Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Ahead of the opening of the second line of Warsaw's Metro

I normally travel to work on the Koleje Mazowieckie service from W-wa Jeziorki to W-wa Śródmieście. A short walk at either end with a 30-minute train ride in between which is (and I hesitate to say this after my last wpadka) relatively reliable. Today, however, I took the 209 bus to Stokłosy ('Stokkers' or 'Hundred Sheaves') and thence by Metro to Centrum and a short walk to work. I was surprised to see new maps in the trains, showing not only the familiar one, north-south line, but also the new, soon-to-be-opened second east-west line. And a second, bigger, more detailed map of Warsaw's public transport network on rails - Metro and trams, and all suburban and mainline rail services - Koleje Mazowieckie, SKM, WKD and indeed InterCity (below). Click to enlarge.


We wait, we wait. At first, Warsaw was promised the Second Line in time for the 2012 UEFA football championships (remember them, dear readers?). This soon proved to be a mere chimera, a phantasm, a will o' the wisp, a fatamorgana (and this is before reaching for the Thesaurus). Ul. Świętokrzyska was dug up for so long I forgot that cars had once been allowed onto it. Last month, the roads above the new Metro line were re-opened, and earlier this month (just before the local elections) the new stations were opened to the public for a one-day-only site visit.

The Second Line (or line M2 as it will be called) was meant to have been opened on 11 November, Poland's national holiday, Independence Day. A good old communist-era tradition of lining up openings (Trasa W-Z, Palace of Culture, Trasa Łazienkowska, Dworzec Centralny) with public holidays of ideological significance (in those days 22 July). But the form-filling and box-ticking continues, with 37 (yes!) different agencies having to pop down to make sure that everything is hunky-dory. Better to make absolutely sure, cover one's backside, than to have a nasty incident later on. Good to see that the local elections did not play a part in the timing of the line's inauguration, with City Hall leaning on the relevant authorities to get it open by polling day or else.

So we wait. Type the letters "kiedy ot" into Polish Google. and it will helpfully autofill "kiedy otwarcie Metra"in the first instance. "When is the Metro opening". Latest answer to the much-asked question, from five hours ago, is... 14 December. So over a month after the last officially-quoted opening date then.

For all my non-Varsovian readers, the seven stations of the new line are as follows:  Rondo Daszyńskiego, Rondo ONZ, Świętokrzyska (the interchange station with line M1), Nowy Świat - Uniwersytet, Centrum Nauki Kopernik, Stadion Narodowy and Dworzec Wileński.

Below: some views of the unopened as yet station at Nowy Świat - Uniwersytet.

Looking west along ul. Świętokrzyska, Ministry of Finance to the right.

Newly reopened to traffic, ul. Świętokrzyska has cycle-lanes (not separated)

Stairs will take commuters down to platform level

Metro entrances on ul. Kubusia Puchatka. Yes, Winnie the Pooh Street.

The first line of the Warsaw Metro opened in April 1995. I visited it then with Moni when she was two years and three months old. Now she's doing postgraduate studies. Time flies, building metro systems is something that takes lifetimes - just look at the London Underground, 152 years old in January.

Let's take a look at how long it took from opening a first line to opening the second line of underground railway systems in the following cities:

  • London  - first line: 1863, second line 1868
  • Paris - first line: 1900, second line 1900
  • Berlin - first line: 1902, second line 1910
  • New York - first line: 1904, second line 1908
  • Buenos Aires - first line: 1913, second line 1930
  • Madrid - first line: 1919, second line 1924
  • Moscow - first line: 1935, second line 1938
  • Stockholm - first line: 1950, second line 1951
  • Beijing - first line: 1969, second line 1984
  • Prague - first line: 1974, second line 1978
  • Warsaw - first line: 1995, second line 2014

So Warsaw's wait of over 19 years for a second line is somewhat of an outlier. And I am assuming that line M2 will be opened before April... And a reminder for my Varsovian readers to turn out and vote in the second round of the mayoral elections on Sunday. The result is not an inevitable one, every vote counts.

