Ukrainian train wagons containing grain are stuck close to the country’s border with Poland, according to data from Kyiv’s state-run railway company Ukrzaliznytsia.
In total, 24,190 wagons carrying various goods like chemicals, iron ore, coal, etc. are waiting to cross the western border, Reuters reported, citing the railway company data. Of this, roughly 1,100 wagons are carrying grain.
Prior to the Russian invasion, Ukraine used to export 98 percent of cereals via the Black Sea and only a fraction by rail. But with the war having disrupted shipping activities, Ukraine is now forced to export grain through the more expensive rail option.
However, transporting goods through land is facing red tape issues and logistical challenges. The massive volume of goods that are now seeking alternate routes is creating shortages of rail cars and staff, compounding the problem.
Clearing the backlog of railcars could take some time. Valerii Tkachov, deputy director of the commercial department at Ukrzaliznytsia, said to Reuters. Ukrainian railways use a wider railway gauge than what is typically used in Europe.
As such, railway employees have to raise wagons using a jack and manually change the chassis to fit the Polish tracks. Alternatively, the grain from the Ukrainian wagons will have to be poured into Polish ones, something that could take up to 30 minutes per wagon.
The railway company is working toward enabling 1,100 wagons of grain to cross daily into Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Romania in around three months, according to Tckachov. If successful, this would represent a ten-fold increase in volume when compared to the March numbers.
The railways are also buying more equipment, hiring people, and easing out customs procedures. “We are working to speed up the process … reducing the number and duration of wagon inspections, and the amount of paperwork,” Tkachov said.
Export of grain totaled around $12.2 billion in 2021, making up roughly 20 percent of Ukraine’s total exports. In March 2022, grain exports fell to just 10 percent of what was exported in March last year as the country grappled with Russian forces.
From the beginning of July 2021 until late February, Ukraine exported 43 million tons of grain. Prior to the war, Kyiv had expected grain exports to hit 65 million tons this season. Analysts now estimate Ukraine’s grain exports to be around just a million tons in the three months following February.
Ukraine’s deputy agriculture minister Taras Vysotskiy had recently expressed hope that the country might be able to export 1.5 million tons of grain by train. Though it would only be around a third of what was exported via ports, Vysotskiy notes that the rail exports would generate some income for those dependent on the agricultural industry.
Russia’s invasion has threatened global food security since Ukraine is a critical link in the agricultural supply chain that connects several nations. In 2021, the U.N. World Food Program sourced half its supplies from Ukraine.
Multiple countries in the Middle East and North Africa, many of whom are already struggling with drought, are also at food supply risk due to the war. Ukraine and Russia accounted for over two-thirds of wheat imported by countries like Lebanon, Libya, and Egypt.
The EU imports 50 percent of Ukraine’s sunflower oil production. But with exports disrupted, the region is now being threatened by a shortage of oil.
“We are in a situation where the entire European and global food industry are fighting for the sunflower oil supplies that remain,” Ruben Moreno, head of Spanish confectionary industry group Produlce, said in an interview with Politico. Though the search for alternative oils was on, “it would not suffice to make up for the loss of Ukrainian oil.”