Friday, 22 August 2014

Your papers are in order, Panie Dembinski

Over the summer I finally got myself legitimate in the eyes of the Polish state. Principally, this meant a) obtaining a personal ID card (dowód osobisty), and then b) swapping my UK driving licence for a Polish one.

Now that Poland has been in the EU for ten years, I found the whole process very straightforward and simple. My UK-born colleagues who went through this in the past had to endure a Kafka-style maze of unpleasantness being sent from office to office and still not sorting things out. Today it's become easy, and the people serving the citizen are efficient and friendly. (In Ursynów at least; I can't judge for other urzędy.)

Day one. Go to the Urząd Dzielnicy Ursynów, get a numerek from the ticket machine, wait in short queue. Explain my situation to nice lady at counter no. 24, who tells me precisely what documents are needed. I return a few hours later with said documents, which she says are all fine; she photocopies them, gives me back the originals. I get a nice photo done at the photo studio at the end of the open-plan first floor, and pay some money - can't even remember now how much - to the cash office downstairs. Back at counter no. 24, we go through the application form together to ensure no mistakes. The lady says I'll get an SMS from the urząd when my dowód (below) is ready for collection.

One disappointment in the whole process - the Polish state still refuses to accept me as a Dembiński, insisting that my surname is 'Dembinski' because that's what it says on my birth certificate. I can change my surname from Dembinski to Dembiński by the Polish equivalent of deed poll, but why go through all that effort for one diacritic mark. If I'm going to change my name by deed poll it should be to something dramatic like Gromosław Ångstrom von Shöck-Therapy Jnr. And yet despite there being no 'ł' in my first name on my birth certificate, the Polish state now happily accepts me as 'Michał' rather that insist on me being 'Michal'. So there we go - that's my official name, Michał Dembinski.

Day two occurs some two weeks later, after I get an SMS saying that I can come and collect my dowód. I go. It's there, I collect it after checking that there are no mistakes. Next I get another numerek and after another short wait I'm talking to a guy at counter no. 19 about swapping my UK driving licence (below) for a Polish one. I worry that officially, a sworn translation of my licence is needed as an attachment to my application. The friendly guy says that as it's in English rather than Flemish or Herzegovinian, there is no need. I fill in a form, he photocopies my licence; again I pay some small fee in the cash office downstairs, submit another one of the photos from my dowód photo session, and I'm done. Once again, I have to await an SMS.

In the meantime, my new dowód enables me to pick up my Karta Warszawiaka hologram to stick onto my ZTM travel pass. This proves I'm a tax-paying Warsaw resident, and entitled to a 35zł discount on a quarterly contract. I've done all the form-filling online a long time ago, having a dowód makes it far easier when it comes to proving who I am and where I live. After three minutes in the ZTM customer service office by Metro Centrum, I'm out again with a hologram affixed to my Karta Miejska (below).

Day three, some ten working days after applying, I get the SMS to say my Polish driving licence (below) is ready for collection. I go, check the details on it are all correct, sign for it and leave. As simple as that. My wallet is now noticeably slimmer now that I don't have to take my passport with me everywhere as proof of identity (which in Poland, unlike the UK, one has to carry around compulsorily). And with the new driving licence, a plastic card replaces a large sheet of paper folded three times and carried in a plastic cover.

Four visits over three days spanning less than a month, a total time of around two and half hours to sort it all out. Marvellous. Miraculous, almost, thinking back to my early days in Poland where every visit to an urząd tested one's patience to the utmost - being sent from office to office, being told that this paper's wrong or that some other paper's needed - an often-futile wild goose chase organised by deeply unpleasant and officious people who believed that the citizen's place was on their knees before them.

How times change. It's demographics and EU membership, training, exposure to Western best practice and an increased level of social trust that we can thank.

The whole process has further reinforced my view that Poland is becoming an ever-nicer country to live as the years roll by.

This time two years ago:
Topiary garden by the Vistula

This time three years ago:
Raymond's Treasure - a short story

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Warsaw-Radom railway line plans for Jeziorki

A big thanks again to local tip-off from a source that can't be named - I have plans for how the railway line at Jeziorki will look after the major rebuild of the Warsaw-Radom railway line (PLK Line No.8). I've written about it many a time - how it takes longer to get to Radom by train from Warsaw today than it did 75 years ago (! True! Yes!) and about the regular fails that occur along this line (click relevant labels below to see). I first wrote about the modernisation plans for the line over four years ago!

PKP has a budget, from EU structural funds, to modernise the line. This will mean shorter journey times and (theoretically) more frequent suburban services. For W-wa Jeziorki the modernisation plans have three major implications, as well as another possible change.

