Exit Interview: Ukraine’s railway boss looks back on an extraordinary year

Oleksandr Kamyshin has kept Ukraine’s trains running on time since Russia's invasion. As he gets ready to step into a new role, he spoke to The Parliament about 12 months he could never have imagined
Oleksandr Kamyshin was CEO of Ukrzaliznytsia for just six months before the full-scale invasion in February 2022 which changed his role dramatically | Photo: Sasha Maslov

By Caleb Larson

Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist, covering the intersection of conflict, security, and technology with a focus on American foreign policy, European security, and German society

06 Apr 2023

Oleksandr Kamyshin has had quite a year. The 38-year-old CEO of Ukraine’s national railway system, Ukrzaliznytsia, which is the country’s largest employer, had been on the job for only about six months when Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Since then, Kamyshin has become a household name while overseeing a rail service that has evacuated millions of Ukrainians fleeing westward, shepherded scores of leaders and diplomats (and more than a few celebrities) in and out of Kyiv, and, against all odds, generally managed to keep the country’s transportation up and running amid Russia’s brutal assault. 

On 27 February, after almost exactly one year at war, Kamyshin announced he would be stepping down from his role as CEO of Ukrzaliznytsia to head up the company’s new European integration office.  

All photos by Sasha Maslov

When The Parliament caught up with Kamyshin at Kyiv’s central train station, his popularity was instantly apparent. Standing nearly two meters tall and sporting a dark goatee and the distinctive Cossack-style haircut, Kamyshin is hard to miss. Passing employees of Ukrzaliznytsia, known as Ukrainian Railways in English, flashed broad smiles. Passengers, too, took notice. During our walk, multiple people approached Kamyshin to express their thanks, often quite emotionally.  

Kamyshin coined the term “iron diplomacy” to refer to the process of shuttling leaders and diplomats into Ukraine by rail during wartime. In past months, “iron” has taken on new meaning in Ukraine. “We say that to be brave like Ukrainians is to be ‘like iron’, like the railways,” says Kamyshin. 

As Kamyshin gets ready to transition to his new role, he spoke to The Parliament about an extraordinary year on the job. During our conversation, he reflected on the challenges to maintaining and improving rail service and expanding into formerly occupied areas, as well as the high costs the company has sustained — in lives lost and the toll the war has taken on himself. 

This conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. 


How’s your day going so far? Busy? What’s an ordinary day for Ukrainian Railways? 

It’s a typical day, but a typical day during the war is always unusual. You can plan your schedule, but when the Russians start shelling or when something happens, your schedule changes, and you have to react to what has happened. 

We have operated this way for 477 days. And we’ve found a way to keep the trains running, no matter how heavily they shell us. We’ve also found time for development, construction, new projects and improvements.

It’s important for me because we should not just survive, but we should keep growing, keep developing and keep becoming better. Just surviving is not enough. 

Operating in a wartime environment makes priorities like new projects and innovation more difficult. Is that accurate? How has the war affected new projects? 

We want to become better even during the war. So, we have built more new tracks during the war than any other year since Ukraine’s independence [in 1991]. We launched a new [mobile] phone app, upgraded stations and [took on] other initiatives that would be a lot to do even in the parts of Europe now at peace. But we strive to succeed and innovate despite the war. 

Because, again, just surviving is not enough for us. It’s in our blood, and we want to become better. War is not an excuse. That’s why even during the war, you will see that our on-time performance is much better than in some other countries. 

You were CEO for about six months before the full-scale invasion in February, when the situation changed dramatically. How did your mission or your responsibility change after the invasion? 

When I came to Ukrainian Railways, we had a development programme, a construction programme and several new projects. And all that stopped on 24 February because we had to save people, we had to bring humanitarian aid in – we had other priorities. 

It took us maybe 100 days to deal with those immediate issues. Then we switched gears to do more, to develop the company. We had to work with people and develop western border corridors for cargo trains. And many more initiatives which I cannot discuss. 

“We’ve found a way to keep the trains running, no matter how heavily they shell us”

We had to rebuild our rail connections with neighbouring countries like Moldova, Romania and Poland, and infrastructure and construction projects. And looking back, it was complicated, but we did it.  

Do you remember where you were on 24 February? What was going through your mind?  

