Thursday, 2 July 2015

Railway matters

"Pardon me, boy - is that the Warszawa Wschodnia choo-choo?"

"Yes Sir!"

[No longer singing] "Sorry - you mean this Gomułka-era rolling stock (below)? For a 305km (190-mile) journey?"

"That's right Sir! This is the 13:44 InterRegio service from Poznań Główny to Warszawa Wschodnia, stopping at Konin, Koło, Kłodawa and Kutno - an inordinate number of places beginning with a 'K', despite the fact that only 6.44% of Polish words begin with a 'K'."

"But this train (EN57-890) was built in the early 1960s to get chłoporobotnicy from their edge-of-town farmsteads to their lathes and spindles in urban centres - not for transporting 21st Century Poles from two cities several hundred kilometres apart."

The journey wasn't unpleasant. Call it a 'retro-service' and rail fans from the world over will be queuing up to pay far more than the 53.90 złotys (£9.15) that the ticket cost me. The sunny summer weather, the breeze from the open window, the bucolic scenery unwinding outside as Wielkopolska gave way to Łódzkie and Mazovia (below).

Rail travel in Poland is about to get more predictable. The beta version of a real-time map of Polish railways has just gone live, showing travellers exactly where their train is as a given moment. Just as FlightRadar24 has revolutionised air travel by showing where the plane you are awaiting is.

Have a look at this, it's still far from perfect and a mobile app has yet to be test-launched. The default shows you trains in Pomorskie province; you need to find your province from the pull-down menu. Then zoom in a bit... it's reasonably intuitive. So here I am in Jeziorki, I want to know when the next train to town is. I know that according to the timetable, it's due at 22:00. But where is it right now? I check - it's in Warka, and running a minute late.

If I have a choice between rail and road, it's rail every time. I appreciate the comfort of being able to walk about, the views, and the ever-improving punctuality and service. The InterRegio has no first class, no restaurant car, no buffet trolley - it's totally spartan. Yet it was nearly full, carrying business people, holidaymakers, families with lots of children, foreign tourists even.

The move from the roads to the railways will happen, much as it has happened in Western Europe. In the UK, rail passenger numbers are at a record high, not something that was predicted in the car-mad Beeching-report 1960s. I hope Poland will not rip up its rail network, rather will learn to cherish its heritage and build on it.

This time two years ago:
Serious cycling

This time four years ago:
Outlets for creativity

This time six years ago:
The day I stopped commuting to work by car

This time seven years ago:
Look up at the Towers of London

This time eight years ago:
Wild deer in the Las Kabacki forest

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Auspicious? Or not? Or irrelevant?

As I write, I am in Poznań's Hotel Rzymski. On my way to my room from the restaurant, I catch sight of Venus and Jupiter, very close together in the western sky. From my bedroom window, looking east, I see a (nearly) full moon. Do these heavenly portents mean something - or not? Probably the latter. Time to kick out the jams on these old superstitions; instead let these phenomena trigger deeper reflections about purpose and fulfilling one's potential - and being grateful for all that we should be grateful for.

The first half of the year is over, and I can tot up my life-log. More walking than this time last year (average number of paces each day: 10,855 this year, 10,473 a day in 2014). Lower alcohol consumption in first half of this year than during the same period last year (weekly average 21.5 units per week this year, 24.2 units last year - NHS recommended limit for men: 21 units per week). Fewer sit-ups a day that last year (82 a day, compared to 130 a day last year). And new this year - I've started logging intake of fresh fruit and veg - it's 4.6 portions a day every day since 1 Jan. The target is five, hell - seven, nine, ten even.

Like my father, I like to put things down in spreadsheets, then I can analyse and see trends, take corrective action. I've been doing this daily for 18 months now. The aim of all this is long-term health and activity into old age (and my nonagenarian father is a great example for me to follow).

Determination is so important.

Well, that's it - the end of the first half of 2015 will be over in 90 minutes and one leap second; and so many unresolved issues around the world - Russia in Ukraine, ISIS at large, the Greeks with one foot in and one foot out of the eurozone, the UK's EU membership still in the balance. And probably the least of all these worries, Poland about to ditch PO (Civic Platform) in the autumn elections. What next? We live in uncertain times, but then mankind always has. May things not get any worse...

