A reopened rail route to Mykolaiv restores some order amid war.
The first train to Mykolaiv from Kyiv since the Russian occupation of southern Ukraine at the beginning of the full-scale invasion in February preparing to depart on Monday.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times
KYIV, Ukraine — The big board at Kyiv’s central train station has for months been a long list of destinations that were unreachable because of the war.
The list includes cities now familiar for the utter destruction left behind as the Russians seized control, like Mariupol, where Ukrainians held out in a steel plant for weeks. The destinations have often felt aspirational as Ukraine pushed to retake the cities.
On Monday night, one of the those stops became a reality as a train departed Kyiv for the port city of Mykolaiv, for the first time since the war started in late February. For months, Russia has battered the city, which served as a buffer that prevented its forces from moving farther west and capturing the whole Black Sea coast.
The Russian withdrawal from Kherson last week finally took Mykolaiv out of Russian artillery range.
At about 10:14 p.m., Nataliia Barchuk, 35, who works on the train, stood at the door of a shiny blue train car to welcome the handful of passengers boarding.
“I just hope everything goes well,” she said. She was a little nervous but happy because restoring train travel means restoring a semblance of order amid war.
In the first days of the war, Russian forces tried to break through the Ukrainian defenses in Mykolaiv. Volunteer brigades joined the Ukrainian military to beat back Russian attempts to cross the Varvarivsky Bridge, the only passage for miles across the wide mouth of the Southern Buh River. If the Russian forces had succeeded, they could have rolled along the Black Sea coast to Odesa, the headquarters of the Ukrainian Navy and the country’s largest civilian port.
In defeat, Russia had resorted to long-distance assaults. Until the Russian retreat from Kherson, Mykolaiv had less than 50 days without shelling, missile attacks or air bombardment since the war began, according to Vitaliy Kim, the head of regional military administration.
Rail workers are also repairing the line to Kherson from Kyiv, hoping it could be running in the next 10 days. But Russian forces extensively mined the rails before fleeing, and at least nine railway workers have been injured in explosions in recent days, railway officials said.
The return of rail travel sent a powerful signal that the residents of Mykolaiv could more confidently begin the hard work of rebuilding.
It is no easy task.There is still no drinkable tap water, because the Russian army blew up all of the freshwater pipes supplying the city.
Any anxiety the train staff felt was overshadowed by the excitement at being a part of the country’s recovery, they said.
“I am proud to have this responsibility,” said Bohdan Stadnik, the train’s conductor, as patriotic songs played over loudspeakers on the darkened platform.
The Ukrainian fund-raising platform United24 is raising money to speed repairs to the rails in reclaimed cities. Mr. Stadnik was hopeful that Ukrainian Railways would soon be serving all of the destinations on the aspirational departure board.
They would not reach the end of the line, rail line officials said, until they hit Crimea, the peninsula that Russia seized in 2014 and that it has used as a critical staging ground for the war.
On Tuesday, rail officials confirmed that the train to Mykolaiv had reached the city, arriving to a station with sandbags in place of shattered windows.