I was in Kyiv at home with my family. I woke up close to 5 am because my cell phone rang. The Dnipro regional manager called me and said, “We’ve been shelled.” I heard the shelling in Kyiv, too. And I couldn’t finish the first call with the Dnipro manager. I got another call, and another call, and another call, from all over Ukraine. My regional managers were calling me and saying the same thing, “We’ve been shelled.” 

I got up, dressed and went to meet my people because we had to start doing something. My first ideas, my first thoughts, were simple: “How can this happen in the 21st century in the middle of Europe? How can this kind of war happen with air raids, missiles, shelling?” For me, it was unbelievable. Yes, some people said that war would happen. But again, no one expected this kind of war. 

Obviously, you have responsibilities for this company and the people who ride the trains. But you also have a family. When war broke out, how did you decide how to divide your time between your family and the company? 

My choice was complicated. But at the same time, it was easy. I kissed my boys — I have two boys — I kissed them, and then I ran to the railway office to get people together and start fighting because millions of people were trying to evacuate. 

I couldn’t pay enough attention to evacuate my family, my own family. So, I asked my friends to take care of them. And on 24 February, I didn’t even see them after I left my house. My friends took care of my family. They helped get them out of Kyiv. 

Meanwhile, I was working with my team. I wanted to see my family. But at that moment, I couldn’t leave my people and deal with my personal things. The next time I saw [my wife and sons] was about a month later. 

That must be incredibly difficult as a family man to balance family and work under such incredible circumstances. 

Yes. But being the family man, I am also a statesman. I have to care about people. It’s about millions of people — we evacuated four million people, including one million children. That was really important. 

Absolutely. Some people still use the rails to evacuate. But that level is lower now than it was in February. 

It’s in the low hundreds now, daily. 

Was there a moment that sticks in your memory during high evacuations? 

There are dozens — hundreds — of such moments. My team and I travelled across the country daily to see that everything was working correctly and to check that we had all the proper services in place. Because at some point, we understood that it’s not only about bringing people from one city to another. We had to provide people with food, psychological aid, etc. And it wasn’t very easy. But yes, I’ve seen nightmares across the whole country. 

Did your mission or the mission of the railway change after evacuation peaked? Was there a shift from, “Okay we need to get people out of here” to something else? 

On day 20 of the war, I posted #IronEconomy on Twitter. At that moment, evacuations were on track, and our humanitarian aid programme worked despite the high numbers. But on that day, I saw that it was fine. Evacuations were adequately arranged, and they were working. So, on day 20, I noticed we had to deal with the economy. If we don’t do it now, we will have trouble quite soon. 

Then I focused my team on our western border corridors. At that time, Ukraine’s seaports were closed. And we had to find a way to export our cargo via western land routes. The Ukrainian economy is highly dependent on commodity exports. So, we had to help our farmers and metallurgical producers get their products out of the country. And it wasn’t very easy, but we focused and struggled to improve it. It grew significantly each month. And finally, we reached a point where we can now export properly. We do export everything that is needed and import things like fuel. 

Has Ukrainian Railways entirely made up for the loss of cargo transport that came via sea? 

We lost half of our cargo exports in 2022 [due to Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports], but now we’re growing. We haven’t returned to prewar figures because some significant producers are lost, like the Azovstal steel plant [in occupied Mariupol]. But we strive to find a way to transport more freight for our businesses. And that has an impact on the world as well. 

Ukrainian Railways is the country’s largest employer. How would you describe the role that the employees of Ukrainian Railways have filled? 

Indeed, we are the largest employer in the country. We have 231,000 people [working for the company]. And all these people are “iron people”. Ukrainians see that right away; the way railway men and women stood from day one. And we will stand until victory, however long it takes. We don’t just stand. We approach victory. 

“We will stand until victory, however long it takes. We don’t just stand. We approach victory” 

There have also, unfortunately, been employees who’ve been hurt or injured, and some have lost their lives during their work with Ukrainian Railways. Is that something that weighs heavily on you? 

Yes, this is the heaviest of losses for us. We lost almost 400 railway employees plus nearly 900 injured, and that’s the heaviest loss for us because the lives and health of our people are of primary importance. It is the highest price we, as the railways, pay in this war. But the whole country suffers, and the entire country bears this price. 

We will continue to restore damage [to rail infrastructure]. But people’s life and health [are] our highest priority, of highest value to us. 