The first concerns the platforms. Note on the photo (below) how the 'up' or town-bound line swings to the left so as to accommodate W-wa Jeziorki's island platform. This causes trains to slow down, and as there are island platforms at Nowa Iwiczna, W-wa Dawidy and W-wa Okęcie, replacing them with platforms straddling two parallel lines (as at W-wa Żwirki i Wigury, W-wa Rakowiec and W-wa Aleje Jerozolimskie), journey times for through trains will shorten. The 'down' (Radom-bound) line platform will be located north of ul. Karczunkowska, alongside the car repair workshop. The 'up' platform will be located between the 'up' line and the un-electrified track used by the coal trains to Siekierki power station, south of ul. Karczunkowska. The two electrified lines will run in parallel through the station.

Click on the photo to see just how rough and bumpy the track is...

...This is because of the parlous state of the trackbed. With wooden sleepers under the rails, many of which are partially or wholly rotted, or burnt (in summer, fires break out, caused by oil on the track, dry wood and sparked by either a cigarette butt thrown out of a passing train, or sunlight focused onto the sleeper by broken glass from an empty beer or vodka bottle from the same source. Below: typical sleeper, by the pedestrian level crossing on ul. Kórnicka. One bolt has disappeared, the wood beneath it rotted through. The result of the poor condition of the track is low speed limits.

The other major, major, major change will be the dismantling of the level crossing on ul. Karczunkowska, replacing it with a viaduct over the line. There will be stairs leading down to both platforms on either side of the viaduct. Below: W-wa Jeziorki station this morning. This view will, in a few years, be but a memory. A viaduct will span the tracks, the 'down' platform moved north, across the road, the 'up' platform nudged eastwards across to the other side of the 'up' line. And passengers will no longer have to cross the line in unauthorised places and vault up to reach the platform!

The third major change: the PKP Jeziorki bus loop will be moved from its current location to the east of the tracks across to where ul. Gogolińska currently meets ul. Karczunkowska. Buses from Puławska will cross over the viaduct then turn into a new slip road accessing Gogolińska and the loop. Meanwhile, the space currently occupied by the bus loop will (on the plans at least) be given over to a Park+Ride. Unless were to be a multi-storey Park+Ride, the plans show it as having space for 68 cars. Which, coincidentally, is the average number of cars parked along the muddy verges of ul. Gogolińska on the average working day. Not enough, in other words, to tempt new users from among the motorised hordes forcing their way into down up congested thoroughfares like ul. Puławska.

When will work begin? Don't know. When will it end? Three or four years after it begins, I guess.

This time last year:
World's largest ship calls in at Gdańsk

This time three years ago:
Raymond's Treasure - a short story

This time four years ago:
Now an urban legend: Kebab factory under W-wa Centralna

This time five years ago:
It was twenty years ago today

This time seven years ago:
By bike to Czachówek again

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Public land, private land

This sign (below) appeared on a lamp post on the corner of ul. Dumki and ul. Trombity. [For my non-Polish readers it says: 'Private property - no entry to the unauthorised'.] For my Polish readers, note the use of the word 'wjazd'. The verb 'to go' in Polish is determined by manner of going - to go on foot is iść, to go in a car or on a horse is jechać, to go in a plane is lecieć, to go in a boat (or indeed swimming) is płynąć. (Stanisławski uses over two whole pages to define 'to go' in his English-Polish dictionary.) Anyway, the noun wjazd comes from the verb jechać, to go (by car, by bus, by train, by bike, on horseback, in a carriage etc), to travel. To enter on foot is wejść, noun wejście - entrance (on foot).

So this sign is not attempting to prohibit pedestrians, only motorists, cyclists and horseriders. I say 'attempting' for this sign has no legal weight whatsoever. This is because it tries to impose an entry ban to vehicles on a thoroughfare (ul. Dumki) claiming that it is private property, which it is not.

To demonstrate the folly of whoever put up this sign, take a look at the official online map of the city of Warsaw, from the official website of the City of Warsaw. I've copy-pasted the relevant fragment below (click to enlarge), the junction marked with a red circle. As you can plainly see, ul. Dumki runs into ul. Kórnicka; both are officially denoted as roads. In fact any atlas of Warsaw streets will show ul. Dumki running into ul. Kórnicka. Plus the local authorities have installed in recent weeks a series of litter bins alongside the ponds both along ul. Kórnicka and ul. Dumki. If this were indeed private land, these public litter bins would not have appeared.