This time last year:
Keep an eye on Ukraine...
(Portents of troubles to come)

This time two years ago:
Płock by day, Płock by night

This time three years ago:
Warning ahead of railway timetable change

This time seven years ago:
Some thoughts on recycling

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Poland - it works! revisited

Pride comes before the fall, as Britain's foremost 20th Century metaphysical philosopher, the Reverend W. Awdry oftentimes observed. There I was writing on Sunday about how everything in Poland works properly, and blow me if the very same day, two national IT disasters don't strike at the same time.

The first was the failure of PKP InterCity to anticipate the huge demand for cut-price tickets for the new Pendolino service, which led to its online ticket system (that I'd praised the same day) crashing.

The second was the failure of the PKW (national electoral commission) IT system used for counting the votes in Sunday's local government elections.

It is good to note that the disasters were not just swept under the carpet in a business-as-usual-style cover-up; heads rolled - the deputy head of PKP IC and the head of the PKW. High-profile failure in the public sector is no longer to be tolerated.

While the vote counting continues in many of the regional assembly counts, the mayoral elections have been settled and many will go to a second round - sign of a healthy democratic process.

This morning I woke at five past four to catch the 06:00 train from W-wa Zachodnia to Poznań. Because of the Pendolino debacle I was unable to buy my ticket online, so had to queue up at Zachodnia to buy it. No problem. I ask the lady in Koleje Mazowieckie uniform at the Koleje Mazowieckie ticket office where I could buy an InterCity ticket. She said, "From me." Excellent! "Cash or card, Sir?" Brilliant! The queue was very short, just one person ahead of me, so I set off for Platform 7, where the Warsaw-Berlin express, calling at Poznań, arrived on time. It arrived on time. I found the conference venue on Google Maps (a mere 500m from the station).

The return journey was equally punctual, although my Koleje Mazowieckie train from W-wa Zachodnia to W-wa Jeziorki was 11 minutes late. My only gripes with the return journey were that the free, on-board and much-touted wi-fi couldn't connect with either my laptop or my smartofon, leading me to believe that it didn't, actually, work, and that the Wars restaurant car didn't have any of the ciders it was advertising. The pierogi were good, though the portions (a mere six) were small.

Anyway, I was in Poznań to chair a real estate conference; the keynote speaker was the city's chief architect, who gave a detailed presentation into how the city is developing, how the 'green wedge' policy is working out (a cross of  greenery transecting the city from north to south, from east to west), and a fine balance that avoids diktat on one hand and anarchic free-for-all on the other. The presentation from estate agents CBRE highlighted just how Warsaw-centric the Polish property market is. Apparently there is twice as much office space in Warsaw's Służewiec district as there is in the whole of the city of Kraków.

Apropos of Kraków and Poland working, on Saturday in Kraków I met a Spanish guy who worked in the shared-services centre of a huge American IT corporation. He said that quite a few Spaniards had moved to Poland to escape the hopelessness and unemployment back home. While Spain's GDP per capita on a purchasing-power parity basis may still be some 50% higher than Poland's, that's little comfort if unemployment is nearly three times as high (Spain 24% vs Poland 8.7% according to Eurostat) and the economy is growing at half the pace (Spain 1.6% vs Poland 3.4% year-on-year to Q3 2014).

So major IT disasters notwithstanding, let's be thankful that Poland continues to move in the right direction, even if it often feels like two steps forward, one step back. It's better than the other way around.


This time last year:
Autumn or spring?
[This year, decidedly autumnal. Glum, damp, just above freezing.]

This time two years ago:
Shedding light on unused roads

This time three years ago:
Warsaw to Kraków by train
(an interesting contrast with current rail experiences!)

This time four year:
Warsaw Blogmeet

This time five years ago:
My fixie reconfigured

This time seven years ago:
Not In My Back Yard

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Poland - it works!

