The war in Ukraine shows no sign of ending any time soon, and railways remain heavily involved in Ukraine; in Russia, where the ongoing invasion depends on it; and in neighboring European countries.
Trackside espionage in Poland
In March, Polish police arrested six people allegedly working for Russian Military intelligence who had placed trackside cameras near rail lines, airports, and major roads in southeastern Poland, through which most western military and humanitarian aid passes. The imagery from the cameras was transmitted via the internet.
During the summer it was disclosed that Polish security services have arrested 16 people suspected of being Russian spies or saboteurs. According to Polish police, those arrested included Polish and Russian citizens. They had been under observation for some time, but were arrested as they planned to actually sabotage railway lines or trains. The group was allegedly recruited earlier in 2023 by Russian agents and was being paid in cryptocurrency to undertake the surveillance.
Radio stops trains
In late August a bizarre event stopped all rail traffic in the area of the western Polish port city of Szczecin near the German border. A systemwide stop instruction, designed for emergency use, was broadcast on the Polish rail internal radio system used to communicate with engineers in their cabs. The stop system automatically activates train brakes, so more than 20 trains were halted.
According to some media reports, the Russian national anthem was heard playing in the background as the emergency stop signal was transmitted. The radio-based system that was disrupted is clearly not very high tech – which may explain the ease with which it was interfered with. However, it also meant the people responsible were easy to trace. Two people — one a 29-year-old police officer from eastern Poland — have been arrested as the main suspects; whether they were acting on behalf of a foreign government is unclear.
Railfans could be caught in photo ban
The fact that foreign intelligence services have been filming and monitoring Polish rail, road, and air traffic in recent months has led to new laws that will allow photography to be banned at Polish rail stations or depots (and airports) — although the ban will come into force only after signs are posted making the prohibition clear. So far, none are reported.
Poland used to have draconian blanket bans on rail photography. These were only lifted in 1989-90 when the Communist government was removed. In the 1980s, signs banning photography were widespread on railway property until removed around 1990.
Exactly how these new rules will be introduced is unclear. Potentially only those facilities directly involved in marshalling freight trains may be covered, but the worst case is that ordinary railfans, of which there are thousands in Poland — almost all of whom are younger than is average in countries where rail photography wasn’t banned until the 1990s — will be caught up in a ban designed to catch covert filming, not people openly doing so as a hobby.
Rail lines a target in Ukrainian counteroffensive
The Ukrainian army began a counteroffensive this summer to recover territory occupied by Russia. The key objective appears to be the recovery of land bordering the Sea of Azov, which would cut the land-based links between Russia and the illegally occupied Crimean Peninsula. The fighting is ongoing, and progress has been slow thanks to the Russians having many months to prepare defences.
As of mid-September, Ukrainian government sources were openly stating their aim was to sever the electrified rail line linking the occupied cities of Melitopol and Donetsk; from Donetsk multiple routes head east into Russia and currently supply Russian forces. By mid-September, Ukrainian forces were 15 miles from the town of Tokmak, which sits on that rail line, according to media reports. If Ukrainian forces continue to advance, the use of that railway line is likely to be much more dangerous, as artillery will be in range. The line is the only one available between Russia and Crimea, apart from the route over the Crimean Bridge which continues to be the target for Ukrainian drone attacks. A 2022 attack shut the bridge down briefly [see “Rail bridge linking Crimea and Russia damaged …,” Trains News Wire, Oct. 9, 2022]; two people were reported to have been killed during another attack in July, while Russia said it thwarted an additional attack earlier this month.
Trackside sabotage in occupied Ukraine and Russia
Multiple incidents involving sabotage of railway tracks have occurred in the last 18 months — many in parts of Ukraine occupied by Russian forces, but also in Russia itself, and in neighboring Belarus, which is an ally of Russia. Russian security services have arrested multiple people in occupied Ukraine suspected of railway sabotage on behalf of the Ukrainian government.
In May 2023, two freight trains in two days were derailed in the Bryansk region of southern Russia. These were not the first such incidents in the area that borders Ukraine. In July, a Russian court convicted a dual Russian-Ukrainian citizen of terrorism offenses for blowing up tracks and derailing another train in the same area in July 2022. According to Russian news agency Tass, prosecutors said the man was working for Ukrainian intelligence services; he was sent to prison for 22 years.
Attacks on lineside rail signalling systems have been reported deep inside Russia this year and more than 60 people, mostly young Russian citizens, have been arrested for this in 2023, according to local media. In most cases, the defendants describe being offered money via online contacts to undertake arson attacks on signal equipment cases or power supply systems.
On Aug. 20, Russian media and the BBC reported five people were injured in a Ukrainian attack on the station in the Russian city of Kursk, about 90 miles from the Ukrainian border. Whether this was a deliberate attack, or a drone targeted elsewhere shot down by Russian anti-aircraft systems, is unclear.
In Ukraine, the railway and station in the city of Kherson is still being regularly targeted by Russian artillery. The city was liberated by Ukraine in November 2022 [See “Ukraine rail update …,” News Wire, Nov. 21, 2022] but is still in range of Russian guns across the Dnipro River.