Ukraine’s railway workers offer leadership lessons from the front lines

These are the people showing up, saving lives, and making sure the trains run on time.

Ukraine’s railway workers offer leadership lessons from the front lines
Military personnel en route to the East of Ukraine at Lviv Railway Station on March 18, 2022. [Photos: Sasha Maslov for Fast Company]

Ukrainian Railways, or Ukrzaliznytsia, is the largest employer in Ukraine. Nearly 375,000 people work for the transit company, more than 1% of the country’s population. Since the full-scale Russian invasion started on February 24, the government-owned railway has become the main circulatory system for Ukrainians fleeing to safety. About 10 million people have been forced to leave their homes behind. For the most part, they head west, to cities like Kyiv and Lviv. From there, many continue to the safer ground of NATO-protected Poland and other countries. Since the war started, Ukraine Railways says it has transported 3.7 million people on special evacuation trains. 


Employees at Ukrainian Railways have had to schedule routes throughout the country that avoid particularly hazardous areas, an increasingly challenging task. The missile strike on the railway station in Kramatorsk on April 8, for instance, left 52 civilians dead and more than 100 injured. Within hours, trains were rerouted to nearby towns to continue evacuations. Schedules are often put together on the fly and announced online and via Ukrzaliznytsia’s social media channels. Tickets are not required, but many still buy them online as a gesture of normalcy.  

About 40,000 people pass each day through the Kyiv station, a massive hub in the capital city connecting three sub-stations and featuring 28 tracks. About 445,000 people have come through the western hub of Lviv, a relatively small railway station that is not used to seeing such traffic. Many stay a night or two before pressing on farther. The station has evolved to function as an emergency health center, an inn, a kitchen, a resettlement office, a nursery, and more. It’s also become a strategic hub for delivering humanitarian aid to beleaguered cities in the east and south. 

None of this work happens by itself. Employees and volunteers have been showing up each day not knowing what they’ll encounter, but with a deep sense of purpose. Here’s how they’re getting people what they need, and taking them where they need to go. 

Lviv Railway Station on March 25, 2022. Sasha Maslov for Fast Company
Passengers awaiting a train at Lviv Railway Station on March 25, 2022
Alina Zhuk, steward

“[Before the war, I was] excited about my work. I like to communicate with people, to help them. I like to travel. [After the war started, we dealt with] a lot of tears, some nervous breakdowns. There was a man trying to end his own life, jumping off the train. We just grabbed him by the arms, by the legs, and pulled him [from] that window. Everyone perceives these situations differently, and something so deeply psychological happened to him. . . . Many people, many tears.

“[The] passengers are very grateful. Even a simple ‘thank you’ costs a lot, especially at this time. These kids are smiling [though]. These people are happy that they were able to evacuate. Smiles! I like that war is war but there is still something positive. You should not be discouraged, but smile instead—it also gives a lot.

“Our team, I think, is coping well—100%, even more, is being invested to really help people, because we need to save the country. For now, take [people] out, and then gather them all. . . . We are preparing to pick them all up.

“My team supported me when my parents disappeared. I was very worried, but the next day I pulled myself together. We really have a family at work now. Everyone needs support, and we provide it: to people, the team, each other.

“I was impressed that our supervisors have remained with us to this day. . . . This, I think, is the most valuable. If there was no leadership, it seems to me that the team would have run in different directions. And here we are.”

Volodymyr Boklag, foreman (control and brake repair)

“[I have been working on the railway] since 1984, since I was 16. This work requires a lot of technical knowledge, because the wagons can [have] German components. Our point is the only one in Ukraine that does this. [Normally] I have 16 subordinates. My team is good, friendly, hardworking, and technically competent. There are young people, there are elderly people: The oldest is 74 years old, the youngest is 22, and he is now in the Territorial Defense Forces. [Each day] we meet to discuss the work plan and distribute responsibilities. Then everyone knows his business and does it.

“We are living in a bomb shelter at the depot. There are many families. I never thought that our people would unite so much and stand together to defend Ukraine. Nobody expected this. It is such a big change in our society, in our armed forces, compared to 2014.”

Alina Zhuk, 24, intercity train steward; photographed at the Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi railway station on March 20, 2022
Volodymyr Boklag, 53, rail worker; photographed at the Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi railway station on March 20, 2022
Oleksandr Pertsovskyi, CEO, Passenger Co. at Ukrainian Railways; member of the Ukrainian Railways management board

“We have one of the largest companies in Ukraine, with 230,000 employees [in the passenger division], spread all over the country. One of the first challenges was to keep them all focused on the job, and [keep] the system [from] stopping.

“I’m responsible for everything that has to do with the passenger. In the early morning of February 24th, my job changed. Instead of bringing [people] to summer vacation places or business trips, it got shifted to immigration and bringing in humanitarian aid, and turning rail stations into humanitarian hubs. Local authorities order what they need, like water and medicines. Things like that get loaded on our trains. It’s done by volunteers. We provide an ecosystem for that. The ‘intercity’ train arrives from the west, ghostlike, full of humanitarian aid.