I flew into Okęcie on Friday, just before midnight. The WizzAir flight was on time. Outside the terminal, no shortage of taxis. The driver drove me to Jeziorki without having to ask me where it was, and charged me the normal rate (50zł - £9.40 for the 10km/6.2 mile) journey. I woke on Saturday morning to make the journey to Kraków, where I was addressing MBA alumni at the University of Economics. I booked and paid for my ticket online (60zł - £9.40 for the 293km/180 mile journey), printed the ticket off at home, and walked to W-wa Jeziorki to catch the suburban train to W-wa Zachodnia. The train from Radom came on time, I had 10 minutes to change platforms at Zachodnia. The train from Kraków arrived on time, and arrived in Kraków some 7 minutes late (amazing given the amount of work being carried out on the line).

In Kraków I had lunch at Los Compañeros, a Mexican restaurant where the crispy-shell beef tacos were so good, I had a second portion of three tacos. 6zł (94p) per taco (I had six in all!). Street signs from the station to the campus (470m) were also excellent - I didn't need to consult Google Maps on my smartofon to find it.

The event finished in good time for me to catch the 20:05 service back to Warsaw. I bought my ticket home at a ticket machine, paying with my debit card. The train left on time - and most importantly - arrived at W-wa Zachodnia on time, leaving me seven minutes to cross platforms and catch the last train to Radom via W-wa Jeziorki - which also arrived on time.

No stress, everything works. On Thursday morning, heading for Okęcie by bus, I bought my quarterly season ticket on board using by debit card - no problem whatsoever. Things are getting better, more convenient, more sophisticated.

The quality of the country you live in can best be judged by 'does it work'. Health service, roads, public transport, policy, education, state institutions. OK, there's still a lot of work to be done by us nation-builders here in Poland, but there is progress, things are going well given a) the starting point and b) other countries on the same journey.

Why am I writing this post? It is an answer to Russia Today, Sputnik and all the other Russian propaganda outlets that spew out non-stop lies, half-truths and disinformation. The main strategy, aimed at confusing the West is to use moral equivalence - you say Russia is corrupt - well, the West is corrupt too. You say Russia has crumbling infrastructure, vast inequality and an economy in disarray - well, it's just the same in the West. You say Russia is interfering in foreign countries - well, look at Iraq, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan.

To counter this cobblers, false argumentation picked up at night classes at Moscow's Institute of Marxism-Leninism, this 'dialectical materialism*', I say - does Russia work? Are things better in everyday life in Russia? Shopping? Trips to the tax office? Encounters with traffic policemen? A feeling that the media is truthful? How punctual are the trains? Can you download Moscow bus timetables on your smartphone? Are Muscovites frustrated by trying to get around their city? Do they have a wealth of choice in reasonably-priced snack-bars and supermarkets?

Russia remains a land of subservience, of convenience bought at the price of freedom. The West has been built on the bedrock of freedom and property rights - I work hard, I save, I invest - the State, the vested interests, crooked politicians - can never take this away from me. Therefore I am motivated to work harder, to save, and to invest.

I remember reading back in the early 1990s about two Russian geologists, academics from the university, who decided to set up a small shop in an underground passage by a Metro station, selling the semi-precious stones they found while on field trips. After a while, the thriving little business attracted the attentions of the mafia. "If you don't give us a cut of your earnings, we will kill you." Reasonably, they considered that a mafia adds no value to their business, and they refused. They were killed. The message to would-be entrepreneurs was 'don't bother'. So there was - and is - comparatively little small and medium-sized business going on in Russia. If you are entrepreneurial, you'll make more money as a tax inspector or traffic policeman.

It is not so in Poland, nor in the West. These are the values that we should be clear about, despite the depressing blandishments of Russia Today insisting that things in Russia are no different to how they are in the West. They are fundamentally different. The West works better than Russia. It's just that simple.

Today Poland went to the polls to elect its local authorities around the country. Turnout higher than in the past (at least at 17:30); certainly when I went to vote, the school on ul. Sarabandy was busy. Tomorrow we will see whether Poles are happy with their gospodarz ('householder' - mayor, village elder etc) or not. Not just a reflection on local affairs, but also a reflection of how satisfied voters are with Premier Kopacz.

