The colorful ‘train ladies’ of Ukraine

Meet the rail safety officers who preside over the country’s vibrant railway crossing houses and other cultural touchstones.

Railway attendant Inna Oleksandrivna Manoylenko, at work on the outskirts of Kyiv, is one of hundreds of Ukrainian railway employees who signal to passing trains and keep impatient people off the tracks.

Many of Sasha Maslov’s best childhood memories are connected to trains. Every vacation, every trip to another city, he’d stare out the window to see the texture of his country in the apartment buildings and shops and cars waiting for the train to pass. And every so often, he’d see a tiny house with a woman standing by it, holding a yellow flag.

“Ukrainian railroad ladies,” as Maslov calls them in his portrait series, are a cultural tradition that feels as old as rail travel in Ukraine. The workers are tasked with sending flag-based signals to conductors of approaching trains. A folded yellow flag means all clear ahead. An unfolded flag means reduce speed and proceed with caution. A red flag—or a flare shot into the air—means to stop moving entirely, as a hazard is ahead.

Some aspects of rail officer life are changing. The officers are no longer all women, and the Ukraine Railways agency, Ukrzaliznytsia, has expanded its hiring to try to bring more young workers into the unglamorous but stable work.

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