“We have a special program to help companies relocate. We collect information like electricity consumption, square meters they need, workforce. We have even given some of them [space], because we have a lot of industrial sites, some of them idle.”

Oleksandr Pertsovskyi, CEO, Passenger Co. at Ukrainian Railways; photographed at the Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi railway station on March 20, 2022
Liudmila Lohhinova, volunteer for the Ukrainian Red Cross

“I woke up from two very loud explosions, and my son called me and said that the war had started. The following day, over our house . . . I do not know what it was . . . rockets or a plane shot down and woke us up to the fact that our windows were shattered into pieces. We gathered at the Red Cross and discussed the things that we could do to help. One is to evacuate people.

“We started alternating: One team works 12 hours and then another team works 12 hours. If there is a need for first aid, then people come to us. There are mothers with small children. There are disabled people here. This service is very important because there are a lot of elderly people, people with special needs, individuals who want to leave but they hardly can walk or they are very old people in wheelchairs. Some cannot go to the toilet, so there is a separate shelter for them. When the train arrives, we help. Some [people] are on stretchers. They are heavy. The train cars are all high.

“We have a backpack with first aid. We walk around and ask people about their needs. For the night, we give out blankets. Some people are cold, some are nervous—we help everyone.

“It’s much easier here than at home. Here you can do something.”

Oleksandr Chuikin, driver

“I have been working on the railway for 30 years. It was my childhood dream to become a machinist. So I became a machinist. I earn money and enjoy my work. I don’t even know how to phrase it correctly. There is such a thing as ‘job that you love’ . . . I can’t find other words.

“Nothing has changed much [in terms of my daily routine]. I wake up in the morning, shave, have breakfast, and go to work. And then everything goes according to plan. We must go, we will go.

“Our work has remained practically the same, it’s just that people have become more focused. They take their duties more seriously. And you pay attention to external things, external sounds, explosions. . . . Let’s just say we charge our phones more often. There are a lot of conversations. We began to work more harmoniously, to listen more to each other in order to understand faster.

“We are always on standby. The railway is a complex organism, and if there is no coordination, it simply will not work. It works, and pretty well.”

Liudmyla Lohhinova, 67, Ukrainian Red Cross volunteer; photographed at the Red Cross camp inside the Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi railway station on March 20, 2022
Oleksandr Chuikin, 50, locomotive engineer; photographed at the Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi railway station on March 20, 2022
Oleksandr Pertsovskyi, second from left, CEO of the Ukrainian Passenger Co., and Denys Shmyhal, third from left, the Prime Minister of Ukraine; photographed at the Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi railway station on March 20, 2022
Igor Solovit, chief engineer, Lviv station

“[As] the chief engineer, I am responsible for the technical part, for the power supply. I started working here in 2003. I was 20. I came here after service in the military.

“On February 24th, we were on duty, and around 4 in the morning there was information that bombings of Ukrainian cities had started. We started predicting that there would be a lot of refugees, and we immediately planned how we would arrange our waiting room. We arranged separate mother and child rooms. Stocks of detergents and disinfectants were prepared. It was predicted that we wouldn’t be resupplied, so we divided what we had into portions, to provide sanitary and hygienic conditions, to wash and clean when there will be a large crowd. We planned to separate passenger flows. Barriers and turnstiles have been temporarily set up for the convenience of people, to avoid the collision of those who come to the station, those who leave the station, those who follow the usual trains, and those who follow the evacuation trains abroad.

“I think everyone has forgotten about some temporary insults and misunderstandings. Nobody cared. Everyone just joined together in the work that needs to be done. There were no orders; everyone connected and worked together.

“We need to help children and older people who can’t take care of themselves. A few days ago, orphans from a boarding school were met here from Kharkiv, and they were resettled in Lviv. People left everything: documents, bags, personal belongings. They were afraid, and there was panic, and they left everything just to get on the train and go somewhere.”

Orest Opryschko, seated, a supplier of Ukrainian Railways, speaks with Igor Solovit, chief engineer of the Lviv Railway Station; photographed in the administrative offices inside the station on March 25, 2022
A temporary shelter inside the Lviv Railway Station on March 25, 2022
Anastasiya Hmyziuk, humanitarian aid coordinator

“Before the war, I worked as an artist [making] Christmas decorations, and was a master of Petrykivka painting. It was fun, it was interesting—you sit, draw, then the little kids buy it all.

“On the first day [of war], I went to my friends’ and stayed with them, and on the seventh day my friend who volunteered [at the railway] said that there was work, and I wanted to volunteer. This is some kind of national feature, or curse: We cannot stay at home while one of us suffers. Everyone comes [to the railway], finds their place, and starts working. I became a coordinator, because I am very talkative and beautiful.