This time last year:
Bricktorian Birmingham

This time three years ago:
Fog hits Modlin Airport

This time four years ago:
The local elections and what they mean

This time five years ago:
Synchronicity of shape - Powiśle, Hanger Lane, Mel's Drive-In

This time six years ago:
The last of Jeziorki's noted landmark - the Rampa na kruszywa

This time seven years ago:
Jeziorki spared high-density development thanks to airport zoning

Monday, 10 November 2014

Schadenfreude

Oh what bliss it was to watch TV news on Friday evening! Earlier that day, the story broke that three PiS deputies - Adam Hofman, the party's spokesman, Mariusz Kamiński (not to be confused with the former head of the anti-corruption agency, the CBA) and Adam Rogacki - were caught flying to Madrid on Ryanair when they had all claimed expenses for driving there and back on parliamentary business.

They would have gotten away with it, had it not been for the fact that their wives, travelling with them, were drinking alcohol that they'd brought onto the plane (something forbidden by the airline), and were remonstrating aggressively with cabin staff. The in-flight fracas was brought to the attention of the tabloid press, which led to some investigative digging. This in turn resulted in some interesting facts coming to light.

Firstly, that Hofman had done this fiddle before many times over the years - claiming mileage for driving to foreign destinations on parliamentary business, yet buying tickets on low-cost airlines. The sum of 64,000 zlotys (about £12,000) has been mentioned in media reports. The other two were also discovered to have been doing this. They'd been buying the airline tickets weeks in advance of claiming for travel expenses.

Secondly, that once at his destination, Hofman only voted six times out of the 25 parliamentary deliberations that he had ostensibly gone to attend. He'd sign his name in the register and then slip away. So rather than sticking up for Polish taxpayers' best interests, he'd be off sightseeing, at their expense.

All the glee and schadenfreude at the political end of this slippery trio has come at a particular inauspicious time for PiS - a week before the local and provincial elections.

To his credit, Prezes Kaczyński has terminated the trio with extreme prejudice - they've been expelled from the party earlier today. Oh what bliss it was to watch the TV news this evening! Mr Kaczyński has lost his able spokesman, who always knew how to make his boss look good, just as Poland is about to vote for its mayors and provincial parliaments.

Fun though it may have been watching PiS squirming in extreme discomfort, it is worth putting this Polish MPs expenses scandal into perspective. Do take a minute or two to see the size and scale of the 2009 UK Parliamentary Expenses Scandal. How the mighty have fallen, eh?

I'm sure that PiS deputies were not alone in this form of misbehaviour. It is evident that there were no checks in place to make sure that the money given as an advance (zaliczka) was ever accounted for later. Having worked all my life in the private sector, this is unthinkable. When I return from a business trip, I account for all my bus tickets, taxi receipts, hotel invoices etc - or I don't see my money back. That's fair. I cannot get to grips with an expenses system that's so lax that money is just handed over on trust - and that's the end of the matter.

And the idea of flying to a conference and not taking part is equally scandalous. If the taxpayer is paying these parliamentarians to represent them internationally - that is what they should be doing.

The arrogance and complacency shown by these three deputies should, I hope, result in none of them ever holding public office again. And a thorough investigation needs to be carried out into our parliamentarians' foreign trips - how much they cost and what they accomplished.

It is worth copying the idea of TheyWorkForYou.com. This website gives UK voters all the details about the person who represents them in Parliament. Take a look, for example, at Stephen Pound MP, who represents my parents' constituency, Ealing North. To quote something that three different visitors from the UK have said to me over the past week, 'this is what "good" looks like'. Poland needs to replicate this. OniPracujaDlaCiebie.pl, anyone?

This time last year:
From the Mersey to the Tyne

This time two years ago
Autumnal Gdańsk

This time three years ago:
What Independence Day means for Poles

This time four years ago:
Words fail me: what's the Polish for 'to fail'?

This time five years ago:
Autumn in Dobra

This time seven years ago:
Autumn ploughing

Friday, 7 November 2014

Defending Poland against hybrid warfare

The situation in Ukraine continues to be uneasy; the truce signed in Minsk in September is regularly being broken. There were reports today of a further 80 Russian vehicles including 32 tanks crossing the border into Ukraine, reports which the Russians of course deny.

