How one Ukrainian crossed EU border by train to have a sense of visa-free travel around Schengen countries (1/3)

by Andy Kozlov

Ukrainian parliament is still prepping to ratify the EU Association Agreement. While the open air talks between the two entities have been put on hold more than once already since the end of former Ukraine’s president Victor Yanukovich’s regime.

As for the visa-free access to the Schengen countries by Ukrainian citizens, the most pessimistic estimates I saw so far say TO HAPPEN BY 2019. While even some Russian government-run media cite Head of the EU Delegation to Ukraine Jan Tombinski as saying

a visa-free travel regime may be introduced within several months, as it was in the case of Moldova

The active phase of the Kyiv-headed anti-terrorist operation in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass might end mid-September. I certainly hope as many people’s lives can be saved as possible. Some reconstruction effort has been gaining traction in recently liberated places like Slovyansk and Kramatorsk in northern Donbass. Yet many here are unhappy and feel worried about what the gas price spike will present to their families impoverished by the doubled UAH-USD exchange rate, come wintertime.

With all this in mind, on July 11, I got on my train to Bratislava, Slovakia — operated by the Russian Railways (Российские железные дороги or РЖД). Starting my journey in Lviv — under 70 km from the EU border if you crossing into Poland via Rava-Ruska —  I set off for Paris on my tour across Europe.

My goal? Discover what visa-free travel inside the European Union might feel like for the post-Euromaidan population of Ukraine.

Moskvasteklo (Moscow Glass) branded window pane of my RZD carriage (Photo by Andy Kozlov)
Moskvasteklo (Moscow Glass) branded window pane of my RZD carriage (Photo by Andy Kozlov)

Although the Ukrainian national railway carrier Ukrzaliznytsia (UZ) has an online ticketing service, this system does not feature any of the not-so-many connections with the EU. So if you are in Lviv and personally plan your train trip to Kraków in Poland, Budapest in Hungary or Bratislava, my destination, you will be required to present yourself at an UZ ticket booth.

In my case, the UZ staff had to check with Moscow about place availability since my Slovakia-bound carriage leaves Russia’s capital as part of the Moscow-Budapest rolling stock. Somewhere along my trip of some 18 hours we were hooked up to a Bratislava-heading engine.

As you reach the Chop border crossing in Zakarpatska Oblast around two in the morning, a bogie exchange will want around three hours to take place. During this procedure, a wagon is converted from one gauge to another by removing the chassis containing the wheels and axles and installing a new chassis with differently spaced wheels.

This is what the Ukraine-Slovakia border bogie exchange will look like should you happen to be stationed in the first compartment of your RZD wagon (Photo by Andy Kozlov)
This is what the Ukraine-Slovakia border bogie exchange will look like should you happen to be stationed in the first compartment of your RZD wagon (Photo by Andy Kozlov)

One-way ticket cost me 1,255 hryvnia. Back then, the UAH-EUR exchange rate was oscillating between 16:1 and 17:1. Say, €80 for a train journey of 700-800 km.

Will the price be cheaper, as Ukraine gradually moves closer towards the EU on my nation’s integration path? Will it take the trains even less hours to link Lviv and the outskirts of Vienna, which used to be the former’s capital as close as 1918? Will the wagons be even comfier in two-three years from now?

Having crossed the whole of Slovakia (8,5 hours by train) from East to West, I witnessed lots of infrastructure investment there. Lots of it EU-supported. This is as sure as the striking contrast between development in the eastern and western parts of the Central-European nation (EU member sinc 2004).

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Part 2

Part 3

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