Friday, 31 October 2008

Scenes from the suburbs

Stopping on the way home to top up the Yaris and give it a clean, I pondered on the role of the petrol station (gas station to my American readers) in Poland's suburban life. Once, petrol station mean a smelly state-owned CPN with rusty pumps, long queues, coupons and surly staff.

Today there is Choice. Petrol stations act as 24hr supermarkets, all-night cafes, places where wine and cut flowers can be obtained en route to guests, where the grit, grime, salt and mud can be washed off your car - and where you can buy petrol in a wide variety of flavours (though no longer in 74 Octane).

I like BP. Indeed I only tank up at BP - my loyalty card sees to that. BP stations tend to be clean and modern (though not all - some are franchises) though staff training could be a little better, especially in Warsaw.

Yesterday was amazing. Temperature hit +19.8C in the afternoon. Is this global warming? We've not had the First Frost yet (last year it was on 16 October).

This time last year
Amazing photo of Red Arrows aerobatic team

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Grading Poloneza

My first meeting of the day is usually at the far end of ul. Poloneza, where it runs into ul. Poleczka (the Platan Park business centre). So unlike many people who use Poloneza as a convenient though dirty back double running parallel to the unspeakably clogged ul. Puławska, I'm actually taking the shortest route from home to office.

As I've recounted here, Poloneza is one of a diminishing number of unmade roads (well) within Warsaw's borders. Potholes appear, sometimes the width of the road, deep, filled with water after heavy rainfall. Negotiating Poloneza when muddy in a two-wheel drive Nissan Micra on its 15" wheels requires skill. Go too slow (like many nancying novices, afraid of dirtying their car's bodywork) and you risk ending up axle deep in soft, churning mud. Go too fast and muddy water gets everywhere. Including in your alternator. When the water evaporates, mud remains.

The Micra's alternator finally failed and was replaced yesterday with a reconditioned one. To prevent future failure, the auto-electrician (Pan Czesław, ul. Fabryczna 7) suggested getting a moulded plastic floor pan to fit under the engine bay. Otherwise, he said, the winter - mud, salt, grit - will get into the alternator and it will seize up again.

The old alternator was well knackered. The two ball bearings inside could barely rotate, the carbon brushes and copper windings fractured into bits and fell apart when the alternator housing was removed.

This morning en route to Platan Park, my journey was interrupted by a grader coming down the other way, scraping the dirt surface smooth, removing the potholes for a month or two. This might be the optimal solution - the minute Poloneza gets tarmacked over, it will become a solid jam end to end. Leaving it dirt track but scraping the holes out of it every now and then is good for me. Until the rains come.

This time last year:
The Bishop and the Crumfel
Google Earth updates map of Jeziorki

Sunday, 26 October 2008

In search of quintessential autumnal Jeziorki

Arriving at W-wa Jeziorki by double decker train, I walked back home the long way, seeking the very essence of what makes Jeziorki such a wonderful place to live. This is the fourth Sunday in a row with dawn-to-dusk cloudless skies, though sunset today, after the clocks went back, was shortly after four pm.

Jeziorki's spirit of place is here, by the tracks, planes taking off into the warm southerly wind, the trumpeting of the pheasants, the silver birches, golden leaves rustling, new houses, old houses; a lovely day.

Good to be here, Jeziorki JZ. Time to give thanks for all one has. For tomorrow, the unmitigated awfulness of commuting begins for another week. Warsaw needs more public transport.

The Rampa disappears

Well, the Rampa is coming down. Two sections of ironwork have been dismantled; in the left foreground you can see the skeleton frame of the first section. Oxy-acetylene cutters are in evidence, managable bits of scrap steel flung into huge recycling containers - to be taken away by road. Below: the middle section is still in place, spanning six of the 14 concrete pillars.

What will happen here now? There's a credit crunch in the air and developers who'd once have had ready access to working capital for building a new estate will find it far more difficult to get loans. As will their potential house-buying clients. A colleague in my office, who jointly with her husband was offered a 1.2m zloty mortgage in August was told earlier this month that 850,000 zlotys is all the bank would lend them.

Meanwhile the work goes on. The path to the left of the red machine was the marshalling yard for the rampa; wagons loaded with aggregate would await their turn to be shunted up to the unloading ramp. What will happen here? A road from Mysiadło and Nowa Iwiczna to ul. Karczunkowska? Or hundreds of new houses (and a couple of hundred of cars to go with - each causing additional rush hour volume on ul. Puławska)?