It's been a long day. I woke at 03:50, left home at 05:00, caught the Pendolino to Wrocław at 06:05, took part in a half-day training seminar for Polish exporters, visited a Polish factory in Dzierzoniów, returned to Wrocław in time to catch the 17:43 train to Poznań, arrived at my hotel at 20:45 - and had a splendid dinner (sorrel soup with poached - not boiled - eggs, and duck pierogi with chanterelle mushrooms) at the hotel restaurant.

This time last year:
Down the line from York

This time two years ago:
Cider - at last available in Poland

This time three years ago:
Despondency on Puławska
[A year later, still no S2 Southern Bypass]

This time four years ago:
Stalking the stork

This time six years ago:
Late June lightning

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Still flying after all these years

Living on the approach path to Okęcie airport, my senses are finely attuned to air traffic that's out of the ordinary. Sounds that make me grab my camera and dash to a window. Most of what flies in and out of Okęcie is twin-jet airliners, mainly Airbus A320s, Boeing 737s and Embraer ERJ175s and 195s. Some twin turboprops, like the Bombardier Q400s and ATR 42s and 72s. And these five types sum up around 95% of the planes flying over Jeziorki. The Queen of the Skies around here is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, operated by LOT. Ah - and Emirates' Airbus 330.

Military stuff is interesting, as are planes built a long long time ago. So when this morning I heard the distant roar of four turbojets in the distance, I knew something interesting was on its way. Indeed - the Israeli Air Force's increasingly infrequent flights of a Boeing 707 to Warsaw.

So I grabbed my camera - and snapped as it passed. Wonderful sight. Like a steam train or classic car. Well maintained and still flying after all these years (this particular example was built in 1974, spent time in China before being bought and refurbished by the Israeli Air Force in 1998 and fitted out for air-to-air refueling - note boom under rear fuselage).

Below: Israeli Air Force Boeing 707, serial no. 264. approaching Warsaw Okęcie. Overhead, an Aeroflot Airbus A330 leaves a pair of contrails as it passes over Warsaw at 33,000ft.

Below: leaving a cloud of soot worthy of a steam locomotive, the 707 makes its final approach. Built in 1973, this plane was used by communist China from 1973 to 1993, when it was bought and refurbished by the Israeli Air Force. So this plane has been flying for 42 years.

The last time I snapped an Israeli Air Force Boeing 707 (indeed any 707) was four years ago in late June 2011. Good to see these aircraft still in service. They remind me of my childhood, not far from London's Heathrow Airport, when the Boeing 707 was an everyday sight.

Another Israeli transport snapped this month was this El Al Boeing 747-400 freighter (4X-ELF) that visited on Sunday 4 June. Its presence at Okęcie drew a large crowd of spotters. The blueness of the sky, the whiteness of its fuselage against a dark green forest and the airport infrastructure including barbed wire fence creates a Sublime Aesthetic feel.

This particular aircraft is far younger than the 707 - built in 1994; no veteran but still a plane with 21 years of service behind it. How long will the Dreamliners that LOT has bought keep flying?

This time last year:
Yorkshire's smallest city

This time two years ago:
Cramp in the night

This time three years ago:
Football goes home

This time four years ago:
Birds of Omen

This time fiver years ago:
Yes, it does matter who you vote for

This time sixe years ago:
Poland could do with some more mountains

This time seven years ago:
Warmth of the Sun
- the Beach Boys and Noctilucence

This time eight years ago:
Polish roads that look like America

Saturday, 27 June 2015

The Ballad of Heniek and Ziutek

These guys are a) the backbone of Poland, b) Poland's biggest problem. Pan Heniek (below, left) and Pan Ziutek (below, right) - or indeed the other way round. The background has been heavily pixelated a) to hide the Polish village in which this was taken and b) to give the impression of level of inebriation that our protagonists are experiencing...

Pan Heniek and Pan Ziutek can be found in any Polish village (their presence in Polish cities is thankfully on the wane). Decent, ordinary, straightforward guys with one problem - alcohol.

This pair staggered into the sklep spożywczy ahead of me and went straight to the alcohol counter. They pooled their resources - eight or nine zlotys - and converted it into małpki - 100ml or 200ml bottles of vodka. But not just any małpki - these guys wanted their małpki chilled. From the chiller. It's hot outside.

