Friday, 9 December 2016

New 'up' platform at W-wa Jeziorki approaches completion

Getting off the train from town last night, I could see that the new 'up' platform is nearly ready to be put into service ('oddane do użytku' - which Google Translate gives merely as 'completed'). As an aside here, I'd add that the pedestrian footbridge at W-wa Okęcie was completed in April, but has still not been oddane do użytku, which literally means 'handed over for use'. Anyway, thanks to the intensive work on this stretch of track, things have been moving much quicker than around W-wa Okęcie station, where there's still much to do to connect the new 'down' line with W-wa Dawidy.

Below: looking south towards Nowa Iwiczna station, taken from what will be the 'down' (southbound) platform. The pedestrian crossing takes you across both new tracks, and then a newly-built footpath, bounded by a metal mesh fence on both sides, leads to the new 'up' (northbound) platform. It's sodden with rainwater, but passable.

I go. There's no signage up. None at all. No signs to say either 'platform is now operational', or 'platform is not in use, please use other platform for trains to town'. Below: view of the 'down' platform from the new 'up' platform yesterday evening. Pallets suggest that the laying of paving slabs has only just been completed. To the right, a display board with the station name, but no timetables as yet. The new PKP timetables come into operation on Sunday 11 December; my guess is that this platform may be in use by then...

Below: photo taken today from the very far end of the new 'up' platform shows a clear surface; the construction crew has cleaned up and moved on. Still no information about when it opens. As I finished my explorations, a town-bound train passed along the other track and stopped at the opposite platform, so single-track working is still in operation.

I can see it will be a long, long while before ul. Karczunkowska reopens. The fenced-off footpath to the new 'up' platform crosses the road, blocking even construction machinery from getting through. And there's no sign whatever of work on the viaduct that's meant to carry Karczunkowska over the railway tracks.

The new timetable gives the long-suffering users of the Radom line no new services, merely a rejig of the old timetable. Instead of trains to town at 07:04, 07:25, 08:07, 09:08 and 10:08, they are spaced more irregularly; 07:04, 07:49, 08:21, 09:08 and 09:53. The 08:21 service gets into W-wa Śródmieście at 08:52, so I'll be cutting it fine for nine o'clock meetings in the office (a 12-minute walk from the station).

This time last year:
Tottenham Court Road station revisited

This time two years ago:
Zen and the Art of Publishing

This time four years ago:
Wrocław, another Polish city of neon

This time five years ago:
Ronald Reagan remembered

This time six years ago:
Accident of birth

This time eight years ago:
Under the Liberator

This time nine years ago:
Jeziorki on old maps

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Emilia comes down

It's coming down. The Stołeczne Przedsiębiorstwo Handlu Wewnętrznego 'Meble Emilia' (The Capital City Enterprise of Internal Trade 'Furniture Emilia') pavilion. This delightful piece of modernist architecture (designed by Marian Kuźniar and Hanna Lewicka, opened in 1970) is making way for an another skyscraper along the axis of ul. Emilii Plater, on the west side of the Palace of Culture. Below: viewed from the street, looking up towards the Intercontinental Hotel.

Below: looking down at the geometric crenellations of the roof from the Intercontinental. The chipboard walls at either end of the pavilion were added later; originally, Dom Meblowy Emilia was glazed all round.

Below: a photo I took in September 2012, when news of Emilia's impending fate was announced. Beyond it, the Warsaw Financial Centre, and, still under construction, the Cosmopolitan Twarda 2/4 building. Note the 'EMILIA' sign on the roof. This has been saved for posterity...

...and has been relocated to Soho Factory on ul. Minska, the wonderful post-industrial enclave of start-up incubators, restaurants and bars, apartments - and of course Warsaw's neon museum. Below: the EMILIA sign at its new location. Next to it, the Jubiler sign that used to hang on the jeweller's shop on the corner of Al. Jerozolimskie and ul. Krucza.

But it wasn't just the neon. Outside the shop was this memorable signage consisting of back-lit plastic blocks. I took this picture in March 2010

Let's have a better look at it... a splendid piece of Polish design at its modernist best.

