The rails of war: An EU railway initiative for the defence of Ukraine

Railway
Railway. Shutterstock photo

The Ukrainian authorities recently launched a call for proposals to improve the country’s defence capabilities. Here is one that we believe could help strengthen Ukraine’s immediate and longer-term defence. And, beyond that, it could help Ukraine’s integration into the European economic area.

The idea stems from the fact that the logistics of the Russian Federation’s army are organised around rail transport, as was the case for the Soviet army. The proposal is therefore to create “break points” along Ukraine’s borders with Russia and Belarus to help prevent the Russian army from using the Ukrainian rail network to transport men, equipment and munitions.[i]

In other words, it would mean switching from the current Soviet gauge (1520 mm) to the European gauge (1435 mm) on all segments (50-100 km) of the Ukrainian railway network that connect these borders to the country’s various regional centres. This would create a regional rail network that would continue to serve the inhabitants of border regions while forcing the Russian aggressor to use it only at the cost of costly load breaks.

Initially, this would involve converting the lines connecting the Belarusian border to the Ukrainian cities of Kove, Rivne, Korosten and Chernihiv and those connecting the Russian border to Konotop, Kharkiv, etc. Until the Ukrainian army has sufficient anti-aircraft and counter-artillery resources to protect personnel working in these border areas, conversion work on the last few kilometres – which remain within the range of Russian artillery (30 km) – could be limited to dismantling the existing line.

In a second stage, and once liberated by the Ukrainian armed forces, other sections currently located in areas occupied by Russia could also be converted. These include stretches from the Russian border to Izium, Luhansk, Kraznyiluch, and Makijvka; from Mariupol to Donetsk; from Berdiansk to Dnipro; from Simferopol to Melitopol; from Kerch to Kherson, etc.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, such a project would also begin the much-needed modernisation of Ukraine’s rail network. Instead of starting with the lines connecting Ukraine’s major cities, it would begin with those connecting the country’s peripheral regions to a range of regional hubs. According to figures given by the Ministry of Infrastructure in 2021, 90% of Ukrainian rolling stock needs to be replaced and 11,000 km (out of 27,000) of track requires urgent repairs.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Transport and the Ukrainian Railways Company (Ukrzaliznytsia) could invite EU railway operators and network management companies to participate in the project on one or more of the sections to be upgraded. In particular, they could provide construction equipment adapted to the European gauge and new rolling stock. Such a project could be part of the reconstruction plan already being worked on by the Ukrainian authorities and international organisations. It would have the advantage of being ready to implement without waiting for the end of the war. Moreover, as it would be a reconstruction project, it could, in all likelihood benefit from a funding contribution from the European Commission.

Last but not least, at a time when hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have lost their jobs due to Russia’s wholesale destruction of Ukraine’s public and private infrastructure, such a project could prove to be a valuable job opportunity for a sizeable number of Ukrainians.

Translated from the French by Harry Bowden | Voxeurop


[i] Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania face the same problem.

EPP Lithuanian office
EPP Lithuanian Office
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