So what's going on? Why are local people unilaterally declaring that what is public is actually private? This is, I think, a response to the increased vehicular traffic along ul. Dumki since the flood relief scheme has been completed and the resulting lake has become an attractive place to visit (see here and here). The local authorities had prepared a plan to make a nature trail and park here, but the inhabitants of Ursynów voted instead to build a new centre for the disabled, which was a more pressing need for the district. So this year and next at least, there will be no nature trail, no park - but people will come here to fish and enjoy the scenery.

More people means a greater impact. Until recently, ul. Dumki was impassable to all but the stoutest of off-road vehicles. Restored and graded, it once again take traffic - though it is not asphalted. And once motorists start using it - especially after heavy rain, once again it will become deeply rutted and unfit for use.

And the rubbish - here and there lie large bags of household or construction waste that have clearly been brought here by car or van. A ban on motorised traffic should help stop the brudasi from dumping their rubbish in this lovely part of the Polish capital.

The answer is to close off the unasphalted part (between ul. Kórnicka and where the asphalt runs out) to motor traffic (including motorbikes and quads), and make a footpath so that prams and baby buggies can easily be pushed over it, and so cyclists of all ages can use it, along with pedestrians in normal footwear.

However, this requires the decree of the district hall, lots of bureaucratic process that it would be best to postpone until some later date (ideally after the elections-after-next). So while Urząd Dzielnicy Ursynów ums and ahs, local residents have put up this sign. There's no such sign at the other end, so drivers coming up from where the asphalt ends are unaware that someone doesn't want them here.

Interestingly, Google Maps shows Dumki as petering out about a third of the way along. So GPS devices powered by Google Maps would not show this as a right of way.

This time last year:
Two Warsaw sunsets over water

This time four years ago:
Farewell to the old footbridge over Puławska

This time five years ago:
Let's ban cars with engines over 2.0 litres

This time seven years ago:
Ul. Kórnicka gets paved over

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Defending Poland, contributing to NATO

On a day when another unmarked, denied, convoy of armoured fighting vehicles entered eastern Ukraine from Russia, Poland's armed forces day parade had the effect of focusing the nation's mind on defence. The crowds were huge. There was no 'nutty element' selling pamphlets about conspiracy or waving banners insulting the government. This was mainstream Poland - numerous, strong. In communist days, mobilising the masses the attend May Day rallies was not easy. Today, Poles will willingly come together to commemorate significant historical events.

President Komorowski's speech (full text in Polish here) passed without any booing or negative comments. Indeed, I had not a single, minor policy quibble with with any word of the speech. After four years in office, he remains a popular and unifying head of state; I cannot see him losing the next presidential election.

I positioned myself around the half-way point of parade, on Pl. Na Rozdrożu, standing on the entrance to a pedestrian underpass to give me a slightly better vantage point. However, this meant missing out on seeing the best kit, the Leopard 2 A5s recently acquired by the Polish Army, and the Krab self-propelled howitzer. Also in the parade were detachments of American and Canadian troops, currently stationed in Poland.

The last time I attended this event, back in 2007, I was stationed nearer the Belweder palace... but there was one drawback with such a location...

Some half an hour before the parade started, the drivers of the armoured fighting vehicles standing between Pl. Na Rozdrożu and Belweder were given the order to start their engines (above). Until they got going, the tanks and self-propelled guns were pumping out clouds of fumes. Not pleasant.

The equipment standing in front of me was smaller and cleaner; the vintage tanks (see previous post) didn't start their engines until the whole modern army parade had passed. When I say 'modern' I mean 'post-war'; the Polish armed forces currently still rely for around two-thirds of their hardware on Soviet-era kit. By 2020, the proportions should be other way around, but that requires spending many billions of euros on acquisition of modern, western-designed hardware.

In the meantime - this (below) is the Osa ('wasp') anti-aircraft system. In use since the early 1970s, it is considered out of date in terms of dealing with modern military aircrafts' electronic countermeasure systems.

A large number of HUMVEEs rolled by - Poland has over 250 of these multi-purpose soft-skinned vehicles. Modern asymmetric warfare has pushed them back from the front line, where mine and ambush resistant vehicles (MRAPS) are called for. The parade included desert-painted and green-painted examples.

Below: the Czechoslovakian-built DANA self-propelled 152mm howitzer dates back to 1977. Poland's army has 111 of these unusual vehicles - unusual in that it is wheeled rather than tracked.

The Langusta ('lobster', below) is essentially a modernised, Polish-built version of the Soviet Grad multiple rocket launcher, mounted on a Jelcz truck.

Another hybrid, the Rosomak ('wolverine') armoured personnel carrier (below). The hull is a licence-made Finnish Patria APC, adapted to suit Polish requirements and fitted with an Italian turret.

