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25 January, 2012  ▪  Bohdan Butkevych

Express Train to Nowhere

The Ukrainian Railroad is being reformed at the expense of its passengers and employees

The current government has launched another reform, this time to revamp Ukrzaliznytsia (the Ukrainian Railroad), a monopolist on Ukraine’s train transportation market. Experts admit that the railroad does need to be reformed, but, as has always been the case in our country, good intentions are absolutely at cross-purposes with implacable realities. Without an overall audit or evaluation of the enterprise’s assets, the reform began with a blow to passengers and low-level employees.

TICKETS FOR OVERNIGHT TRAINS

“When will these bastards content themselves and let me travel in peace?” an enraged woman over 40 shouted in front of a ticket office at the Southern Train Station in Kyiv. I asked her what had happened and whether she needed help. It turned out that she was going to see her relatives in Znamianka and from there travel to relatives in Kharkiv. The Znamianka-Moscow train, which was convenient to her, had been canceled. “Worse still, I have bad legs and wanted to get a lower berth but was told, ‘Only upper berths are available. We’re not selling tickets for lower berths.’ I explained my situation, but the ticket clerk yelled at me, ‘According to new instructions, I don’t have the right to sell lower berth tickets until all the upper ones are filled.’”

According to the design of the Ukrainian Railroad leadership, this will help avoid a situation when additional cars are hooked onto the train just to carry a few more passengers. If there is demand, a car will be attached, but there will be no waste. It seems to make sense, doesn't it? But from the viewpoint of an average passenger, what are the elderly, families with children, couples and simply groups of people who want to travel in one compartment and would like to buy both the upper and the lower berths at once supposed to do?

The problem of upper berths is just the tip of the iceberg. The Ukrainian Railroad is in the midst of the first stage of a radical reform. It began by cancelling 23 train connections, both local and international. In 2012, the Ukrainian Railroad plans to cut annual passenger train turnover by 25% (from 160 to 121 paired routes, including 30 overnight connections) and further reduce the number of stations where they stop. Thirteen trains will travel less frequently, and 50 more will be stripped of trailer cars. Additionally, the Prydniprovska Railroad and the Odesa Railroad plan to reduce the number of their trains’ stops by 1,500. In order to somewhat placate outraged passengers, the Ukrainian Railroad will introduce several additional trains, which, in fact, used to be regular, for the New Year holiday season after which people will experience the consequences of its innovations in full.

According to expert evaluations, it is impossible in Ukrainian realities to scrap overnight connections: the distances are too big and the condition of the tracks is such that they have to be completely replaced in order to carry fast modern trains. The ones used now have the upper limit of 160 km/h, according to safety regulations.

The Ukrainian Railroad is intent on making conveyance of passengers profitable. It is easy to see what steps it will take to this end: cutting production costs (the number of trains and servicing personnel) and raising prices for end consumers. This means that passengers will have to fork out more. Analysts expect that ticket prices will go up by 30-60% in 2012.

Ticket prices for daytime express trains may skyrocket, but this will have no impact on the quality of service or comfort – there will simply be no alternative to express trains. A high-ranking official from the Ukrainian Railroad headquarters explained the principle to The Ukrainian Week, speaking on condition of anonymity: if there is a Kyiv-Dnipropetrovsk express train, only one overnight train at the most will be left after the reform is completed, while all the others will be canceled. So if there are only two trains on this popular route, the demand will grow multiple times and all the tickets will be sold. It is equally safe to assume that tickets will be hard to buy, and this extreme demand will immediately create an increased risk of corruption in ticket sales. Corrupt ticket sales schemes are already operating: speculators with close connections to the Ukrainian Railroad buy tickets in advance through an online booking system and then resell them at a profit. This trend was confirmed to The Ukrainian Week at a train station by the profiteers themselves.

OLD-TIMERS OUT

Tamara has worked as a train conductor for over 20 years. She spent the past two years on a train connection that is now canceled. “Clearly, reform is necessary. Many routes are indeed unprofitable, but they provide jobs to many people – not only conductors, but also employees at train stations, track maintenance crews, and so on. I am 56. In early October, my entire crew, which includes only two young workers, was given to understand that we would be laid off and that we could start searching for new jobs.”

There are even worse scenarios. Serhiy, a train conductor who preferred not to disclose his last name, says that young railroad workers would face even bigger problems than older ones. They will be left without jobs and train connections to work on. The Ukrainian Railroad is discarding 202 overnight passenger trains. This is a huge number, considering that a total of 550 new trains have been purchased in the past 10 years, according to the Ukrainian Railroad. At least 1,000 of its 7,000 passenger cars are run down, while one-third are close to the end of their service life.

“Even if an express train has more cars than a regular one, it requires fewer conductors,” Serhiy explains. “One of the reasons is that there is no need to have substitutes for the night shift. One conductor can take care of an entire car, even on a two-way single-day trip. No one will keep redundant employees. But it is absolutely unclear where professional railroad employees are supposed to find jobs now.”

He also says that the leadership of the Ukrainian Railroad is targeting personnel reduction: “Strict checks are taking place across the railway system now. Finding fault is used as a means to fire people, because the cancellation of a train connection is not a legitimate reason for job cuts. So all conductors are now afraid. They take virtually no people on board unofficially, and any parcels [that people send via conductors] have to be approved by the train master. This had been a big source of additional income to all of us. In fact, it was the main source, because the salaries are not particularly high – UAH 3,000-4,000.”

His words are fully borne out by evaluations carried out by railway workers trade unions: the scheduled reduction in train connections would leave at least 25,000 of the industry’s 80,000 employees out of work.

THE END STOP

Scrapping a number of train connections reveals another burning social problem – the sad condition of small towns in which train stations are virtually the only source of income. There are plenty of such whistle stops scattered across the country. You may have seen old women selling homemade pastries, beer or ice-cream on the only train platform in their town. Some passengers buy their goods, sometimes being completely unaware that the UAH 5-10 they spend are probably the only way for the locals to earn at least some money in these absolutely depressed regions.

For example, one of the 23 trains that was canceled was the Mariupol-Lviv train No. 70D. It used to pass through Prosiana, a small settlement in Dnipropetrovsk Region with an official population of 5,600. The train station is one of the two employers available to locals. “Apart from the Lviv train, two more trains – Rostov-Chisinau and Kyiv-Mariupol – pass through our station,” Oleh, a native of Prosiana, explains. “The Russian train will remain, but people say the other ones will soon be rerouted. If trains stop passing through the station, everyone will be fired.”

Even local governments have started to protest against this slow destruction of their towns. The city councils of Chortkiv and Znamianka have voiced their concern. Human rights advocates have sounded the alarm, too. The Ukrainian Helsinki Group recently published a statement which conveys its concern over the situation with the Ukrainian Railroad and says that reducing train connections, which are, in essence, the only way to access many areas, is a violation of citizens’ rights to freedom of movement.

An emphasis on daytime express trains may seem rational, but it will create huge problems for towns like Prosiany: express trains are valued for their speed, so they stop in large cities at best.


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