Taking a ride on Chernobyl’s “Radioactive Railroad”

Over the past few months I’ve been working on a big project in secret… and today is finally the day that I get to present it to all of you. Most of you are aware that I was recently in Ukraine, but the real intent of my visit was to see the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. For many years I’ve wanted to write an article about the railroad that ran through the Exclusion Zone, half of which is now abandoned. I have finally fulfilled that goal.

Built by the Soviet military in 1927, the line connected the city of Ovruch in the west, to Chernihiv in the east, crossing the Pripyat, Dneiper, and Desna Rivers, and traversing a small portion of Belarus. The territory between the two cities was not especially valuable, nor heavily populated – yet railroad access could be useful from a military perspective, as railroads were considered the cheapest way to transport both soldiers and equipment.

Were it not for a chance event, the Ovruch to Chernihiv line could be operating in obscurity to this day. The chance event I’m mentioning, of course, is the Chernobyl disaster. This little rail line played a part in where the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic’s very first nuclear power pant would be built. Around sixteen sites were investigated as potential candidates, and one about 100 kilometers north of Kyiv fit the bill perfectly – it had a rail line with reliable train service, it had the nearby Pripyat River as a natural water source, and it had a lot of infertile land that could be taken over and turned into a cooling pond for the reactor.

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A Railroad Journey to Ukraine: Chernihiv

Roughly a hundred miles north of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv is the city of Chernihiv. Chernihiv has quite a long history, dating back to the medieval times, and it is also home to Ukraine’s oldest church. In terms of railroads, the first station in Chernihiv was established in 1893, part of a narrow-gauge branch line of the Moscow-Kiev-Voronezh Railway. Passengers were carried into the city proper by horses until the 1920s when a bridge over the Desna River was constructed, allowing trains into the main part of the city, where a new station was constructed. By 1928 there were connections from Chernihiv to Gomel, in present-day Belarus, to the city of Ovruch in Ukraine, and to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.

The Chernihiv – Ovruch line was a relatively unimportant one, primarily constructed for military purposes, but in the most coincidental sense had drastic effects on the Soviet Union and the world. The rail line played a part in the decision of where to locate Ukraine’s very first nuclear power plant, a place the world knows as Chernobyl (Chornobyl would be the proper Ukrainian transliteration). Since the nuclear reactor explosion in 1986, a portion of that rail line was abandoned – a story I’m hoping to flesh out over several posts in the coming weeks.

Train from Slavutych arrives at Chernihiv
Train from Slavutych arrives at Chernihiv. Slavutych is the “replacement” city for those that worked at the Chernobyl plant, constructed after the disaster. The rail line again played a part in the location of this place.

The station that one finds in Chernihiv now was built in 1950. The previous station at that location was destroyed during World War II, or as it is known in former Soviet locales, the Great Patriotic War. Chernihiv was occupied by Nazi forces from 1941 to 1943, and the retreating Soviet army practiced a scorched Earth policy, which included the destruction of railroad infrastructure. The station was destroyed at some point in 1941, either by Nazi bombardment, or by the retreating Soviets themselves to prevent the Nazis from getting any use out of it. The station was rebuilt in 1950, using the labor of German POWs. The attractive design comes from Ukrainian Soviet architect Gennady Ivanovich Granatkin, who is responsible for the designs of several stations throughout the Soviet Union, in today’s Belarus, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine.

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Poster Art: Railroads of Europe

Across the globe, most countries have a set of standardized street signs. Many use similar concepts and are mutually intelligible by outsiders based on pictographs. Though the meaning may be easily gleaned, it is interesting to note the wide variety of pictographs used by each country. Despite the fact that modern trains are hardly reminiscent of the steamers of yesteryear, the steam train is the pictograph of choice to convey the idea of “train.”

In some late-night weekend boredom, I worked on a few posters showing the trains of Europe through the lens of street signs and their pictographs. The first one features the pictographs used by each European country to represent trains, in the colors of their flags. The top 20 countries are shown in descending order based on how many miles of rail they have.

Railroad pictographs of Europe
If you like the flag poster, you can buy a copy here.

Technically speaking, the train pictograph above represents a grade crossing without barriers. An alternate sign is in use for crossings with barriers, and it uses a pictograph the resembles a cross between railroad tracks and a fence. I used that pictograph to show the differing track gauges used in Europe.

Rail gauges of Europe

Crossbucks are are a ubiquitous part of rail systems, in the many places where trains converge with streets. Though most countries use a similar concept, the colors and proportions vary widely.

Crossbucks of Europe

And just for fun, I made one more poster which shows the logos of the primary railroads in each country…
Rail logos of Europe

Anyway, the blog will likely be on temporary hiatus later next month as I’ll actually be riding some of these European rails.

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