Poland's spirits manufacturers have a lot on their conscience. In particular the chiller cabinet of małpki. These bottles were never intended for domestic consumption, Lord no. This is feldalkohol, something to be bought and swigged back in the fields. Strong alcohol to be drunk in the open air.

Pani ekspedientka asks her customers what they'd like. They name their preferred brands and engage in easy-going banter with the shop assistant, who's in her early 20s and probably finishing her Master's degree in philosophy. They manage to string entire sentences together without the use of a single expletive. She tells them, politely, that their order is not going to be good for their health. They laugh. It is evident from their gait (above) that these bottles are not their first of the day. They merrily shrug off this well-meaning advice, count their grosze and arrive at the right amount of loose change to pay for the małpki. The transaction is complete. And off they go, the two sages of the willow grove.

But for their comedic value, Pan Heniek and Pan Ziutek's alcohol problem leaves human tragedy in its wake - mothers, wives, children. Employers, social security, the health service.

The answer is clearly genetic; some of us can handle alcohol and some can't. A variant of one gene means that we are either prone to addiction to C2H5OH or not. In time, genetic testing will be able to identify those with the wrong variant - and innovative medicines will fix it. But in the meanwhile, we shall have to endure the sight - and the costs (social and economic) of Pan Heniek and Pan Ziutek's unending quest for booze.

This time last year:
Yorkshire's yellow bicycles

This time six years ago:
Horse-drawn in the Tatras

This time seven years ago:
Rain, wind and fire

This time eight years ago:
The Road beckons

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Warsaw's Citizens' Budget - vote NOW! (closes midnight Friday)

Voting in this year's Budżet Partycypacyjny ends tomorrow. This year, Warsaw's democratically chosen budget project is far better organised than last year. The main improvement for us living in Jeziorki has been the splitting of Ursynów into three separate regions - Upper Ursynów North, Upper Ursynów South and Green Ursynów. Zielony (Green) Ursynów consists of Jeziorki to the south and Grabów to the north. The pool of money set aside for Green Ursynów was 1,464,000 złotys, and citizens have the chance to choose which of 13 projects they want to see realised - up to the total sum of the allocated pool.

Of the 13 projects, all are entirely laudable and being able to select several was a huge improvement over last year. Here in Jeziorki, most of the money allocated to my vote went to traffic and public transport improvements (pavement for the short stretch of Karczunkowska between ul. Puławska and ul. Sarabandy, traffic calming for all residential streets) but the bulk of my spend I allocated to our lakes between Trombity and Dumki - a proper footpath, above all and bins for the ponds at Wąsal and Pozytywki.

Having selected my choice of projects for Green Ursynów, I was about to post them, when I was reminded that I can also vote for another 1,200,000 złotys-worth of projects for Ursynow-wide projects. Here, I voted mainly for road safety, ecology and IT projects.

This is all so much better than last year, when all Ursynów was treated as one area, and you could only vote for one project; the winning project was a centre for disabled people. This time, there's no one great big-budget project that stands out above all others like last year; there's a greater choice and a greater feeling that the local authorities are listening to the citizens. The structure of the IT solution is (largely) intuitive, allowing voters to see how much of the budget they've 'spent' and how much they have left. My only minor gripes are the ReCaptcha-type image of letters you have to type in - does it or not include spaces? ('no' is the answer) and the journey could be better signposted. Ah... you need to register/log in online. I thought I did this last year, apparently not - register again (you'll need your PESEL number).

So then - if you live in Jeziorki - or in Ursynów - or in any of Warsaw's districts, voting ends tomorrow (Friday 26 June) at midnight. So VOTE! (Click here to start process). Then click on the big red 'GŁOSUJ' banner, register/log in, then chose your district, and begin selecting the projects you want to see realised in your neighbourhood.

Follow-up, Friday 26 June, morning. I get an automated e-mail from City Hall, thanking me for voting, reminding me what I voted for, and saying that the results will be published on Friday 10 July, and the projects completed by the end of 2016. Good stuff!

This time last year:
Beginning of the end of PO [Civic Platform]

This time last year:
Where's the beef? Fillet steak in Warsaw

This time two years ago:
W-wa Zachodnia spruced up for the football, W-wa Stadion reopened

This time three years ago:
Literature and biology

This time six years ago:
Old Nysa van spotted in Grabów

This time seven years ago:
The oats in the neighbouring field rise high