Across the tracks from the Rampa site lies a new estate of houses that's been completed just in time. New home owners visit their properties on Sundays, preparing to move in. Some pioneers are already living here. While the local plans foresee a new railway station between W-wa Jeziorki and Mysiadło, in the short term the unfortunate residents will find that getting into central Warsaw on weekday mornings is a lengthy, frustrating crawl just to get to ul. Puławska - then more of the same for another 15km.

Above: Before it goes for good: An annotated map of the Rampa on the current (as of October 2008) Google Earth satellite photo. The photo itself was from summer 2006. This shows how Google Earth can never be up to date when portraying emerging economies such as Poland's; the update might show some development work, but I'll bet the next photo won't yet show a completed estate.

UPDATE: The Google Earth map from July 2009 shows demolished ramp; since the economic downturn, work on the site has ceased.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Warsaw's first Metro line is completed

Eddie and I took the Metro from Stokłosy (literally, Hundred Sheaves) through Warsaw, and headed north to witness the opening of three new stations, thus completing Warsaw's first Metro line. En route we popped off at Dworzec Gdański, where, in a long rake of freight wagons there's an exhibition about Poland's south-west, before, during and after the war. Worth a visit. Next, we stopped off at Plac Wilsona (above, pron. Pluts VeelSOHNuh), voted at the 2008 MetroRail conference in Copenhagen the world's most beautiful metro station. On Earth. Of recent years, anyway.

The new stretch - Stare Bielany, Wawrzyszew (pronounce that after a few ales!) and Młociny, was due to be open at 16:00 today. Eddie and I arrived at what used to the northernmost station - Słodowiec - and waited a few minutes. Right on time, a few minutes before four, the first train arrived, already quite packed.

More people joined the train at the two new intermediate stations before Młociny, by the time it arrived, it was as crowded as a regular rush hour train between Centrum and Politechnika stations (above). As the doors closed at Wawrzyszew, passengers heard, for the very first time, the recorded announcement - 'Następna stacja - Młociny'. Soon we were there. As the doors opened, we beheld scenes reminescent of a Boxing Day sale at Harrods - thousands of people jostling to grab a commemorative badge from the Metro staff greeting the train. The media was on the spot. The chap in the red cap and camo jacket below was deemed by the TVP crew to be the First Passenger. (Fashion note: mohair berets are still in, ladies!)

A tidal wave of excited sightseers of all ages surged up the platform, snapping as they went (ah! the democracy of digital photography!), to the official opening of not only the station, but also Poland's largest intermodal public transport nexus - bus and tram termini and park and ride facilities. Great!

Up the escalators with the throng, past the reporters, photographers and camera crews, and on to the new termini. Here, a pop concert would be held later in the evening to celebrate the event. We got there as Warsaw's deputy president, Jacek Wojciechowicz, was addressing the massed ranks of the Polish media.

Eddie and I had a quick look round then headed back, on what was the second ever passenger train to leave Młociny. We went all the way to the other end of the line, Kabaty. The 23km (16 mile) journey took 35 minutes. Not at all bad. 15 minutes from Młociny to Centrum, 20 minutes from Centrum to Kabaty.

Kabaty. I was here 13 years and 6 months ago, with Moni, then just two years and three months old, and still in a baby buggy. We took a train from Politechnika down to Kabaty three days after the opening of the first 11km section of the Metro. It must be said, that already the station signage acknowledged the finite nature of the project. The up platform was signed 'Kierunek Młociny'. And so it's been for 13 and half years - Młociny was always destined to be the place where the Warsaw Metro would end.

This is an amazing sight for anyone who lives in Kabaty today. The station appears to have been built amid fields. Nothing as far as the eye can see down to the Las Kabacki forest. Today, there's a Tesco hypermarket to the left, houses and flats in front and to the right. The sad thing is that the Metro will never be extended south. It should though. It should tunnel deep under the roots of the forest, emerging to serve Józefosław, Chylice and Konstancin beyond.

[Eddie found two excellent photos, taken a month or two after the one above, here and here. The second one, looking north towards Ursynów, clearly shows no buildings between Kabaty Metro station and ul. Belgradzka.]Otwarcie Metro Młociny
More photo coverage of the Młociny opening (in Polish) here (good photos) and here (decent blog)

This time last year:
End of Babie Lato

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Glorious autumn dusk

Above: ul. Baletowa during the evening rush hour. It's interesting to note that the concentrations of rat-running cars that clog up the back roads of suburban Warsaw are far more dispersed in the evenings. At eight in the morning, traffic is stationary here; at six in the evening, it's moving freely.

