In the early hours of 24 February 2022, when Russian bombs and rockets struck Ukrainian cities and infrastructure throughout the country, railway workers boarded trains heading east. Determined to get as many people as possible to safety, they would end up evacuating millions to Ukraine’s borders in the west.

Ukraine’s new railway chief Yevhen Liashchenko was in the team that guided the network through the first stages of the war. He says his people acted not because they were instructed to but because “they didn’t know any other way”. There was no time for bureaucracy, “decisions were made by the people on the ground, and they love the railway, not as a business but as a family”.

It takes more than 230,000 people to keep the trains running in Ukraine.

  • Yevhen Liashchenko, chief executive of Ukrainian railways, has been leading Ukraine’s 230,000 railway workers through the war

Together they run a vast railway network of more than 15,000 miles (24,000km) of track, one that has been invaluable for Ukraine’s ability to withstand the invasion. Despite continual bombing, the network has largely remained operational. Damage to the tracks is swiftly repaired, and shell-hit critical infrastructure is promptly restored.

Over two years, we followed families and workers living by the tracks near the frontlines to find out how the war and the struggle to keep the trains running is shaping their lives.

The Neschcheryakovas

Nadiya Neschcheryakova works as an attendant at a railway crossing in Bucha, about 10 miles from Kyiv. She works in shifts, sharing her post with her mother and two other women. On the morning of the invasion, the sound of explosions pierced the sky above the thick pine forests surrounding her home. She went to work anyway. A few days later, her post at the railway crossing was occupied by Russian troops. Her home in the next village along the track was now at the frontline of the war.

  • Nadiya Neschcheryakova operates her railway crossing in Bucha, near Kyiv. A freight train passes transporting materials such as wood for possible use in Ukraine’s defensive efforts along the frontline

  • Remnants of the Neschcheryakovas’ family house, destroyed by shelling, lie in the yard at Spartak, Kyiv oblast

  • Nadiya Neschcheryakova with her husband, Yuriy, their daughter Kateryna and grandson Andriy. Yuriy built a new house after their home was destroyed by shelling early in the war

With her husband, daughter and grandson, Nadiya managed to flee to the west where they stayed for a month waiting for the Russian withdrawal from Kyiv. When they returned home, they found their home had been reduced to rubble.

The Petrovs

When the city of Kherson was liberated after nine months of Russian occupation in November 2022, Oleksandr Petrov was sent on a mission to repair the tracks leading to the city. When he set out in a van with a team of repairmen in the morning, he knew the risks: the fields along the tracks were heavily mined in an attempt to slow the Ukrainian advance.

  • Railway workers wash their wounds after driving over a mine in the Kherson region, 13 November 2022. They were carrying out repair works just days after Kherson was liberated. Oleksandr Petrov lost a leg in the incident

  • Oleksandr shows his prosthetic leg to workers in a railway repair team in Voznesensk, Mykolaiv oblast. Since his injury, Oleksandr has been given a desk job

Russian troops were expected to start shelling the city once they’d had a chance to regroup on the other side of the Dnipro River. The civilians left in the city would have to be evacuated by train, so Oleksandr went anyway. Later that day, Oleksandr lost his leg after they drove over a Russian anti-vehicle mine.

When Ukrainian troops recaptured the railway hub of Lyman from Russian troops in November 2022, it had been under Russian occupation for six months. Since then, it has been on the frontline of the war in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Yet, a small community of railway families continues to live in the basements of their battered apartment buildings on the outskirts of the city.

  • The Rosokha family mourn the death of Nina Rosokha, who was killed by a Russian artillery strike on Lyman. Nina had worked in a railway service department, her husband was a train driver for 36 years. During the funeral, sounds of fighting could be heard in the nearby Kreminna forest

  • Fedya, 13, plays his accordion outside the apartment building where he lives with his mother and grandmother, both of whom work for the railway. Evelyna, 12, with one of her cats

The families in the community stay underground most of the time. The frontline is too close for the air raid alert system to be effective, and artillery and missiles can strike at any moment. The community have paid a heavy price in the war. Railway worker Nina Rosokha was killed on her way to the post office in a Russian artillery strike on a market. During another attack, Lyubov Surzhan’s top-floor apartment was obliterated. A piece of shrapnel skimmed Fedya’s head during a strike on a nearby railway depot. Yet the railway is their home and, despite the danger, they don’t want to leave.

The Mykolaychuks

The Mykolaychuk brothers live in an apartment building in the centre of Podilsk. Both are fifth generation locomotive drivers. Before the invasion, their jobs were mostly local, transporting grain from the region to the port of Odesa. Now, they go farther east towards the frontlines of the war, driving evacuation trains and weapons transports.

They don’t get paid if they don’t work, and jobs have become less frequent since the war. With money hard to come by, they have had to sell their family car to make ends meet.

The Tereshchenkos

Olha Tereshchenko survived a Russian attack on a convoy of civilians fleeing the then occupied city of Kupiansk. Her husband and five-year-old son were killed. Consumed with grief, she now works at a railway office in Kharkiv and gets support from her fellow workers there. Urns containing the ashes of her husband and son still sit on a shelf in a nearby crematorium. She hopes to bury them near their home in Kupiansk one day, when the frontline is further away.

  • Olha’s husband and son, photographed as a baby, were killed in a Russian attack on a civilian convoy. Olha is overcome when she visits their remains in a nearby crematorium: she hopes one day to bury her husband and son near their home in Kupiansk

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