Steam Locomotives in Ukraine’s War Zone

When war comes, the only worry has to be saving lives. That’s as it should be and as it is in Ukraine today. This article is about Ukraine’s history with steam locomotives and how that history is disappearing as Russia invades with modern technology. We do not mean to minimize the war, the suffering of the Ukrainian people, or the danger this land faces in 2022.

Steam Locomotives in Ukraine

An Operating Steam Locomotive on the Front Line

Donetsk, Ukraine, in the oblast (province) of Donetsk, is home to a giant of steam – a mainline monster 0-10-0, #Er775-07. This locomotive was built toward the end of the steam era in Budapest, Hungary in 1955. Its relatively young age and the fact that it has been maintained all those years means she could be/should be in generally good condition.

#Er775-07 was a part of the steam excursion boom in Ukraine securing independence from the former Soviet Union. The last known operational outing for the locomotive was in late 2013 as part of a WW2 Victory celebration. It was reported as operational prior to the first Russian-assisted fighting in the region that began in 2014.

More than 10,000 E Class of Soviet-era steam locomotive were built. This os one of the operating steam locomotives in Ukraine.
#Er775-07, ready to leave Donetsk Station with a “Victory Train” in 2013.

However, beginning in 2014, Donetsk was on the front line between Russian-supported separatists and the Ukrainian army. In March of 2022, Donetsk became behind the lines as Russian forces invaded the rest of Ukraine through the Donetsk area. Of course there is no word on the fate of this, or any of the locomotives we will mention in this article.

The citizens of Donetsk and Ukraine have much more to worry about than the loss of an operating steam locomotive. Yet, it is a shame to possibly lose a treasure like this to war. The world has lost so many steam locomotives in recent decades. #Er775-07 is not alone. Ukraine, from the last authoritative count before the war – had 16 operational steam, 6 “stored” and 109 on display throughout the country. That’s a lot of survivors for a country about the size of Texas.

Steam Survivors’ fate…is unknown

The front lines in this war are not static; but it appears, as of March 20th 2022, as many as half of the steam locomotives reported as operational are now in Russian controlled Ukrainian territory or are in larger cities that are currently being bombarded. That capital of Kyiv is home to several operational locomotives and the National Railway Museum. The museum is at the main railway station and is very likely to come under bombardment or direct attack if there is street fighting.

It is more difficult to get a sense of how the 115 steam locomotives marked as “stored” or on display currently fare. Except to say that a large number of those locomotives were reported in the Oblasts of Donetsk, Luhansk and Chernihiv. All of which have been overrun by Russian forces or are, like the Oblasts of Kyiv and Kharkiv, in active war zones with continued shelling and rocket attacks.

Brief History of Steam Locomotives in Ukraine

The history of steam locomotives in Ukraine parallels that of Russia and the Soviet Union. Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire, then confederation and then the Soviet Union as steam locomotives were invented and the technology advanced. During the Soviet period the design of steam locomotives was centralized, but the building of them was not. Ukraine was home to one of the largest locomotive works in the former Soviet Union.

Entrance to the Voroshilovgrad Locomotive Works in Luhansk, Ukraine.
VLW Main Entrance (Photo: Lystopad via CC BY-SA 3.0)

This is the entrance to the Voroshilovgrad Locomotive Works in Luhansk. Note the replica electric and steam locomotives on display. These are models of two of the most numerous locomotives produced at this plant.

In the steam era, the Voroshilovgrad Locomotive Works was in the top three of locomotive works in the USSR. As late as 2009 the plant employed over 7,000 workers. More on this plant below.

Before World War 2, and more-so after, steam designs across the USSR and the entire “Eastern Bloc” and Warsaw Pact countries looked just about the same. Thousands of some designs were churned out and put to work, including the famous 0-10-0 E Class locomotives. Over 10,000 E Class locomotives were built.

Steam was a workhorse over the long distances (11 time zones!) of the USSR and that included Ukraine. But eventually, as elsewhere in the world, diesel and electric locomotives won the day. The last regular use of steam locomotives on the national railway was in 1983, not long before the breakup of the Soviet Union (1990-1991). After a vote, Ukraine declared independence from from the disintegrating USSR and Russia in late 1991.