A month ago, I felt that this year we'd miss our glorious Polish autumn, the babie lato. How wrong I was. Days like today - cloudless from dawn to dusk - make one delighted to be alive. It's a beautiful evening. If not for the occasional waft of bonfire in my nostrils, this could be 10pm in August rather than 6pm in late October. The earth exhales the warmth of the day's sun. It was +17C this afternoon.

Right: A brace of Airbus A320s; one's just taken off from Okęcie, the other's flying over Warsaw at 30,000 ft. The cheap flight boom is coming to an end. WizzAir, whose plane is seen taking off, has slashed many of its flights to the UK, in response to falling numbers of Polish migrants heading to jobs there. Falling oil prices may yet keep the business afloat for a while, but global economic downturn plus concerns about climate change will mean that the Golden Era of Low Cost Air Travel is behind us.

Left: Walking down ul. Dumki after sunset, I take this snap of a house on ul. Trombity that's just having a first floor added to it. The roof came off over the summer, the new kondignacja was built, and the roof came back, just ten feet higher. The Vibration Reduction feature on my Nikkor 18-200mm lens means I can hand hold at half a second with the lens at the widest.

Flying south for the winter

It's that time of year again; the migratory birds form up and head south. Yesterday I snapped this gaggle of geese over Jeziorki; they headed north for a while towards town, then wheeled round to the west, then headed off south. By the time we see them again, we will have experienced another Polish winter.

I snapped a larger gaggle flying into Poland on 12 March this year. When will they return next year?

This time last year:
Gosh! It's 12 months since the parliamentary elections!
Hidden glories of London's Underground
London from the air

Jams, impatience, anger

Year by year, it's getting harder to drive into town. UK readers would snort - "what an absurdity - driving into work in the capital city?" Surburban Warsaw's have gotten addicted to their short-distance one-per-car commuting. Three lanes of ul. Puławska blocked up solid. Park and ride? To get to the nearest Metro station from here, you've got to endure this for another four km, all the way to Ursynów. There's no alternative.

And it will get worse. As I wrote last week, this is going to get much, much worse as the building of the motorway junction over ul. Puławska will mean it slimming from three lanes to two. The road works will take a year to 18 months. Then there's the proposed bus lane...

And people stuck in their tin boxes get grumpier and grumpier. Impatient drivers cut up others, tooting the indecisive, the slow and the out-of-town. Chamstwo, as my wife rightly says. Tempers flare. The woman in the white Peugeot 407 beeping incessently at a bus because its driver had the temerity to pull out of the bus stop into the solid traffic stream (vehicle carrying 80+ people vs. vehicle carrying one selfish and impatient person). The man in the beige Volvo XC70 tooting at the driver of the Daewoo Tico in the queue at the Statoil petrol station on Puławska (chill out, man!). The driver of another Volvo estate hurtling down ul. Trombity overtaking everyone in sight (this is a 30 kmph/20 mph zone). This aggression, to quote George H. Bush, will not stand.

Once upon a time we moved onto a quiet street, almost a cul-de-sac, connected to the outside world at the other end by a muddy dirt track called ul. Kórnicka. Last August, this street was paved. Like water will find its way to the sea, so commuters will find a way around the blocked-up Puławska.

"They paved paradise/Put up a parking lot." Joni Mitchell's lyrics about 1970s California apply to contemporary Warsaw. Let's abandon our stupid damned cars, our status symbols, our sterile boxes shielding us from urban reality, let's take public transport, cycle, or use a scooter or motorbike.

Right: This view would have been unthinkable 14 months ago - a long queue of traffic on Kórnicka waiting to turn onto ul. Baletowa. To avoid this queue, we need to leave home at quarter past seven; by half-past the queue is long and ill-tempered, with impatient idiots overtaking each other just to get one car ahead at the junction.

Wherever you live on Warsaw's fringes, you will be finding this. Once quiet streets are filling up with frustrated rush hour traffic, seeking out the back-doubles as rat runs parallel to the choked-up solid main arteries.

What's the answer? Expensive flats in the city centre are OK for yuppies and dinkies, but once you have children, you need space and greenery. As soon as you move to the city's leafy fringes, you are condemned to spending two to three hours of every day getting yourself into and out of the city centre.

