Trains and pains in Ukraine

Our man in Ukraine reports on his experiences using the country's new, and old, transport infrastructure.


It is one of the quirks of a train trip in Ukraine that even as one employee wanders through packed carriages selling beer from his 1980s supermarket basket, another patrols the same beat intent on ordering people to stop drinking it.

It makes for a rather contrary experience, but in Ukraine this is a mode of transport that veers between two extremes.

This rather confused beer policy is seemingly restricted to the old sleeper trains that snake their way up to Moscow overnight - not that much sleeping gets done - rather than the new sleek fleet ordered in as part of a modernisation programme in time for Euro 2012.

Ahead of the tournament, the country deployed a set of high-speed trains linking host cities and at a fraction of the price that you would pay for the vastly over inflated costs of travelling on England’s equivalent infrastructure, you enjoy a superior experience.

As Ukrainian Euro 2012 tournament director Markiyan Lubkivskiy explained prior to kick-off: "Ukraine has undergone significant changes in preparation for the European Championship. There are four new stadiums, four renovated airports, and the road infrastructure has improved within and between the host cities. The rail network has been reconstructed and the new fast trains will provide the best service for our citizens and visitors."

They were made available to journalists for free just prior to the tournament – sadly not before this correspondent had spent hours negotiating Russian sites to buy some in advance – and have been quickly booked up by the hacks visiting Ukraine. One reporter, arriving in Kiev, instead had to resort to a seven-hour taxi ride with a former Mafioso at the wheel. No seatbelts either, but those are a luxury here.

Sleek and clean, these trains float across the country, a 494-mile journey from eastern Kharkiv to western Kiev taking just over four-and-a-half hours. Though the 196-mile trip from Kharkiv to Donetsk takes just under three hours as it is punctuated by frequent stops on the way, with its expansive seats and roomy carriages it's relaxing enough, except, that is, for the TV screens situated at both ends of the carriage that sporadically blare out Ukrainian soaps or cheesy Europop.

However, find yourself on a route not serviced by a train plastered with Euro 2012 branding on it, and the experience is a bit different - just as if you amble out of a fan zone and escape the Euro 2012 bubble that has been created around certain areas of the country.

Your correspondent boarded a train from Donetsk to Kharkiv and had a far more rudimentary experience. Having to lever oneself into a cramped seat on a sleeper train that wound its way all the way from southern Ukraine up to the Russian capital, this was not train travel at its finest.

With a metal lattice where the natural place for a head to rest should be, and a metal bar preventing comfortable placing of the right arm, any kind of sleep was precluded, meaning suffering for nearly six hours in stifling, sweaty conditions.

And why was it so hot? The brusque train manager wandered through the carriage shutting all the windows without so much as a word of explanation, presumably in the hope that the air conditioning would kick in. It didn’t.

The four German fans sat opposite, with a sign in English reading ‘we have spare tickets’ stuck to their window, looked rather taken aback by this rather unnecessary and perfunctory display of authority. Then his pal wandered along to try and prevent them necking a not-so-cold beer.

Still, their mood lightened after a trip to the restaurant carriage, which served more as a rowdy bar than a venue of fine dining. When they returned they were rather unsteady on their feet – and not just due to the rickety nature of the tracks, which often made it seem as though the train was leaning like a fairground car driving round on its two left wheels.

Tales of chilli vodka and beer were imparted enthusiastically. In truth, a few drinks - and a lusty debate over football - is probably the best way to get through the trip.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the experience is very similar to taking a train in Russia, and Ukraine’s train system has another thing in keeping with its neighbour: the stations themselves are hugely impressive entities.

Kharkiv’s has a very ornate ceiling (pictured below), and while a number of the metro stations in the same city do not quite rival Moscow’s grand labyrinth, they are also very well maintained. In Kiev, in tunnels that descend so deep into the ground that some escalator rides take minutes, some stations are impressive caverns, decorated with chandeliers and marble. It is a stark difference to the dirty little holes that pass for the majority of London’s tube stations.

There may be disparate experiences on offer, but one thing unites travel of any kind in Ukraine at the moment: the army of football fans from all over Europe, and beyond, who have descended on trains and metros. Now, how to hide that illicit bottle of beer?

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