The arrival of the first Ukrainian train in Kherson last month, with its familiar blue paintwork, served as a powerful symbol of the city’s liberation from eight months of brutal Russian occupation.
There were waves to passengers from those standing alongside the tracks as the train thundered into the recaptured southern city, then joyful hugs and tears on the platform as families were reunited.
Some held flags, others flowers, as they cheered the staff who have performed heroically in Ukraine’s fightback against Vladimir Putin by keeping rail services running along 16,700 miles of track.
They reflect the determination of citizens to resist the Russian President’s attack on every possible front. ‘Our tanks go in first, followed by our trains,’ declared Oleksandr Kamyshin, chief executive of the sprawling rail system.
His defiant words underline the remarkable role of Ukraine’s ‘Iron People’, as they are hailed on social media. These are the train-drivers, engineers, attendants and managers working day and night to protect their vast nation’s backbone amid the horrors of war.
What a contrast these selfless workers offer to their better paid counterparts in Britain, who cynically disrupt national wellbeing with strikes designed to cause maximum anguish at Christmas
Almost 300 rail staff have been killed as they transport soldiers, weapons and supplies to the front line, help others escape Kremlin atrocities, and rapidly repair the damage from drones and missiles.
What a contrast these selfless workers offer to their better paid counterparts in Britain, who cynically disrupt national wellbeing with strikes designed to cause maximum anguish at Christmas.
And how bitterly ironic that while Ukraine’s rail workers perform so bravely in Europe’s fight for democracy against a bloodstained dictatorship, some of the hard-Left militants leading strikes here in Britain promote Putin’s cause – even posing for pictures with pro-Kremlin thugs and wearing symbols of Russia’s aggression.
Meanwhile, their union leader Mick Lynch uses the language of military conflict, speaking of his members’ dispute with management as ‘two sides in a war’ as they sabotage services with strikes and overtime bans. Mr Kamyshin, however, insists that ‘war is not an excuse’ for bad service, despite the hail of bombs and chronic power cuts in his country.
Ukrainian tanks go in first, followed by our trains
And I can testify to his success after criss-crossing Ukraine over the past year during 25 weeks of reporting on the conflict.
I was in Dnipro, in central Ukraine, in October when the Russians unleashed 84 cruise missiles and 24 drones in a bid to destroy Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Yet by 9pm the same day, Mr Kamyshin said only 14 trains were facing delays of more than one hour.
Even on the worst day of disruption in Ukraine last month, he said proudly that ‘we didn’t cancel any single train and all our passengers finally arrived safely’, thanks to the tireless efforts of his staff. Dmytro Yaroshenko, who has worked on the railways for 18 years and headed the team on that first train back into freed Kherson, typically plays down any suggestion of personal heroism and insists he is just doing a job he loves.
The 36-year-old recalls packing terrified people into his train in the war’s early days, staff giving up their own spaces and keeping the lights out to deter Russian attacks.
He says that his train once passed a burning fuel depot in the town where his wife and two children were staying. ‘We were looking through the windows at the fire. It was very scary,’ he adds.
The 230,000 men and women working for Ukrzaliznytsia – Ukraine’s rail system – have kept services running despite waves of attacks on electrical substations, fuel depots, stations and bridges. ‘We had eight days to establish a hospital train and 30 days for rebuilding a whole bridge – those are time schedules that are not typical for railways,’ said one official.
Incredibly, 85 per cent of trains run on schedule – significantly better than the 68 per cent of British trains stopping at stations on time, according to the most recent data.
Employees’ efforts have been rewarded with two pay rises, pushing a train-driver’s pay over £7,000 a year – about eight times less than British drivers, who are going on strike over an offered salary increase of eight per cent.
The median pay of all British rail workers is £44,000 – about nine times the wage of the engineers desperately patching up Ukraine’s network in freezing weather.
The worst attack on Ukraine’s rail system was in April when a missile struck Kramatorsk station as it was filled with thousands fleeing Russia’s advance. Sixty people died.
The missile was fired from the nearby separatist enclave of Donetsk, seized by pro-Russian stooges in 2014. It created such carnage that I was told terrified people, even children, had to walk over human flesh to escape.
Yet consider this chilling fact: one of the most senior officials in the RMT union visited that enclave to hang out with a key paramilitary leader soon after Russia helped it break away from Ukraine.
Eddie Dempsey, the RMT’s senior assistant general secretary, who boasts of his desire to ‘overthrow capitalism’, even posed for pictures with Aleksander Mozgovny in 2015. He wrote a glowing obituary of the ‘charismatic’ rebel after his death a few weeks later.
We had eight days to establish a hospital train, 30 days to build a bridge
Yet Mozgovny was a close ally of a key Russian operative called Igor Girkin, an ultra-nationalist who helped orchestrate events in Donetsk and the illegal annexation of Crimea that same year. Girkin was sentenced to life in prison by a Dutch court this month over the shooting down of a passenger plane as it flew over Ukraine. The death toll was 298.
Yet Lynch has defended his colleague. And Dempsey is the most graphic example of how, behind their PR facade, several senior RMT officials, including Communist president Alex Gordon, appear to parrot Putin’s propaganda.
Such men claim that Ukraine is riven with fascists and argue that Nato bears responsibility for provoking Putin’s atrocities.
Significantly, Gordon has protested outside the Ukrainian embassy in London wearing the black-and-orange Ribbon of St George I saw on Putin’s militia during Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
They are, sadly, not alone among leading lights in the union movement whose anti-Americanism or Marxism tips them into doing the dirty work for Putin, a fascistic dictator pursuing a colonial war.
This does not negate their arguments over pay. Yet the repulsive views of some union leaders sabotaging our Christmas sits uneasily with the heroic efforts of Ukrainians daily risking their lives to keep trains running, their country alive and democracy on track.