All is not lost. Far from it. The Meble Emilia pavilion will be rebuilt across the road in Park Świętokrzyski. Hopefully without the blocked-off ends, so that once again, passers-by will be able to wall all round it and peer in through glass walls, front, back and both sides.

This time last year:
On being rich in Poland

This time four years ago:
The link between health and happiness explored

This time five years ago:
The black SUV, the black SUV... (with the darkened rear windows)

This time six years ago:

This time nine years ago:
Where I'm from, and why

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Early winter travels - Warsaw-Kraków-Poznań-Warsaw

Friday morning, after a night of wet snow. On my way to town, trying to keep my shoes and trousers clean in these conditions (below) is not easy. Fortunately, a kindly neighbour offers me a lift towards the Metro.

Train to town, and before long I'm in the city centre. Below: the Palace of Culture rises above the snow-covered trees along ul. Świętokrzyska.

After a few hours in the office, I have to catch a train to Kraków for our Annual Dinner there. The train is a TLK service, which means no buffet car. There's a dense crowd on the platform a W-wa Centralna station. The train pulls in - notice the snow on the roof. Many of the passengers are holidaymakers, judging by their bulging rucksacks, hiking boots and trekking poles.

The train journey itself was jolly. The next compartment was occupied by students with guitars, who sang all the way to Kraków. The lady wheeling the snacks trolley was particularly friendly, and I managed to keep hunger at bay given that I hadn't had time for any lunch. I shared the compartment with two American tourists, a bit older than me, who must have got a good impression of Poland - the young man who helped them lift their baggage onto the racks, the fluently bilingual conductor, and the singing from next door. People were sitting in the corridors, but this was a good-natured train.

After the dinner at the Kraków Technology Park, it was time to catch the night train - to Poznań. Why Poznań? There was no direct train back from Kraków to Warsaw; hotels in Kraków are expensive. A night train to Poznań and an InterCity train from Poznań to Warsaw works out much cheaper than a hotel in Kraków and train to Warsaw.

I was impressed by the night train - new rolling stock. The toilet was wheelchair-friendly and included a shower cubicle; the compartments were more ergonomic, with a slide-out ladder to the upper bunks. However, the bed was harder than in the older night trains. As with my train to Koszalin last week, there was bottled water, a chocolate muffin and a flannel-and-soap set for each traveller.

The train I boarded is called the Orion - Poland's longest night train service, covering 884 km from Przemyśl in south-eastern Poland, near the Ukrainian border, to Szczecin in north-west Poland. The Orion leaves Przemyśl at 18:17 and arrives in Szczecin at 09:26 the next day - a journey of 15 hours and nine minutes. It calls at Rzeszów, Kraków, Katowice, Opole, Wrocław and Poznań among the 34 stations along the way. This train thus links seven Polish provincial capitals.

My journey was less than half of the whole route - just 429 km, Kraków to Poznań. I slept well after five glasses of wine with the dinner, and was awakened by the conductor half an hour before the train arrived in Poznań.

After a petit déjeuner à l'Ecosse, there was a few minutes to grab some shots of dawn over Poznań. Below: looking east - the PKS bus station under the Avenida shopping mall (left), and the Novotel Poznań Centrum mid-frame.

Below: looking west the view along the Most Dworcowy bridge towards the Poznań international trade fair building. The socialist-realist spire dates from the mid-1950s and gives this vista a old-school communist air.

Below: looking north - the original Art Deco tower at the north-east corner of the Poznań trade fair building, which dates back to 1929. During WW2, the premises became a Nazi aircraft factory, and thus subject to allied bombing. But this tower survived. To the left, the Sheraton hotel, with neon signs for Centra batteries behind it.

The sun shone all the way to Warsaw, a chance to get some good snaps from the train. The Nikon Coolpix P900 is not a quick-draw camera, it takes a while to switch on and get the thing to zoom and focus - traditional DSLRs are much faster. I missed a couple of shots - wild deer in fields by the tracks in particular. But this, below, is the P900 in its element; sunshine, stability plus a subject where the foreshortening effect of the massive zoom plays to good effect. My train to Warsaw pulls into Poznań Główny station.

Agriculture, electricity and the church (below). Just about visible are three wild deer sitting at the far end of the field in the middle distance (click to enlarge).