Above: ul. Taneczna, less than 9km/5.5 miles from the very centre of Warsaw. This residential road (which still has working farms on it!) runs parallel to ul. Puławska, which means that it becomes a conduit for the impatient, the slick and the smart.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Lublin continues to work its charm

What a contrast to Białystok. Lublin - busy, interesting, friendly. The presence of four big universities means plenty of students who need plenty of bars, located in a picturesque old town, driving business outside of the out-of-tourist-season, which in turn means more investment. Above: it may be autumn, but when the sun shines, it brings out the beauty in the old town.

Above: The Czech restaurant in the old town, where the speakers and organisers of today's conference on public-private partnerships had their post-event lunch. Part of its appeal (apart from a huge variety of Czech and Slovak specialty beers, gut-filling knedliki, deep fried cheeses and French fries with mayo) is the running gag about how funny Czech sounds to the Polish ear. The menu, for instance, contains kurcakove pofrudelka (chicken wings). Probably made up (like drevny kocur = squirrel), but guaranteed to make Poles laugh.

Crashing change of gear. Bits of Lublin are still unrestored and evoke the atmosphere of this tragic city from the time of the Holocaust. But building by building, the heart of the old town is being made jollier, more tourist friendly, but, as I said on earlier visits, something is being lost. Before it goes, it needs to be recorded.

This time last year:
First frost [not had one yet in 2008]

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Rush hour in Białystok

I will praise Polish cities where they deserve praise. Krakow, Wrocław, Lublin, Poznań, Katowice - even Łódź, pulling itself up rapidly, Rzeszów, with its surprisingly beautiful old town, all fine places to visit. However, I find it difficult to write anything positive about Białystok, the most north-easterly of Poland's provincial centres. These photos were taken between five pm and half past, when the main railway stations of the other big Polish cities would be writhing with home-bound office workers, commercial travellers, shoppers and tourists.

Above: the station car park. I'm surprised I wasn't arrested for taking a photo of Poczta Polska's sorting office. The Fiat 125P has a car park pass for TVP Białystok, clearly the state regional television station is not paying its staff well enough. The atmosphere reminded me of a visit to Legnica in November 1990, when I was monitoring the first free presidential elections in Poland on behalf of the Polish Government in Exile in Lower Silesia. Depressing post-communist klimat.

This was my fourth visit to Białystok and, to be honest, the town has yet to inspire me with confidence that its improving rapidly, that its citizens are growing happier. Maybe a fifth visit is in order.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Rail links to town are improving

I seem to be using Koleje Mazowieckie more and more often to get into town, and I'm not alone; there seems to be increasing passenger traffic on this line. I'd attribute this to three reasons - new trains, new stations, and growing frustration with korki (traffic jams - literally, 'corks').

New trains: the infamous Bombardier double deckers that were 'too tall for the tunnel' (above, pictured at ul. Karnawał level crossing). As a result the all-stations-from-Radom no longer stops at W-wa Ochota or Smródmieście, but these new carriages are wonderful compared to the rotten old EN-57 elektryczka stock. All of a sudden passengers feel well treated, 21st Century citizens, not communist riff-raff. Below, the Stadler FLIRT (Fast Light Innovative Regional Train) departing from W-wa Jeziorki. Not enough knee-room, but even so, a huge improvement. The old EN-57s (warmed over for the nth remake) are still in service. You can never tell which train will take you to town.

Two new stations have appeared in recent months - W-wa Żwirki i Wigury* and W-wa Aleje Jerozolimskie by the Daimler building.

As you can see from the above picture, the station itself leaves much to be desired. Britain's personal injury lawyers would have a wonderful time - look at those uneven paving slabs. There's only one sign saying "W-wa Jeziorki". The one timetable on the station is unreadable due to early morning condensation under the plastic cover. The pricing is opaque at best. (Single 7 zlotys, network single, 4 zlotys). Other prices are bizarre - 8.51 zł, 6.37 zł; the conductor is busy fiddling with small change and working out complex fare structures from unmanned suburban stations. Meanwhile those at the back of the train travel for free, knowing the harrassed conductor will never get round to checking them as he's too busy hunting for two-grosz coins.

* Żwirko and Wigura - Poland's Alcock and Brown, after whom the main road to the airport is named.

This time last year:
Lovely autumn weather continues
Dull day, lovely day

Saturday, 11 October 2008

A ditch runs through it

South of the railway linking Warsaw's Metro to the outside world, past ul. Oberka, there's a drainage ditch, part of a network dug to drain local fields and to carry rainwater to a pond on ul. Sztajerki. Weather has been most clement these past three weekends; the two and half week cold damp snap of mid September was but a short and unpleasant interlude.