The new nation inherited much infrastructure from “Mother Russia”, the USSR. Maybe most well known were the nuclear missiles and nuclear power plants. The missiles were dismantled under a supervised program. In 2022, those nuclear power plants are military targets. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant lies inside Ukraine. The new country also inherited factories (Voroshilovgrad Locomotive Works), highways and a railroad system.

By this time the railways were completely dieselized and electrified system. The steam era was over, but not long over. And the new citizens of Ukraine could now preserve their own history. Railfans in the country did so with gusto. Early in its independance 400 steam locomotives were catalogued in various states of storage, display or operating.

Soviet-era steam locomotives on display at the Ukraine National Railway Museum.

Ukraine’s National Railway Museum

Kyiv’s main railway station hosts a group of generally well kept rail survivors. Electric, diesel and steam are on display. This photo was taken in 2013.

Passenger cars include opulent private cars for Soviet generals or party members. Also, an interesting jet-powered snow blower is in the collection.

Shortly after independence successful steam excursions, operated by private enterprises, sprang up throughout the country. The apex of that movement came between 1995 and 2012. In part it was the whispers of war that ended many of those tourist fed excursions. Russia invaded Crimea in 2014.

The huge Class SU ready with an excursion in 2008 at Lviv Station.  One of the many steam locomotives in Ukraine.
Former Ukraine National Railways #SU251-96 with an excursion at Lviv Station in 2008. (Photo: Anton Brynykh)

While not attracting globe-hopping tourists, steam continued to be run for special occasions. The Ukrainian Railway Heritage Association ran a special 150 mile trip between Smila and Hrebinka for National Railway Workers’ Day. That was late in 2015 and the steam locomotive used was #Su251-86. It’s clear that there are railfans in Ukraine and groups, like the Ukrainian Railway Heritage Association, that have worked to keep steam locomotives in front of the public so that Ukraine’s steam train history is not forgotten.

Ukraine, a Builder of Steam Locomotives

The Voroshilovgrad Locomotive Works

Another casualty of war, and a blow to the rich history of steam in Ukraine, is the looting of the famed Voroshilovgrad Locomotive Works. The factory built its last steam locomotive in 1956, but went on to to built electric and diesel locomotives for the USSR, then Ukraine and a larger international market. It was active until the Russian-supported uprising in Luhansk in 2014. Rebels looted the factory, leaving it completely inoperative. It has been closed since that time.

The Voroshilovgrad Locomotive Works of Luhansk.
Voroshilovgrad Locomotive Works pre-1917

The Voroshilovgrad Locomotive Works opened in 1896. It is estimated that this single locomotive works turned out 12,000 steam locomotives through 1956. The Voroshilovgrad Locomotive Works was especially noted for its powerful Fd Class 2-10-2 and Class L 2-10-0 locomotives which saw service all over the Soviet Union and “Eastern Bloc” countries. These were true “Steam Giants”, being muscular mainline locomotives capable of pulling long heavy freight trains.

One of the many preserved steam locomotives in Ukraine. Thi s one was also built in Ukraine.
A Class L 2-8-0 Locomotive built at the Voroshilovgrad Locomotive Works in Luhansk, Ukraine.

At last count, and there is no indication that any operational steam locomotive was moved to safer areas of the country before the late February 2022 Russian invasion, there were 17 steam locomotives survivors in Kyiv Oblast – 7 of them listed as operational. Hard hit Kharkiv Oblast listed 12 survivors, one operational.

The operational locomotive is another ubiquitous Class E locomotives, a 0-10-0 #Er794-12. She was built in Poland at the Zegelsky Locomotive Works, to a standard Russian design, in 1954. Her last known excursion was in December of 2018.

An example of the dozens of steam locomotives in Ukraine that are in operating condition.
#Er794-12 at Kharkiv’s Kharkiv-Passazhyrsky station in 2016. (Photo: ©sergbob)

War’s human toll is terrible. The death and destruction visited upon the Ukrainian people in 2022 is beyond words. Our first hope is that the loss of human life ends and that life’s necessities can be restored. But we also hope that, as the country rebuilds, in some peaceful future, that another accounting of steam survivors can be made and that the damage there is not too great. The preservation of steam locomotives in Ukraine is too good of a story to be blasted into oblivion. Slava Ukraini.

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