It looks like Ukraine has held the line and that Putin will, for the time being, do what he can to swallow parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts and incorporate Crimea into Russia, something the rest of the world will not recognise. So another frozen conflict, more land grabbed by Russia to be run by Mr Putin's unsavoury associates - along with Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria - Russia's neo-imperialist appetite has been held in check by international pressure.

In Ukraine, it is clear that Russia has been stopped short of its greater territorial ambitions - a land corridor to Crimea, the whole of the Donbass region, even Odessa and a land corridor to Transnistria. Western sanctions have forced the Kremlin to hold back on further overt military action.

While Putin may be less inclined to pursue traditional means of war to conquer what he calls 'Novorossiya', the Kremlin's policy of hybrid war continues apace. Russian aircraft probe the approaches to NATO airspace on a daily basis. Russian hackers keep up the pressure on Western IT systems, while Russian propaganda is working at full-blast, feeding the usual lies, disinformation and half-truths to distract and confuse Western public opinion.

Russia's targets for mischief include former parts of the USSR such as Estonia and Latvia; meanwhile the Czech Republic has emerged as being a hotbed for Russian spying - much as Austria was during the (first) Cold War. Finland - a part of the Romanov Russian empire for over a century, is also feeling anxious. This BBC feature explains what Russia is up to and what the West is up against.

How should Poland react to the threat of hybrid warfare? The notion of re-creating a Home Army (Armia Krajowa) such as the one set under Nazi occupation is a sound one. Even with a massive rearmament programme, a Polish army would be unable to hold off a full-on Russian military attack based on armour, infantry and airpower. The key would be the willingness of other NATO members to commit to the defence of Poland. Some are notoriously wobbly, both when it comes to political will and military power.

It is realistic for Poland to plan for NATO limited support at the most in the eventuality of a Russian invasion. A large, well-organised citizen army, ready to go underground at a moment's notice, to harass the invaders behind their lines, disrupt their administration and logistics, would have a strategic deterrent effect.

But such a force, embedded into local structures in communities along Poland's north-eastern border with Russia, would also prove useful should the Russians try out hybrid warfare on Polish soil. This would not involve massive armoured thrusts through Ukraine 'reaching Warsaw in a week'. Nor would it involve sending convoys of troops by sea to Kaliningrad, giving NATO advance warning of threats to Poland and/or the Baltic States.

No. It would involve 'little green men' as were seen in Crimea and in Donbass. Deniable, not officially there. Entering Poland via Kaliningrad, they would initially engage in small-scale sabotage and provocation - who knows - pretending to be Lithuanian nationalists or Islamicists, creating some phony narrative to be retransmitted worldwide via RT (Russia Today as it is now branded) and the legions of Russian trolls commenting on the websites of Western news media.

The presence of armed men dispersed locally, who know the lie of the land, who can distinguish neighbour from stranger, would be a strong deterrent to 'little green men'.

The ideal base for such a Home Army would be the fire stations (remizy) of the OSP - voluntary fire service - of which there are over 15,000 scattered around Poland's smaller towns and villages. Embedding platoons of volunteers trained in the use of firearms and military communications alongside the OSPs, cooperating closely with Poland's border guards, the Straż Graniczna.

It would not be unfeasible for a volunteer force of up to 20,000 part-time soldiers, trained at weekends and during periodic military exercises, to be raised and equipped. The costs would be modest compared to equipping the Polish Air Force with F-16s armed with JASSMs and anti-missile systems. A Home Army should never be considered a replacement for conventional armed forces, rather an low-cost, highly effective countermeasure against the type of warfare that the Kremlin is currently engaged in.

The 'AK' brand is Poland enjoys sky-high respect, and young Poles today wishing to honour their grandparents who fought against the Nazi occupier would rally around it.

This article is worth reading.

This time last year:
Another office move

This time three years ago:
PiS splits - Solidarna Polska formed (anyone remember them?)

This time four years ago:
Tesco vs. Auchan

This time seven years ago:
My father's house