukraine nowhere in sight, Ukrainian railways continue to play an important role in the country’s survival.

For the PBS “News Hour,” I’m Volodymyr Solohub in Kiev, Ukraine.

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