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Ukraine's rail system is working overtime to keep people and goods moving

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's the second-largest country in Europe by land area. It stretches some 1,200 miles from east to west. Since Russia re-invaded, no planes are flying, many roads are damaged or blocked or slowed down with checkpoints, but the rail system is working. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley took a ride on the rails.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STATE ANTHEM OF UKRAINE")

ELEARNOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Since the war began, the Ukrainian national anthem plays throughout the Dnipro Station every time a train departs. Vadim Busurulov is the director of this rail hub in central Ukraine.

VADIM BUSURULOV: At the beginning of the war, every day we departed about 15,000 people from this station.

BEARDSLEY: Some 4 million Ukrainians have been evacuated by train since the Russian invasion on February 24. The activity has been so intense that key rail workers are still living at their stations. Dnipro rail human resources director Irina Lytynova remembers the first days of the war.

IRINA LYTYNOVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

BEARDSLEY: "When the Russian troops were advancing very fast, we had urgent meetings every hour," she says, "so we could follow the situation on the front lines and know how to adapt our schedules to rescue people and defend our infrastructure." Valeriy Garbatyuk has been a railroad worker for 40 years. He says his job has never been so important.

VALERIY GARBATYUK: (Through interpreter) Ukrainian railroad does the same job like Ukrainian military, you know, because we are saving people. And our role is very important because one week, we take IDPs, the other week, we take wounded people.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN WHISTLE)

BEARDSLEY: The Russians are targeting railway infrastructure - tracks, electric grids, stations. At least 161 railway workers have been killed since February. Railway repairs that would have taken weeks before are now done in a few hours, says Oleksandr Kamyshin (ph), head of the state-owned Ukrainian rail system, speaking here in a video about trains in the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

OLEKSANDR KAMYSHIN: And that's our main mission now, once the shelling is over, to repair everything and get back to operations. Railways became the lifeline of the country. We help to do evacuation program. We do humanitarian aid program. We bring people with iron diplomacy program.

BEARDSLEY: Iron diplomacy - global stars and politicians who have come to visit President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv by train - Angelina Jolie, Nancy Pelosi, Boris Johnson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: Hi, it's Boris Johnson here, prime minister of the United Kingdom. I'm travelling on a fantastic Ukrainian Railways train through to Kyiv from Poland. And I just want to say a massive thank you to all the staff of Ukrainian Railways for what you're doing.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Speaking Ukrainian).

BEARDSLEY: I finally get my own experience on the Ukrainian train system, known as Ukrzaliznytsia.

Well, we're just setting off from Kyiv to go to the Lviv. It's an overnight trip. I have a little berth. There's bunks. It's for two people, but I've got the whole space to myself. And it's kind of nice. Thank you. Dyakuyu.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Please.

BEARDSLEY: Stepping out onto the platform the next morning in Lviv, I meet 18-year-old Lisa Plesshanova who's come to discover the western city.

LISA PLESSHANOVA: So I'm the simple student from Kyiv.

BEARDSLEY: Plesshanova just took the train as a tourist and paying passenger. But in March, she rode for free when she was fleeing the war.

PLESSHANOVA: I don't know how to explain it, but it's pretty cool that we have something more than just train.

BEARDSLEY: Plesshanova says Ukraine's rail system embodies the spirit of the country as it's come together in this war. I have one more question before we part. How do you pronounce your train again, the company?

PLESSHANOVA: Oh, Ukrzaliznytsia.

BEARDSLEY: It's very difficult for us.

PLESSHANOVA: Yeah, for us, too, a little bit sometimes. Yeah.

BEARDSLEY: Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Lviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.