Russia’s attack on the Kramatorsk train station in April 2022 killed 60 people and injured more than 100, mostly civilians, and consequently, the station closed that day. Was that a turning point? In your mind, how do you place that event within the timeline of what Ukrainian Railways has done? 

Russia didn’t just start this war. They also commit war crimes. When you consider all the rules of war and international standards, the Kramatorsk massacre is one of the most vivid and awful war crimes of this war. And I’m sure it will be appropriately prosecuted and followed up later in international courts, and Russia will answer for these crimes. 

The Kramatorsk station is now open. I rode there from Kyiv just last week. 

Was it on time? 

It was, it was on time! 

Those bastards came to Ukraine and said they would take Kyiv in three days. And then, later in the middle of the war, we relaunched a high-speed train to Kramatorsk. It’s incredible, and it runs on time. And it shows we will withstand [the Russians]. 

It’s complicated for us to keep trains running in the east. But again, we have to keep running and keep connecting people across the entire country. I was on the first inaugural train to Kramatorsk. I was deadly ill at the time with the flu and a high temperature, but I had to go and see it myself. And it’s really important to keep running to places [in the Donbas region] like Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. 

Kramatorsk is not the only reopened line. Places like Kherson and other cities now have rail service too. What is the significance of reopening closed lines? 

It’s really important to bring trains back to cities. First of all, it brings freedom to travel. Second, it brings in humanitarian aid in scale. Third, it brings business back, people can bring cargo in and out. 

The Ukrainian army is doing a great job pushing out the “second army of the world”, as the Russians call themselves. We have to be on the same level, as good as our army. We must follow [the Ukrainian army’s lead] and bring the [rail] connection back to cities once they liberate occupied territory. 

So far, we have restored service to Irpin, Bucha, Borodianka, Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, Izium, Balakliya, Kupiansk and Kherson. I have been with my team on all inaugural trains. It’s important to bring the first train to the city. Once we beat the Russians back, [then we] start running trains. 

Ukrainian Railways has played a pivotal role in bringing world leaders and politicians to Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine by rail. What considerations go into planning a route for that kind of delegation? 

Our role is simple: our Iron Diplomacy programme safely brings leaders and diplomats in and out. And we have carried more than 300 official delegations successfully. And that’s important for us. That includes President Biden. That was a story to remember. 

How come? 

The Russians promised to take Kyiv in three days. And then, on the 362nd day of the war, [United States President Joseph] Biden was walking in Kyiv under air raid sirens. That’s definitely a sign that says, “You will never have victory [over Ukraine]”. President Biden is as brave as Ukrainians. 

That’s probably the biggest compliment you could give someone. 

We say that to be brave like Ukrainians is to be “like iron”, like the railways. 

How would you describe this past year for Ukrainian Railways in a word? 

It was an iron year. The whole country and world saw that we are real iron people. And that we will stand. Our resilience was apparent from day one. 

Everyone knows that whatever happens in the city, if they want, they can come to the station and always travel; we’ve never cancelled a single train. Never. 

“Everyone knows that whatever happens in the city, if they want, they can come to the station and always travel; we’ve never cancelled a single train. Never” 

When they shell us heavily, we will delay trains. It’s a disaster for me. But we have never cancelled a single train. Many railways in other countries cancel trains during peacetime. Our people know that they will always get a train. So, they feel safer. 

Were there any moments that were particularly dangerous for you personally? 

There were many cases where it was really close. But you know, we have a rule. We never send people where we [executive-level leaders] are not ready to go ourselves. So that’s why our people are fine to keep working in the hottest places because I’ve been there with my team at every single location. 

That must take a toll. It’s incredible that you can find the energy, day after day, over the course of a full year, to continue doing what you do. Is this something that has affected you? Do you notice some exhaustion? 

Like our people fighting in the war, I feel tired. But I’m standing and will be standing as long as my country needs me. 

Looking to the future, you’re changing roles. There are compatibility difficulties between rail infrastructure in post-Soviet countries and the rest of Europe. What are the challenges to integrating with the rest of Europe, and what is the future of Ukrainian Railways? 

We don’t see any prospect for future cooperation with our neighbours to the north and the east. So, we must forget about broad gauge rails [used in the former Soviet Union] and shift to standard gauge, European gauge. 

This European infrastructural integration, real integration, iron integration will help our country join the European Union faster. That will bring more value to Ukraine and more value to the European Union as well. So finally, there is no other way forward but getting on standard gauge.