“There were lots of humanitarian [aid] clothes. We started to sort them out. Then someone asked me where it’s going. I answered, then some kind of responsibility piled up, and then I was in charge of the entire humanitarian program. I am a person who needs to know everything. So I kept asking coordinators, where are we taking them, and to whom are we giving them away? And I became the coordinator the next day. And that’s it, now I’m here. [The railway] is the safest, most convenient [way] to deliver humanitarian aid. Cars come under fire, but the railroad runs like clockwork during the war. This is a very responsible, very serious system, in fact. There are very serious people there.

“[The hardest thing for me mentally is] probably to look at children’s drawings. The children’s brains can’t yet process the information that some country for some hell of a reason is shooting at their house. And they cry. They don’t understand why. Toys do not help, sweets do not help, nothing helps.

“Once every few days, everyone goes home, but usually we spend the night here.”

Anastasiya Hmyziuk, 19, volunteer coordinating humanitarian aid at the Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi railway station; photographed on March 20, 2022
Dmytro Seidov, head of volunteer headquarters

“I came to Lviv, got off the train, and went straight to work. I registered at the volunteer headquarters and started helping from the first second. We help refugees who arrive at the train station.

“This volunteer headquarters covers a huge area of ​​work at the station. There are recreation areas, diapers, and everything [mothers need for their] children; they can spend the night, and then we either settle them here in Lviv at the Center for Administrative Services, where they [get] help with housing, or they go abroad and we help coordinate all the processes before they arrive. All aspects of assistance are present. We feed all the people—everyone can come to eat, drink, relax, so to speak.

“I’m a choreographer, a dancer. . . . I’m an emotional person. People pass [through] every day with their stories. Many come without anything, straight from the basement. It is very difficult, mentally, to coordinate the work of volunteers and also to communicate with people. I want to help everyone. They cry, I cry, and we all cry. We have a whole group of doctors and psychologists. I understand that when I start crying, I can’t help.”

Dmytro Siedov, 26, volunteer responsible for helping refugees find accommodation inside the Lviv Railway Station and elsewhere; photographed on March 25, 2022
Nadia Buchko, administrator

“I have been working at this station for 40 years. I never regretted that I went to work in such a field. That’s how life turned out, with people, with passengers.

“I work with passengers. I provide information. Everyone is in pain. They come here, and the administrator must answer all passengers’ questions and satisfy them, provide appropriate information. When I answer a passenger’s [question], I always put myself on the other side of the window, on the opposite side.

“People are defending us [on the front] and [so] we have to work. The siren is ringing, people are in despair, we do not know what will be, but we consciously go to work. It is our duty to defend our country.

“I am afraid of Lviv being damaged, like Kyiv and Kharkiv. It is unfortunate what was done to our cities, which are in ruins. I want our city to be preserved, and for people from all over Europe to come and see how we live, what a hardworking, peaceful nation we are. We do not want to fight with anyone.”

Nadia Buchko, 59, administrator, Lviv Railway Station; photographed on March 25, 2022
Svitlana Yaroshenko, steward

“We accompany people who lost their homes during the war. Fearing [death], they head to safer places. Such evacuations are carried out with the help of the Ukrainian Railways and the state. Everything is free. What we do here is keep discipline, safety. [During] the Kyiv-Frankivsk trip and back, the conductors, electricians, and I are responsible for you and your life. At first it was difficult to explain to people, ‘Wait for the next train after ours.’ Everyone wanted to leave at this moment, on this train. When the doors of the train closed, it was a paradise for people.

“In regular times, I clean the [train car] or ask a man with a suitcase to give a seat to a woman with a child. In the conditions of the war, we are all psychologists. For example, a girl lost consciousness because she saw a video of how her house exploded while her parents were there. Another woman had high blood sugar due to nerves; she had been sitting in the basement for five days before.

“[Sometimes] when everyone is on the way, a cell connection appears and someone may find out they no longer have an apartment. You calm them down, hug, and kiss them like they are your family members. They are strangers to you, but it seems you’ve known each other for 10 or 20 years.

“[I have been on the train for] a month. [I shower] with a bucket. There is a washcloth and shower gel. This is our shower. Half of the people have nowhere to go back to. If the whole crew is replaced, I will leave. If only a few people, I will continue my work as a trainmaster.”

Svitlana Yaroshenko, 33, a steward on an evacuation train heading from Lviv to Kyiv; photographed on March 18, 2022

Sasha Maslov is a Ukrainian American portrait photographer and storyteller based in New York. His work has been exhibited in various photo galleries and art spaces around Europe and the United States. Maslov is a regular contributor to a number of magazines and leading publications in New York and around the globe, and is actively pursuing work on his documentary projects.


Interviews translated from Ukrainian and Russian and edited