Passing Konin, which I'd visited in September, the chimneys of its power station belching steam into the atmosphere (below).

Below: Dobrzelin, just before Żychlin, near Kutno - the Polski Cukier factory.

My journey to Warsaw took longer than expected. 28.8km from W-wa Wschodnia, at Błonie station, the train stopped, and did not move for another 20 minutes. There were two failed attempts to start in, on the third it finally moved. So I missed my connecting train at W-wa Zachodnia to Jeziorki, but took a SKM train to the airport, walked from there to W-wa Okęcie station in good time for the next homeward train. Below: view from the end of platform 6 at W-wa Zachodnia, looking east towards town. The SKM train is heaving into view.

I enjoy train travel and prefer it to going by car. A long train trip like this is a pleasure.

This time last year:
Patriotism and nationalism: what's the difference?

This time two years ago:
Poland's progress in the international rankings

This time three years ago:
The Transparency International Corruption Perception Index for 2013

Also this time three years ago:
Poland's rapid advance up the education league table: PISA 2013

This time four years ago:
Life expectancy across the EU: more comparisons

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Jeziorki - second track, second platform

Arriving home at Jeziorki station for the first time in almost two weeks, I step off the Radom-bound train and see the lights of an oncoming train in the distance (below). This can only mean one thing - the 'up' line is now nearly ready. Snow's falling heavily, but the temperature is +3C, so what lands is slush. Not pleasant to walk in at all.

Below: with the southbound train out of view, I zoom in on an SM42 shunter at the head of a short rake of engineering wagons. The 'up' platform is visible, lit up by the engine's headlamps. The whistle sounds, and the train moves northwards across the level crossing heading towards W-wa Dawidy.

Below: as it passes, I catch a shot of the wagon that's used to attach the overhead power lines to the supports. Right at the back of the train - a mobile toilet for the workers.

A final snap from the pedestrian level crossing (the road crossing now firmly closed for more than three months). Note the ballast on the new 'up' line is now in place. It will be interesting how far the two parallel lines stretch - certainly not as far south as Nowa Iwiczna, but to W-wa Dawidy? I'll find out at the weekend.

Prospects for swift completion of the line are good, but the viaduct that will take ul. Karczunkowska over the tracks less so. Apparently, the documentation had faults in it (this would not have happened had the project been prepared using Building Information Modelling methodology), so several months delay have crept in. Quelle surprise.

Bonus shot - as promised, here's where we are on Saturday 3 December: looking towards W-wa Dawidy from the far end of the W-wa Jeziorki station, we can see the track-laying between the two stations is complete, and now the overhead power-line crew is busy installing the cables.

This time last year:
Pitshanger Lane wins London's High Street of the Year award

This time three years ago:
Trouble ahead in Ukraine.

This time six years ago:
Jeziorki, dawn, winter

This time nine years ago:
Tuwim's Lokomotywa in English

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Castro's death divides the world

To some - a revolutionary guerilla leader who fought for social justice, who ensured Cubans had access to good healthcare and educations.

To others - a tyrant, who wielded absolute power, abusing human rights, denying free elections, freedom of speech and freedom of movement.

I err towards the latter assessment of the man.

I see human progress as being a continual struggle of the Network against the Hierarchy. The Hierarchy, embodied in the Great Leader at its pinnacle, is an ultimately flawed system. In it, the One Leader turns out to want no more than to gain power, consolidate power, and hold absolute power. The Network, on the other hand, is self-regulating and proceeds in a measured way towards people's greater good while casting aside flawed models. Networks evolve to survive. Bad ideas, bad people, are discarded from the network, which is slowly but constantly improving.

History is full of leaders who dragged their followers to their doom - or else simply stifled their ambitions and their human potential.

Castro was such a man. For him, talk of Marxism-Leninism, of socialism, of anti-imperialism, was an ideology put into the service of his greater aim - absolute power.

Cuba today remains a backwater of an outmoded and utterly discredited ideology. To Western visitors seeing the sixty year-old American cars and crumbling Spanish Empire architecture under a hot sun seems appealing, but many Cubans must feel the same way as Poles and other Central and Eastern Europeans did under communism - poor, humiliated - unfree.

