Thursday, 2 July 2015

Railway matters

"Pardon me, boy - is that the Warszawa Wschodnia choo-choo?"

"Yes Sir!"

[No longer singing] "Sorry - you mean this Gomułka-era rolling stock (below)? For a 305km (190-mile) journey?"

"That's right Sir! This is the 13:44 InterRegio service from Poznań Główny to Warszawa Wschodnia, stopping at Konin, Koło, Kłodawa and Kutno - an inordinate number of places beginning with a 'K', despite the fact that only 6.44% of Polish words begin with a 'K'*.

"But this train (EN57-890) was built in the early 1960s to get chłoporobotnicy from their edge-of-town farmsteads to their lathes and spindles in urban centres - not for transporting 21st Century Poles from two cities several hundred kilometres apart."

The journey wasn't unpleasant. Call it a 'retro-service' and rail fans from the world over will be queuing up to pay far more than the 53.90 złotys (£9.15) that the ticket cost me. The sunny summer weather, the breeze from the open window, the bucolic scenery unwinding outside as Wielkopolska gave way to Łódzkie and Mazovia (below).

Rail travel in Poland is about to get more predictable. The beta version of a real-time map of Polish railways has just gone live, showing travellers exactly where their train is as a given moment. Just as FlightRadar24 has revolutionised air travel by showing where the plane you are awaiting is.

Have a look at this, it's still far from perfect and a mobile app has yet to be test-launched. The default shows you trains in Pomorskie province; you need to find your province from the pull-down menu. Then zoom in a bit... it's reasonably intuitive. So here I am in Jeziorki, I want to know when the next train to town is. I know that according to the timetable, it's due at 22:00. But where is it right now? I check - it's in Warka, and running a minute late.

If I have a choice between rail and road, it's rail every time. I appreciate the comfort of being able to walk about, the views, and the ever-improving punctuality and service. The InterRegio has no first class, no restaurant car, no buffet trolley - it's totally spartan. Yet it was nearly full, carrying business people, holidaymakers, families with lots of children, foreign tourists even.

The move from the roads to the railways will happen, much as it has happened in Western Europe. In the UK, rail passenger numbers are at a record high, not something that was predicted in the car-mad Beeching-report 1960s. I hope Poland will not rip up its rail network, rather will learn to cherish its heritage and build on it.

* However, 11.65% of Polish place-names begin with a 'K'. Now, out of  57 stations large and small between Poznań and Warsaw, 11 start with a 'K' - that's Kostrzyn, Kawnice, Konin Zachód, Konin, Kramsk, Koło, Kłodawa, Krzewie, Kutno, Kęszyce and Kornelin. That's 19.3% of the stations. More than can be statistically expected.

** The Borders Railway from Edinburgh to Tweedbank was re-opened in 2015 after closure in 1969. The cost of re-laying the track and installing new signalling and associated infrastructure was £294 million (1.7 billion zlotys). For a line that's 35 miles (58km) long - that's a lot of money. Dr Beeching was totally wrong to chop up Britain's rail network. Britons are now paying the price. Poland has the opportunity not to repeat the mistake.

This time two years ago:
Serious cycling

This time four years ago:
Outlets for creativity

This time six years ago:
The day I stopped commuting to work by car

This time seven years ago:
Look up at the Towers of London

This time eight years ago:
Wild deer in the Las Kabacki forest

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