Below: how do you get a 60-tonne tank over a 20-metre-wide gap? The Daglesia ('Douglas-fir', below) provides the answer - this bridgelayer is said to be the most modern in the world. Also available on caterpillar tracks.

The crowds that watched the parade drift slowly away, satisfied that Poland has the will and the wherewithal to defend itself against the type of incursion that Ukraine is currently facing. Poland has two huge pluses - it is part of NATO and part of the European Union. Poland must pay its way - at least 2% of its GDP should be spent on defence. Not a grosz less.

This time two years ago:
Balloon over Warsaw

This time four years ago:
Happiness, Polish-style

This time five years ago:
And watch the river flow...

Friday, 15 August 2014

Remembering Poland's army 1919-1939

As well as the modern fighting equipment on show today, there was a splendidly rich array of Polish military hardware from the times of the Bolshevik war of 1920 (the deciding victory in the Battle of Warsaw being celebrated today), and from the September campaign of 1939. The large number of tanks, tankettes, armoured cars, trucks, cars and motorbikes from that era left the crowds in no doubt that before the outbreak of WWII, Poland was no technologically backward nation. There was not enough of the hardware to keep out the Nazi hordes, but it was not missing. Armoured fighting vehicles, trucks and motorcycles were designed and manufactured by state-owned PZInż (Państwowe Zakłady Inżynieryjne - 'state engineering works') in Ursus. What was missing was better government policy.

Below: the 7TP ('seven-tonne Polish tank), a development of the British Vickers 6-ton tank. In production from 1935-39, better armed and armoured than the Panzer Is and Panzer IIs that were the mainstay of the Wehrmacht's armoured forces in the September campaign. It was also the first European tank equipped with a diesel engine - a far less flammable fuel than petrol. Sadly, there were too few of them in 1939 - a mere 108 examples equipped with the 37mm Bofors cannon, and a further 40 or so armed with a pair of machine guns.

Below: a pair of TKS tankettes. Armed with nothing more than a light machine gun, they were no match for the German Panzer IIs, although 575 TK-series tankettes were built, forming the bulk of Poland's armoured forces in September 1939. The tankettes were developed from the British Carden-Loyd tankette.

Below: a 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft gun, licence-produced in Poland towed by a C2P artillery tractor, itself based on the TKS tankette. Poland had over 350 40mm anti-aircraft guns - not enough to protect the Polish army against the scourge of the Stuka dive-bomber.

Below: an Ursus A truck towing a light anti-tank gun, one of two taking part in today's parade. The Ursus A dated back to 1928-31.

Below: a pair of Ursus wz. 34 light armoured cars. Around 90 of these were built between 1934 and 1938,

Below: a CWS limousine from the mid-1920s. CWS (Centralny Warsztat Samochodowy - 'central car workshop' was nationalised in 1928 and restructured as PZInż.

Below: some amazing history. This French-built Renault FT-17 saw action with the Polish army against the Bolsheviks in 1920, where it was captured by the Red Army, and along with three other FT tanks, was presented to the Emir of Afghanistan by the Soviets in 1923. This tank and its history was recently rediscovered; when its history was learned, the Polish government engaged in high-level diplomacy to have it returned. It was finally presented to the Polish ambassador in Kabul by the Afghan defence minister in 2012, taken to Bagram airforce base, then returned to Poland and restored to working condition. Note the tail skid to help crossing trenches. Poland still had over 100 of these in its army in 1939.

Apart from the restored FT-17, there were another two replica tanks, built for the Jerzy Hoffman film Battle of Warsaw 1920. What struck me was the three tanks moved off is how they would suddenly jerk to the left then be corrected to their forward direction. "The best tank of the first war, the worst of the second..."

Below: a Polski Fiat 508 Łazik, a field car based on the licence-built civilian version of the Fiat 508 Balila. The Polish army had around 1,500 of these in service in 1939.

Below: the Polish Sokół 1000 motorbike. Also built in Ursus by PZInż. Very similar to pre-war Harley-Davidsons in appearance.

Below: a Sokół 600 with sidecar accompanies the Sokół 1000. The 600 was a single-cylinder design.

The parade passes, the crowd moves on. Memories of Polish triumphs and disasters on the battlefield - which had the most profound impact on the way the country evolved - are embedded deep in the national psyche, and events such as this maintain that tradition.

This time two years ago:
Dworzec Zachodni (West Wailway Station) before the remont

This time four years ago:
90 years ago today - Bolsheviks stopped at the gates of Warsaw

This time five years ago:

This time seven years ago:
Armed forces day parade in Warsaw