This weekend, the internet is full of comments regarding Castro's death. But in Cuba itself, with the lowest internet penetration rate in the Western hemisphere, all online content remains subject to review by the state censor - the Department of Revolutionary Orientation. The sale of computer hardware and software is strictly regulated. Internet access is controlled, and e-mail is closely monitored.

A price to pay for the much-vaunted healthcare system? Singapore had a similar GDP per capita to that of Cuba at the start of the 1960s; today, the average Singaporean's wealth is six times higher than the average Cuban's. So there was no need to repress the Cuban people with a one-party system, human rights abuses, to deny them freedom of speech, to shut them off from the West - with the right governance, free-market democracy would have delivered them a far higher standard of living.

I'd rather be governed by a committee of faceless, though democratically-elected decision makers than by one Leader, be it a Hitler, a Mussolini, a Pol Pot, Franco, Mao Tse Tung or Putin. Once such a person gains power, they then focus on extending and maintaining it. The ideology becomes nothing more than a convenient narrative that claims to have the People's best interest at heart - but is actually all about maintaining power.

To submit to the will of the One Leader is to be intellectually lazy; hoping that the One Leader will deliver security and prosperity in exchange for limiting one's freedom is fatuous. It does not work. The lesson of Castro's Cuba, to all romantics of the left, is that one-man rule invariably leads to ruthless repression, censorship and economic hardship. No matter what cock-and-bull story is dreamt up to mask the One Leader's personal ambition.

Good government is about checks and balances, independent courts upholding the rule of law, free media, freedom of speech, freedom of movement.

Fidel Castro was not an exemplar to the free world. May his like never hold such power again.

The way to prevent such egregious abuse of power is to network - to engage in the political process, beginning at the local level, ensuring that decisions that affect your life are taken with your knowledge if not with your consent. Understanding the process of government - and it is a complex process - requires effort on the part of the citizen, but keeping an eye on the hands of those who govern is crucial.

I for one do not mourn Castro's passing.

This time last year:
London to Edinburgh by night bus
[yesterday I did the same trip in reverse]

This time three year ago:
The Regent's Canal, London

This time five years ago:
An end to the entitlement way of thinking

This time six year:
West Ealing - drab and sad suburb

This time seven years ago:
To Poznań by train

This time nine years ago:
Late autumn drive-time

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Sunny morning, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens

This morning, I arrived bright and early at Victoria Coach Station on the Megabus Gold sleeper service from Edinburgh. Not as comfortable as a sleeper train, nevertheless just as economical in terms of time and money. Bright it was indeed; I decided after a coffee and baguette at Pret on Hyde Park Corner to walk right through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.

Below: plenty of equestrians around first thing in the morning; I counted ten all told, riding in pairs, impeccably dressed and maintaining a Hyde Park tradition in this age of the motor-car. Note the speed limit for vehicles in the park is 15 mph - which is around 25 km/h. Despite the early hour and the relatively low number of pedestrians, cyclists and horse-riders, every delivery van and parks police vehicle I saw was sticking religiously to the 15 mph speed limit. No 'bez przesady, Panie'. Rules are rules.

Still autumnal, winter feels weeks away. Despite the clear sky there was no frost this morning, unlike Edinburgh yesterday morning.

Below: the Serpentine, the lake that runs through the middle of the park, attracts many species of waterfowl, including several species of goose, duck and gulls; there are also coots and moorhens, mute swans and grey herons. For me the most interesting birds are the ones not seen in Jeziorki; this cormorant (below) strikes a characteristic pose perched on a bollard in the lake, a gull looks on in admiration. Cormorants are good underwater swimmers, and after immersing itself totally to catch a fish, the bird will dry its wings in the sun. Which means a photographer wanting to snap it from the front needs to shoot into the sun.

Below: The bridge in the background carries West Carriage Drive over the water; beyond the bridge, the Serpentine becomes the Long Water, Hyde Park becomes Kensington Gardens.

Left: a pair of Egyptian geese on top of Henry Moore's Arch (1980) Through the arch, in the distance, stands Kensington Palace, former home of Princess Diana.

Below: zooming in on the Egyptian geese, the larger male to the left. The markings around the eyes give these birds a slightly comical appearance.

