Saturday, 16 June 2012

Night train tips

Poland's night-train network is a national treasure. I'd say 'use it or lose it', but it is well used, and my recent journeys have been on night trains running with their sleeper carriages full. These are operated by Wars, (pron. 'Vahrss'), the same company that does restaurant carriages on Polish trains. Wars S.A. is 49.98% owned by the Polish state treasury; the remaining shares are in the hands of PKP Intercity S.A., which is 99.99% owned by the PKP S.A., which is 100% owned by the state treasury.

There are essentially two types of sleeper carriage - Wagon sypialny - three-berth (second class) or two-berth (first class) accommodation, with washing facilities en suite; and kuszetka (couchette) which offers six-berth accommodation and a wash-basin and toilet at each end of the corridor. The former assumes that the passenger will disrobe and sleep, pyjama'd, under a blanket and sheet; the latter that the passenger will lie down clothed. The former are segregated by sex, the latter are mixed.

Price-wise, the kuszetka is cheaper. PKP Intercity's Tania kuszetka ('Cheap couchette') offer is a mere 25.50 złotys to anywhere in Poland; the berths come with a disposable sheet to lie on and nothing else. The full-price couchette costs more (depending on distance) but you'll get proper sheets, pillow and blanket. If you're intent on the Wagon sypialny, don't forget to ask the conductor whether there's a parliamentarian travelling that night - if not, the compartment may be free - for a small consideration.

Above: second class, three-berth, compartment in a wagon sypialny carriage. Note the washbasin, window blinds, coat hooks and hangers, shaving mirror cabinet and made-up bedding - all these facilities are lacking in the kuszetka carriages. Top bunk just as hard to access in both type of sleeper carriage.

Whichever option you choose, as you board, do not be surprised that the conductor will want to take your ticket from you. There is a point to this. He must wake you half an hour before your destination, so he needs to know to where each passenger is travelling. He will assign your ticket to a board with your berth number, and wake you up in good time for you to alight, say, at Poznań at 02.40 or Szczecin at 05:50.

Bottom, middle or top bunk? The physical effect of heat rising is noticeable. The bottom bunk can be cold while on the very same journey the top one stifling. On top, you are not troubled by the comings and goings of lower passengers; once up there, all is peaceful (though hot). The downside is getting there. It's over two metres to your bunk; there's an extendible ladder to help you, though getting to it and making your way down it with a full bladder at half-past three in the morning is the other major drawback of the top bunk.

It's like being on the International Space Station, though with the additional inconvenience of gravity. You cannot sit up straight; you need the skills of a potholing contortionist to wriggle through the straps that are there to prevent you falling off the bunk should the train run headlong into another. There's plentiful storage space (above the corridor) for the top-bunkers.

The earlier you buy your ticket, the higher the likelihood of a bottom bunk, as the computerised system sells the tickets from the bottom to the top. Tickets for the sleeper carriages are on sale up to two hours before the train's departure. Should you turn up late, you can buy a normal ticket, and ask the sleeping carriage conductors (one per carriage) if they have space, and pay them for the sleeper ticket. And the Tania kuszetka offer runs out, so you must pay more than double (although you do get sheets, a blanket and a pillow - the Tania kuszetka ticket will say bez pościeli - without bedding).

I must add that travelling in a sleeper carriage is safe. There's a conductor in each of the two or three carriages that make up a night train, and your cabin door can be secured from the inside with a chain.

* Varsovians - you should board your night train at the station it departs from. This gives you time to settle down in your berth before W-wa Centralna, where most of the passengers will join the train. Westbound night trains start from W-wa Wschodnia (or 'East Station', as PKP announcers now helpfully call it), while eastbound night trains start from W-wa Zachodnia ('West Station').

This time last year:
On a musical note

This time two years ago:
Standing stones

This time five years ago:
The year nears its zenith


Paddy said...

As i have learnt to my cost, it's important to get the ticket at the very least the day before. Thanks for this post, I'm a convert. However, it's a shame there's no way of filtering your fellow passengers, one of whom bored me to do eath on the merits and demerits of the Polish film industry for well over two hours t'other day!

Anonymous said...

The real scandal is the almost complete disappearance of "standard" couchettes from Polish night trains. Very few trains still have them--most trains now carry only a "tania kuszetka".

I guess Poles don't mind lugging along their own pillow and blanket to save 25zloty, but for the foreign traveller this is a real inconvenience.