‘Rail Force One’: how Ukraine railways got Joe Biden safely to Kyiv
Alexander Kamyshin, head of the service, doesn’t get much sleep, but his team coordinated the president’s visit without a single leak
Peter Beaumont in Kyiv
@petersbeaumont1Fri 24 Feb 2023 06.00 EST
Alexander Kamyshin, the head of Ukraine’s railway company Ukrzaliznytsia, doesn’t get much sleep at the best of times. On Sunday night, as Joe Biden was being ferried into Ukraine in a 10-hour night journey from Poland – in a carriage now known as “Rail Force One”, he got almost none.
Along with others involved in the secret operation to bring the US president to his meeting with Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Kamyshin watched the progress of the train in a command centre.
A handsome bearded man sporting a hipster-ish braid of hair that falls over the shaved sides of his head, Kamyshin is deliberately vague about many of the details.
But in the past year, his dedicated team has brought in world leaders, VIPs and diplomatic missions on an almost daily basis as part of a programme called “Iron Diplomacy”.
Security is everything, he told the Guardian in an interview at Kyiv’s main railway station. “We have not had one leak. There have been no photographs from train attendants. We respect the confidence of the delegations.
“It’s not a challenge. It’s our job that we do every day. Imagine,” he says with smile, “the president of the United States coming to a war-torn country by train.
“The challenge is treat the delegations properly because, like Biden, they spend more time on the train than they do in Kyiv. He spent 20 hours on the train and four hours in Kyiv. Everyone knows Ukrainians are brave. We also want them to know that we are welcoming.”
While Kamyshin has said on Twitter he doesn’t “remember how we got from Putin’s idea to ‘take Kyiv in 3 days’ to President #Biden walking across #Kyiv together with my President #Zelenskyy on the 362nd day of the war” intense preparations, including coordination with Biden’s security teams began only in recent weeks.
Sometimes the diplomatic protocol surrounding the newly dubbed Rail Force One has a subtle humour.
When the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, used the train, his Ukrainian hosts placed a vase of irises in the carriage, in appreciation of Berlin’s recent agreement to supply the Iris-T air defence system.
What little Kamyshin does suggest about the operation to bring in Biden is carefully couched. Despite the US informing Moscow of the visit a few hours in advance, it is clear that there were sophisticated subterfuges employed to divert attention inside as well as outside of Ukraine over who might be in a carriage that had been refurbished for the occasion.
Biden’s visit has underlined the importance of the railway network in a country that – for a year now – has largely only been accessible by rail or road.
Most who come to Ukraine, journalists, aid workers, diplomats and world leaders, come via the same route, usually on the slow night trains that rattle across the 600km (370 miles) or so to the first stop in Poland.
First used by the prime ministers of Poland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic last March, a few weeks into the war, their example was soon followed by the likes of then-UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, and EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, but also the actor Sean Penn and Bono of U2, who have all used the train to reach Kyiv.
In that respect, the trains with their blue and yellow livery, have become the ultimate levellers, even if presidents and prime ministers travel in them in a little more comfort than most.
At the beginning of the war, the trains evacuated huge numbers of families, now they are a key element in keeping Ukraine connected to the world with the country’s airports all shut down.
Russian air strikes have hit stations – most notoriously the one in Kramatorsk last year struck by cluster munitions – but also repeatedly the electricity substations which powered the network before the war.
Yet through it all Kamyshin’s team have kept the trains running, staggeringly with the most minimal of delays.
The figures for 2022 make for extraordinary reading.
More than 4 million people were evacuated by train, including 1 million children, with not a single fatality, including 600,000 people who were evacuated abroad and 2,500 injured civilians who were evacuated by medical train. Ten thousand railway workers have also been mobilised, while firefighting trains have been deployed 300 times in response to Russian attacks.
In a grim coda, 353 railway workers have also died because the conflict.
Although the trains travel more slowly than in pre-war times – to allow drivers to respond to threats – a clever system has kept the network operating even in the midst of the large scale power outages caused by Russian attacks on the energy infrastructure.
That has relied on older diesel locomotives, distributed strategically around the railway system and held on standby for when the power is knocked out, which are then moved quickly to pick up electric powered trains and their carriages from where they are stuck.
“We have solution when when they shell energy infrastructure. When the electricity goes out and a train is stuck in the middle of nowhere we have a diesel team ready to go and pick it up.
“It’s about being efficient and putting the trains in the right places.
“We have never cancelled a single long-haul train,” Kamyshin adds. “Even if people are delayed they people know they will get to their destination.”