At the north end of the Long Water is the Italian Garden; the fountains were not active this morning. I'm standing in Kensington Gardens; on the other side of the decorative pond is Hyde Park.

Below: the foreshortening effect of my Nikon Coolpix P900's zoom lens (here at 380mm equivalent), reels in the spire of St Mary Abbot's church in Kensington Church St, on the other side of Kensington Palace. In the foreground, the obelisk commemorating John Hanning Speke, the Victorian discoverer of the source of the River Nile. A group of frisbee-playing students are warming up.

To my surprise, the walk between Victoria Coach Station and Queensway tube station was a mere 6,500 paces (around 5 km/3 miles). If you approach London in bite-sized chunks of walking, you get to know the city that much better than by depending on public transport for all journeys.

So - to recap the past few days, my itinerary since Monday night has been: Warsaw-Koszalin-Gorzów Wielkopolski-Szczecin-Berlin-Stansted-Edinburgh-London; tomorrow I return to Our City.

This time last year:
Brentham Garden Suburb

This time two years ago:
Ahead of the opening of the second line of the Warsaw Metro

This time three years ago:
Keep an eye on Ukraine...

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

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

This time nine years ago:
Some thoughts on recycling

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Poland's North West Frontier

Is it just geographic distance that makes Poland's north-west so inaccessible from the rest of the country? I'm on the third leg of a journey that's given me food for thought, regarding the connectedness of Poland and how that affects economic and social progress.

The Yalta and Potsdam agreements shifted Poland 200km further west at the end of WW2. Poland lost vast swathes of what's now western Belarus and western Ukraine, but gained key towns from the Germans such as the provincial capital cities of Wrocław, Olsztyn, Szczecin, Opole and Zielona Góra and Gorzów Wielkopolski. Yet in the seven decades since the war ended, some of these cities remain backwaters because of a lack of decent transport links.

Only recently, thanks to rail modernisation and the completion of the S8 expressway has it become feasible to get to Wrocław and back in a day from Warsaw. And by reason of its relative proximity to Warsaw rather than because of any super roads or railways, Olsztyn is reasonably well connected.

But Szczecin really is the back of beyond. I was here twice in the mid-1990s delivering training to local entrepreneurs courtesy of an American education fund, both times travelling there from London rather than from Warsaw. So other than a brief night-train stop en route to Międzyzdroje, I've not been to Szczecin in all the 19 years I've lived in Poland. During that time, I've visited every other provincial capital (with half an exception, to which I'll return) - but not Szczecin.

Tomorrow I fly to Edinburgh. Now, trying to connect Szczecin to Edinburgh, I discovered that while there's a host of different buses between Szczecin and Berlin's airports - there's not a single direct bus connection between Szczecin and Gdańsk. There is a train - but it takes five hours. So I'm flying from Berlin. Szczecin was, before the war, Berlin's port, the transport connections remain. And road signs for Berlin outnumber road signs for Warsaw in this part of Poland.

There are three direct InterCity train from Warsaw to Szczecin a day, taking five hours, plus another five direct TLK trains (older carriages, fewer comforts) which take around six hours. The trains from Warsaw go via Poznań. Five-hour journey times mean that going there and back in a business day is impossible. But there is the night train, which takes over seven hours, giving you time get a good night's sleep before getting ofp at Szczecin a little before six am.

I took the night train, though to a different destination in north-west Poland - Koszalin - the first leg of my mini-roadshow around this part of the country. The train arrived in Koszalin at 09:40, allowing for a long sleep on the way up. This service, which continues onto Kołobrzeg on the coast, starts in Kraków, and calls in at Kielce, Radom, Dęblin, Warsaw, Gdańsk, Gdynia and Słupsk along the way - and many other places (27 stops in all on the 13 hour-long journey between Kraków and Koszalin). This train, the Mars, is surely one of Poland's great railway trips.

