Rail task force meets Ukraine rail execs, pledges support

Last week, Ukrainian refugees from Mariupol waited at the Lviv railway station for a train to escape to Europe. Shutterstock/Ruslan Lytvyn

By Julie Sneider, Senior Associate Editor 

Former Federal Railroad Administrator Jolene Molitoris and other International Support Ukraine Rail Task Force members this week held their first virtual meeting with Ukraine rail sector officials to learn how the U.S. rail industry can help Ukrainians keep their country’s trains running even as the Russian military targets the railroad’s infrastructure and kills its employees.  

On March 28, task force members spoke with executives of Ukranian national rail operator Ukrzalizntsia (UZ) to learn how it’s transporting Ukrainians out of their country to Poland and other safer European locations, then moving food, medicine and other vital supplies back into Ukraine. 

Also on the call were representatives of the U.S. Department of Transportation and other government agencies. The call’s purpose was to meet UZ executives, hear from them what the railroad’s status is, what they need and express the task force’s support, Molitoris and other task force members said in an interview with RailPrime. 

“The railroad in Ukraine is the lifeline of that country during this wartime situation,” said Molitoris. “When you look at the TV screen, you see it: Refugees, they’re on the railroad; food and medicine are coming in on the railroad. All those things are critically important to [the people of Ukraine] staying alive.” 

“The railroad in Ukraine is the lifeline of that country during this wartime situation.”
— Former Federal Railroad Administrator Jolene Molitoris 

As of March 28, 57 rail employees had been killed while trying to maintain train operations during the conflict, she said. 

“They [the railroad’s employees] are out there trying to keep it running, and those horrible invaders are bombing them,” Molitoris said. “They go out wherever there is a stuck train and try to fix it. To me, they are heroes.” 

Molitoris led the Federal Railroad Administration during the Clinton administration. Other task force members include Ray Chambers, owner of RBC Transportation Solutions LLC and president of the Association for Innovative Passenger Rail Operations; Robert VanderClute, former senior vice president of the Association of American Railroads and owner of First RAIL-LLC; Jon McGrath, president and CEO of McGrath Rail; and Nick Brooks, secretary general of ALL RAIL, an international organization of passenger rail companies. 

On March 31, the European Rail Infrastructure Managers association joined the task force as an observer, Brooks said in a press release. 

“The task force is unique and complementary to any other initiative,” he said. “It aims for concrete measures to address the consequences of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. The time has come to move from theory to action. Rail infrastructure managers are important actors in this regard.” 

Bullet proof vests, helmets, war gear needed

UZ executives shared with the task force a list of needed supplies, including bullet proof vests, helmets and war gear to protect rail employees, as well as equipment for repairing trains and infrastructure during the crisis. For security reasons, the executives weren’t specific about which rail lines have been damaged in the conflict, task force members said. 

“There was a general conversation with us about how they are trying to strengthen their route to the West for the future, a long-term plan,” said Chambers. 

The Ukrainian railway’s gauge is the same as the Russian railway’s gauge, making the free flow of traffic challenging. 

“It’s a different gauge than the rest of Europe,” said VanderClute. “So, they have to change at the Polish or Romanian border to a different gauge.” 

UZ’s leaders are constantly on the move because the Russian military will kill them if they are found, Molitoris said. 

“Those of us on the call were impressed with how appreciative they were that this task force exists,” she said. “In a note sent to us after the call, the gentlemen said, ‘We are inspired by your support.’” 

Formed only a few weeks ago, the task force is evolving based on what transpires in Ukraine, Molitoris said. So far, the members have categorized their goals under these general initiatives: to provide support for Ukrainian fighters, railway employees and their families; to assist the continuing transportation of refugees; to help repair and rebuild rail infrastructure; and to assist in the potential movement of oil and gas supplies by rail to replace current Russian exports. 

The task force also hopes to galvanize the global rail sector in supporting the Ukrainian sector during and after the war, as well as isolate the Russian Railways and Belarusian Railways from international commerce. 

Individual task force members have had preliminary conversations with the AAR, American Public Transportation Association, FRA, U.S. Treasury Department and others in the public and private sector about the group’s goals, they said. 

They’re still “in the early stages” of figuring out what they can do now and post-war, Molitoris said.  

“We hope it becomes a place where people looking for information or wanting to share ideas can go,” she said of the task force. “We feel very encouraged that the Ukrainian railroad appreciates what we’re trying to do and that there is a need.” 

For Molitoris, the desire to get involved stems from something closer to home. 

“My ancestry is Polish, and my great, great grandparents and ancestors were pretty much annihilated in the concentration camps,” she said. “So, personally, I have a very big interest in, and strong feelings about, this war.”