Saturday, 21 February 2015

My first ride on PKP's new Pendolino service

Since the first Pendolino trains started running on Poland's main railway lines on 14 December, I've not yet had a chance to travel on one, so a half-day conference in Wrocław followed by two business meetings gave me the ideal chance to try it.

Until now, getting to Wrocław has been hard work: PKP InterCity ran a couple of services a day, the fastest taking 5hrs 11mins to cover the 405km (250 miles); alternatively TLK could get you there in just under seven hours. takes 5hrs or 5hrs 50 minutes and is very cheap. Flying is dreadfully expensive (over 800 złotys) unless you book early. So my preferred option was to take the night train from Warsaw; I'd get a good night's sleep and wake up in Wrocław early in the morning.

But the Pendolino (see post about maiden voyage on the Behind The Water Tower blog) changes everything. Suddenly, nearly two hours have been shaved off the best previous journey time. Well, that's the theory. What's in like in practice?

I wake up at 04:45, leave home at 05:30, walking to W-wa Jeziorki station. I checked on the Bilkom app on my mobile that the 05:45 service to town is on time - it is. It gets me to W-wa Zachodnia at 06:09, 15 minutes before the Wrocław-bound Pendolino InterCity Premium service pulls in. I have ample time to buy a paper. At 06:24 the Pendolino arrives, to the minute (below). Now to get to Wrocław...

I board the train and find I'm sitting next to fellow-blogger Paddisław Wędrowniczek. Thankfully, he is not a fellow of wide girth as the seats are narrower than in normal PKP carriages. I'm in the window seat; it's a chilly day, about +2C leaving Warsaw. The heating is on, overheating my right leg, while my right arm muscles are chilled to the bone by the proximity to the cold metal surrounding the window. But there's a reading light, an electrical socket for each passenger (ideal for charging mobile devices and laptops), an ample fold-down table; there's complimentary tea/coffee/water/fruit juice, and the toilets are as clean as on an airliner. The train is nearly full.

WiFi? Forget about it. When PKP was specifying the rolling stock, smartphones and tablets were still science fiction. Pendolinos have no wifi. Retrofit the trains? What and drill holes everywhere, into carriages with a long manufacturer's warranty?

And another thing - for those travellers with a phobia about the gap between platform edge and the door - Pendolino carriages have an even bigger gap. So mind it.

According to the timetable, the train to Wrocław calls at Częstochowa Stradom (2hrs 9mins after leaving W-wa Centralna), then Opole (3hrs 2mins), arriving at Wrocław Główny station in 3hrs 42mins, an average speed of 110kmh.

Now let's put this into perspective: a few years ago, I travelled from Madrid to Seville on the Alta Velocidad Espanola (AVE) train. The train covered the 470 km from the Spanish capital to Seville in 2hrs 20 mins, averaging 200kmh. And even in the UK, the 250 miles (400km) from London to Lancaster takes 2hrs 34mins, averaging 160kmh. So while the Pendolino looks, feels and smells brand new, its performance in terms of covering ground is antiquated (remember Japanese Shinkansen bullet trains have been running for more than half a century! In 1965, the Shinkansen was linking Tokyo and Osaka - a distance of 515 km - in 3hrs 10mins; average speed 162kmh).

By the time our Pendolino is approaching Opole, I'm hungry, so I visit the dining car (below). I order a smoked salmon salad, an orange juice and a black coffee - the bill is 34.50 złotys (£6.15). The service is prompt, the tables clean, nothing to complain about at all.

Below: I take a peek into the first-class carriage at the front of the train, where the seats are wider and spaced 1+2 rather than 2+2 as in second. Otherwise, I discern little difference between the two classes. Having said that, I prefer the old-style compartments, especially on the newer InterCity trains (the generation before Pendolino) that offer six seats to a second-class compartment.

The aisles in both classes are wide enough to accommodate a standard-width wheelchair (this is an EU requirement for co-financing the purchase of the Pendolinos); the old-style PKP corridors were wide enough to accommodate a standard-width Warsaw Pact stretcher (so that in the event of an invasion of Western Europe, wounded troops could be transported back east in PKP trains).

Here's a nice touch - having clambered through mud to get from home to W-wa Jeziorki, it's good to find a set of rotating shoe-cleaning brushes in the front of the second carriage (below). There are also separated four-person compartments for passengers with small children and pregnant women in this carriage. On the way back, one of these compartments was occupied by a mixed group of eight students, having a sing-song.