On my last night train trip, to Wrocław, I noted that the sleeper service had become more spartan - no morning coffee, no bottled water, no flannel-and-soap, no muffin or croissant. But to my delight, these were all available on my train. Once again - to all those of you who like to travel by train at night, with a hotel room and travel in one ticket - I urge you to use it, or lose it. Europe's night train services are going out one by one. [See the 'European sleepers' section of the blog of The Man In Seat 61 here]

So anyway, I arrive at Koszalin, pop by for a petit-dejeuner á la Ecosse, then set off on foot through the town to a hotel just outside its limits for the conference. In my ranking of Polish towns, it seems well kempt, without those signs of desperation - the loan-sharks and pawn shops, the employment agencies offering work abroad, and the kantory for when you return home with a fistful of euros or pounds. But sadly there's not much time to nose around Koszalin today.

After the conference there, I took a lift from the organisers onto the next location, Gorzów Wielkopolski. Now this, dear readers, is Poland's only provincial capital that I've never, ever, visited before. Gorzów Wielkopolski shares the capital status with Zielona Góra (which I have visited). Like Kujawsko-Pomorskie province, it has two capitals (Toruń and Bydgoszcz in that case) because of local jealousies and ambitions that could not be reconciled during the administrative reform of 1999.

To get to Gorzów from Koszalin, we took a roundabout route via the Szczecin's eastern bypass. This is 34km longer than the direct route, but it saves 24 minutes, because of the S3 dual carriageway linking Szczecin and Gorzów. It's 212km between Koszalin and Gorzów going the direct (slower) route - which gives you an idea of the distances involved in this part of Poland, given that Warsaw and Lublin are only 169km apart.

Much of the journey was across mildly undulating terrain with huge fields - unlike central Poland, state-owned collective farms were the normal mode of agriculture here in communist times.

Finally, we arrive in Gorzów Wielkopolski.

I contend, and have done so for many years, that Lubuskie province is an entirely artificial construct, and like Opolskie province should be divided up between its neighbours to the south, east and north.

I mean, how can a capital of a province be named after another province? It would be like having Kielce Małopolskie as the capital of Świętokrzyskie, or Olsztyn Pomorski as the capital of Warmińsko-Mazurskie. An absurdity.

The town itself is Not Nice. Plaster falling off damp graffitied walls, huge holes in the roads - this is clearly not one of Poland's better-run cities. The architecture tells of massive destruction during the final phases of the war, with much nondescript housing between tenements that somehow survived; then the 1990s came and with them the worst that that decade's architects could visit upon a town arrived. Those buildings where prisms are juxtaposed with arches, mirrored facades and cheap materials.

Below: one of Gorzów's main thoroughfares, ul. Walczaka. The fact that trams carry advertising for hearing aids says a lot about the city's demographics.

It was good to leave Gorzów Wielkopolski. Soon we're backtracking our way up the S3 to Szczecin in thick fog as it began to get dark. At times like this, one is very thankful for dual carriageways that prevent idiots overtaking across from the oncoming lane.

Anyway - first impressions of Szczecin after 20 something years - very positive. A busy, bright city, full of young people (suspiciously absent in Gorzów), new trams, cycle paths. And broad boulevards with traffic lights timed so pedestrians have a chance to walk across in one go on a green light without having to break into a trot.

Sadly, no time for a proper exploration of Szczecin - only photo I got in daylight was from the 11th floor of the Radisson Blu hotel (above), looking across at the city's new National Musuem, designed by Robert Konieczny, winner of the World Building 2016 Award. Beyond it lies the Palace of the Pomeranian Princes. Szczecin certainly merits a return visit some summer's day.

Over the border at 120km/h, heading towards Berlin. A two-and-half hour journey by bus - a small 22-seater minibus based on a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter which could keep up with Germany's autobahn speeds. Below: the landscape of north-east Germany is made awe-inspiring by large numbers of wind farms, generating electricity without having to burn fossil fuels.

But first - tomorrow's conference, bus to Berlin's Schoenefeld airport, then plane to Edinburgh via Stansted. Tomorrow night I'll be in a hotel in Edinburgh. Busy week.

This time last year:
Cars must fade from our cities

This time three years ago:
Unnecessary street lighting wastes money

This time four years ago:
Warsaw's heros on the walls

This time five years ago:
Tax dodge or public service?

This time seven years ago:
Warsaw's woodlands in autumn

This time eight years ago:
Still here, the early snow

This time nine years ago:
Another point of view