IT is mid-May when I board a suburban train in Kiev heading east into the provinces. The train is overcrowded, and unable to find a seat, I'm forced to stand in the corridor, but the atmosphere instantly makes me forget about this inconvenience. Most passengers are on their way to their dachas and are clearly in a good mood; a guitar player earns money singing Russian pop songs, while people are selling all kind of products, from vegetable seeds to newspapers.

The short trip to my destination 60km outside Kiev costs just €0.80 but soon stretches into a 2-hour journey. The Soviet-era suburban train is forced to wait at small stations for long-distance passenger trains coming from the opposite direction. "They are working on the line," says a fellow passenger. "Only one of the two tracks is operational. This work has been going on for a year now, constantly causing delays. If I have to be in Kiev for an appointment, I ensure I leave plenty of time."

The track work causing delays is on part of the corridor between Lviv and Kiev, two of four Ukrainian cities hosting this summer's European football championships. Thousands of construction workers have been working over the past year to overhaul the outdated infrastructure, preparing for the arrival of new Hyundai Rotem trains that will transport football fans between the four host cities. Ukrainian Railways (UZ) normally transports 140,000 passengers between the four cities in June, but this year it expects to carry 222,000 during the games.

Ahead of the football championships, the Ukrainian government signed a $US 307m deal with Hyundai Rotem for the delivery of 10 HRCS2 emus. Six of them will be used during the football event, connecting Kiev with Kharkov, Donetsk and Lviv. The limited-stop services will cut journey times by up to 50%: instead of the usual 12 hours it takes to travel the 801km from Kiev to Donetsk, it will take just seven.

UZ also purchased two double-deck CityElefant emus from Skoda for €39.8m, and Ukrainian producer Kryukov Wagon Plant has delivered a rake of coaches to be hauled by a DS3 electric locomotive.

Commentators agree that the reduction in journey times is the biggest achievement of the Euro 2012 preparations, dragging the country out of its Soviet past. This has required the upgrading of 1500km of lines and electrification of the 176km Poltava - Lozovaya line, while existing electrification equipment has been modified and stations have been rebuilt, the most notable being the €102m renovation of Donetsk's main station.

In addition, hundreds of curves on the 22,000km broad-gauge network have been realigned to allow the new trains to reach their design speed of 160km/h. Previously, the maximum speed in Ukraine was 140km/h and only on three lines radiating from Kiev to Dnepropetrovsk, Kharkov, and Khutor-Mikhaylovskiy on the Russian border on the line to Moscow. Other lines had a maximum speed of 120km/h or less.

"Without the European football championships, these investments would never have been made," says Mr Alexander Kava, a railway advisor to the Ukrainian government. "UZ does not normally have the opportunity to invest, especially not in passenger transport."

Although UZ carried 427 million passengers last year, these services are heavily loss-making, with ticket sales covering only 30% of costs on domestic inter-city services and only 8% for suburban routes, according to Kava. "Profits generated by freight operations are being used to cover losses in passenger transport," he says. "This creates a deadlock, undermining investment in both passenger and freight transport." In the long run this could jeopardise UZ's successful freight business which moved almost 500 million tonnes last year.

UZ has invested over €1.6bn in Euro 2012 construction works, by far the largest investment since the country broke from the Soviet Union in 1991. Following Ukrainian independence, freight and passenger volumes decreased significantly, which Kava says resulted in a huge surplus of rolling stock. The reduction in traffic has decreased the appetite for investment in new trains over the past 20 years.

"Currently up to 90% of the rolling stock needs to be replaced," Kava continues. "For instance, UZ uses 500 VL8 electric freight locomotives, which were designed in 1953 and produced from 1955 to 1967. This means the newest locomotive of this type is 45 years old. They have outlived their lifespan twice over, and are highly inefficient."

Ukraine-HR-emuThe new Hyundai and Skoda trains have enabled UZ to rationalise its operations between the four cities, all of which except Lviv have populations of more than 1 million. In May, UZ announced plans to cut the number of night trains by 25% in favour of a more frequent day service. The new HRCS2 trains (pictured) will make three trips a day between Kiev and Lviv, each taking 5 hours for the 627km journey.

However, the cuts to the night services have upset a lot of Ukrainians who are used to travelling overnight and liked the fact they could avoid the expense of spending a night in a hotel.

Yet the biggest challenge facing UZ will come from much-needed fares increases. Fearing social unrest, Ukraine has long resisted raising fares, resulting in very low domestic passenger fares.

A ticket for the 857km trip from Kiev to Moscow costs about €100, compared with just €22 for a ticket for a 1014km journey within Ukraine from Kiev to Simferopol.

"But freight tariffs are outdated as well," states Kava. "The philosophy dates from the early twentieth century, and assumes that transport should have an equal share of the final cost price. The tariff for transporting oil is therefore much higher than that of sand or stone. From a modern marketing point of view this makes no sense as transport costs are similar."

Although the Euro 2012 investments are a step forward, another recent initiative should have more far reaching consequences for the future of the railway, which could play a vital role in the revival of the nation's economy. At the beginning of March, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich approved a law which provides the legal framework to restructure UZ.

Within the next 10 years, UZ will become a joint-stock state-owned company, with subsidiaries for infrastructure management, freight operations, long-distance and international passenger, and more. "Because of the complex structure, it is very difficult for private entrepreneurs to enter the network," says Kava. "To give you an example of the complexity, currently each of UZ's six regional railways has its own locomotives and rolling stock. If a train from one railway travels on the track of another, a difficult calculation has to be made, demanding a lot of paperwork." The new structure should sweep such complexities away and make the railway more attractive for private companies to develop both passenger and freight services, which would be a radical change in Ukraine.