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Eastern connections: rail links through Ukraine

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Oil and other supplies bound for Crimea by rail are shipped by special train ferries across the Kerch Strait (photo © Dimitrydesigner / dreamstime.com).


At a very practical level, the difficult relations between Russia and Ukraine - and in particular their competing interests in Crimea - is playing itself out in train timetables. No trains have run from Ukraine's Kherson Oblast into Crimea for almost a year now. But the effects of the conflict have been felt much further afield, with rail services from Moscow to the Balkans being disrupted.

The political tensions and conflict in Ukraine are causing fallout on rail travel well beyond the areas in the east of the country which have been directly affected by the continuing unrest. It’s no surprise that no one from western Ukraine is rushing to book tickets to Donetsk or Luhansk these days. Yet throughout 2014 and 2015 the situation in Ukraine has had ripple effects on rail services across Europe. In this article, we’ll take a look at issues of railway geography which have arisen as a result of events in Ukraine and the downturn in relations between Moscow and Kyiv.

Many long-standing international rail services which traversed Ukrainian territory were severed in late 2014, even in instances where these trains had routes which stayed well clear of the conflict regions. No longer does the Bulgaria Express slip out of Kiyevskaya station in Moscow at eight each morning, starting its long journey to Bucharest and Sofia. The direct rail link between Moscow and Belgrade has also gone. In summer 2014, the tentacles of the Russian Railways network extended to the Adriatic coast with direct services to Koper (Slovenia), Split (Croatia) and Bar (Montenegro). None of these routes have been served in 2015.

Severed links

The sway of political affairs all too often plays out in the movement of trains — or sometimes in the total cessation of train services. Just two weeks after Russian Railways dropped all their services via Ukraine to destinations in the European Union, the Kyiv government suspended all public transport (including all rail traffic) between the Ukrainian mainland and the Crimea region, which is now administered as part of the Russian Federation.

Suddenly issues of rail connectivity became part of the political matrix around the new border between Ukraine’s Kherson Oblast and the Crimea — with dire consequences for many residents of the Crimea and neighbouring areas of southern Ukraine. The busy railway workshops at Dzhankoy in northern Crimea relied on many workers living in Novooleksiyivka, less than an hour away to the north on the regular local train service which disappeared overnight. Residents of Ukrainian villages just north of the Perekopsky Isthmus could no longer take trains and buses over the demarcation line to the important local market at Armyansk. The Perekopsky Isthmus is a tongue of land about eight kilometres wide the European mainland and Crimea. It connects Ukraine’s Kherson Oblast to the north with the Crimea Peninsula to the south. The entire border between Kherson Oblast and the Crimea runs to about 170 kilometres. It is mainly a water boundary. The only other point where the territories share a land border is on the Arabat Spit.

Ukraine’s state rail company, Ukrzaliznytsia, explained that the decision to cut services to Crimea was not a political matter at all, but was merely a temporary measure “to ensure the safety of passengers.” With the news focus throughout 2015 very much on eastern regions of Ukraine, one might assume that the knotty issue of passenger safety on the rail links to and from Crimea might have been quietly resolved. But there are still no trains and the only way of crossing the administrative boundary line between Kherson Oblast and Crimea is on foot or by private car at one of the three designated road border crossings.

Railway lines into Crimea

Twice-daily trains still run south-east from Kherson, crossing the River Dnieper and following a dead-straight rail route across pancake-flat steppes towards Crimea. Just under three hours out from Kherson, these trains reach Vadym. The neat single-storey station building and the railway platform have never bustled with traffic, but now Vadym is the end of the line. Just a couple of kilometres beyond Vadym, a small group of Russian soldiers sit by the side of the old main line from Kherson to Simferopol. What was until last year merely the boundary line between two Ukrainian oblasts has become a de facto international frontier.

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