Below: The Pendolino Express InterCity Premium service pulls into Wrocław Główny station on time. Great! Frankly, any modern train set could have done at this pace; the purchase of the Pendolino rolling stock has not created a true Shinkansen-style revolution on Polish rails. It is the rail network that needs the massive investment, not so much the trains that run on it.

Though it's clearly a big and belated leap forward, the biggest problem of getting from Warsaw to Wrocław has not been solved - namely the lack of a direct rail route between the two cities. To get to Wrocław from Warsaw, one either has to go via Poznań (which is further west than Wrocław) or via Częstochowa (which is further south).

This is for historical reasons - Wrocław's rail network was part of the historically German one, while Warsaw's was Russian. During the 70 years that Wrocław has been back within Polish borders, no government has managed to sew up the two legacy rail networks to meet the needs of the modern state and its economy. A quick look at any map  shows what's needed - just 50km of new track between Wieruszów (part of the Wrocław rail network) and Sieradź (part of the Łódż rail network).

Below: the current route, via Częstochowa and Opole, swinging down far further south than Wrocław (click to enlarge).

Below: my proposal - build a new line, around 50km long (marked in red), to link Wrocław to Łódź and Warsaw. The route is nearly 100km (22%) shorter. This line would run through sparsely populated countryside. Toggle back and forth between the two to see the contrast.

The working day is over, I return to Wrocław Główny to await the Pendolino back to Warsaw. In the station, you can see German and Czech trains as well as Polish ones, an interesting place for train-spotters. And since its remont in 2012, the station is extremely attractive, its original architecture tastefully restored (below).

Below: here it is - my train home, scheduled to leave Wrocław Gł. at 18:50. It arrived at W-wa Zachodnia 11 minutes early, at 22:15. So it's now possible to do a day's work in Wrocław and be there and back by train. Again, the train was nearly full. There are two Pendolino services a day in each direction. Of course, there are other direct train services between the two cities. The TLK and InterRegio services each take well over six hours.

One thing to bear in mind about the Pendolino - you have to have a valid ticket before boarding. Failure to do so will result in a 650-złoty (£115) surcharge. But you can now book and pay online, it's easy. My ticket, bought three weeks in advance, cost 59 złotys (£10.50).

Yesterday was another day when Poland worked. All my trains were on time, taxis showed up promptly when called, lunch (at Pod Papugami) was excellent, and the sun shone. Nothing to complain about at all.

This time last year:
Poland's universal panacea

This time two years ago:
Of taxis, deflation, crisis and strikes

This time three years ago:
Lent starts again

This time four years ago:
Art Quiz

This time five years ago:
A month before Spring Equinox

This time six years ago:
The beauty of winter
[some of my finest winter photos]


student SGH said...

The last paragraph leaves me with mixed feelings. Last week on my blog I complained about fellow colleaugues setting off to grumble when I ask them how they are, so it's reassuring to read an account of someone whose attitude to life is so positive. On the other hand, it smacks of success propaganda... It wouldn't have made such impression, had one sentence (Yesterday was another day when Poland worked) been left out. Not the whole Poland worked, just a fraction of it you had to luck to encounter did work. I was also among those lucky for who everything worked fine, but it wouldn't hurt to think of those worse off.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ student SGH

Of course not the whole of Poland worked - my comparison is across time rather than across Poland today. When I think back over my 18 years in this country, how bad things were (especially in rail infrastructure), this is success. It's slow, it's patchy - but let's not negate Poland's success. Let it widen and deepen.

student SGH said...

I knew what you meant, but wanted to catch my impressions during the reading, since for some of your readers, the first impressions might also be the last. And the first comment that sprang up to my mind before I even read the whole paragraph was "Poland went on strike". One day it could be good to ponder upon this split-second reactions. For some reasons some people come up with a witty retort immediately when they are maliciously attacked, while others flush and are left speechless. Why?

Of course Poland has made a significant stride and nobody of sound mind would dare to deny it...

John Savery said...

I used the Pendolino to get to Warsaw from Wroclaw last Sunday morning. I booked well in advance and got a first class seat for 79zl. Impressed with the cleanliness and style and the breakfast was good. The fact that I arrived in Zachodnie 12 minutes early seems to indicate plenty of slack in the schedule.

Tend to agree that the money would have been better spent on infrastructure improvements.