Babie lato is back. Temperature hit +18C in the afternoon, very pleasant for the time of year. As I walked these fields today, the late afternoon scents my nose was picking up alternated from summer to autumn.

Below, left: the pond into which the ditches drain. Soon a motorway will be built here, the main Berlin-Warsaw-Moscow motorway. The first part of the work will be connecting a junction with the new S7 (Puławska bis), just south of Okęcie airport. This suburban idyll will soon be gone.

One day this will all be asphalt

Some time soon, the authorities will start digging up these fields and building a two-lane motorway through them. This will be the section of the A2 Berlin-Warsaw-Moscow motorway that already exists in Wielkopolska, running east as far as Stryków (a place that should have a huge monument to Poland's infrastructure ministers - every one since 1989 - who've between them failed pathetically to build the country decent roads and rail links).

From Stryków, the motorway will run on towards Konotopa, a juntion to the west of Warsaw. From Konotopa, the next juntion will be here, just south of the southern edge of Okęcie airport.

To the north of these fields, the motorway will head on towards Ursynów, parallel to the Warsaw Metro's rail link to the outside rail network (below). Some houses will go, some plots and gardens will be shortened. Then, there will be a junction with ul. Puławska. According to Tuesday's Gazeta Wyborcza, work will start soon. Until then, I shall archive what's there.

The motorway will run along the right hand side of the track, cross ul. Puławska, pass the King Cross shopping centre (Real and Obi), then dive into a tunnel under built-up Ursynów (the white blocks in the distance on the photo).

Above: Map showing the stretch of motorway from the airport to Ursynów. Below: the flyover and junction at ul. Puławska in detail. Houses, gardens and allotments will go to make way for this road. And while the junction is being built (and it will take 18 months minimum from when the work starts), Puławska will be reduced from three lanes in each direction to two. This is the worst stretch for traffic jams as it is. I also note that ul. Poloneza, the nemesis of our brave Nissan Micra, will be tarmacked and will have a flyover (!) across the motorway (in red on left hand side of map). From dirt track to flyover in two years - that's progress!

More information in detail here (warning: huge 21MB file, takes ages to download)

This time last year:
Golden autumn in Łazienki Park
Emerald Isle impressions

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Proto park'n'ride at Jeziorki

A dozen or so cars parked up informally on the muddy verge of ul. Gogolińska, the untarmacked track that leads from Jeziorki to Nowa Iwiczna. These are the spontaneous beginnings of Park and Ride; drive to your local station (and most of these cars have Ursynów or Piaseczno plates) and take the train into town. I guess that within three years, there will be a large car park here with hundreds of park and ride commuters leaving their cars here rather than facing the stasis that is ul. Puławska.

FOLLOW UP - 8 OCTOBER 2011. Three years on - no car park. Puławska more congested than ever. The number of cars left on grass verges and in muddy puddles around W-wa Jeziorki is now around 50 - a drop in the ocean compared to the volume of traffic crawling all the way into town along Puławska.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Mayhem on PKP

Shortly before my train from Łódź was due to arrive back in Warsaw, just outside W-wa Włochy station, it ground to a halt. The reason was obvious as soon as I looked out of the window - the engines has ripped the overhead lines, destroying the pantographs and leaving a long trail of cable behind us.

The conductor whizzed down the corridors telling passengers not to leave the train, as the cable may well be live. Very soon afterwards, another conductor told us that we free to leave and make our way towards W-wa Włochy, from where we could catch a suburban train into town.

Above: Passengers make it down from the train. Behind the carriage to the right, the ball of chewed-up cable. Below: The Tuwim 15:58 Łódź Fabryczna to W-wa Wschodnia, hauled by EU07-128 and EP07-370. Note both engines have had their pantographs removed; it also looks like the cable whipped round and smashed the side window of the second engine's cab.

We got to W-wa Zachodnia without any further problems, but passengers waiting for eastbound services were informed that their trains would be severely delayed.

Article here in Polish

Earlier this year, a similar thing happened on the line from St Pancras to Luton Airport. The resulting chaos meant I missed my flight home. Britain has become overly obsessed with health and safety (the line was entirely shut down from Kentish Town to Radlett); I'm beginning to notice that Poland is overtaking Britain as a Land of Common Sense.

This time last year:
"You'll look funny when you're fifty"
Autumn proper began 7 October - three weeks later than this year
Ul. Nawłocka gets sewerage - why don't we get sewerage?