Saturday, 31 October 2015

Sublime autumn day in Jeziorki

On a day like today, there's nothing stopping me from spending as much time out of doors as possible. With a daytime high of 13C and perfect visibility, a long walk with cameras was on the cards. The atmosphere, the klimat, transported me to another time and another place. Jeziorki - the perfect place to live - a rural suburb, peaceful yet within 31 minutes by train from the city centre.

Today is a day to cherish and appreciate Warsaw's southern-most district which I call home.

This time last year:
CitytoCity, MalltoMall

This time two years ago:
(Internet) Radio Days

This time three years ago:
Another office move

This time four years ago:
Manufacturing a City of Culture

This time five years ago:
My thousandth post

This time six years ago:
Closure of ul. Poloneza

This time seven years ago:
Scenes from a suburban petrol station

This time eight years ago:
Red Arrows over Lincolnshire from 30,000 ft

Friday, 30 October 2015

The working week with the clocks gone back

The clocks went back on Sunday, and I've still not caught up. I'm waking naturally after 6am - too early - and going to sleep before 10pm - too early. The sudden shock of the time change does not sit easy with me. Still, the weather has been mainly fine. Lots of walking.

Below: at W-wa Jeziorki station, watching a Radom-bound train arriving, while behind me one bound for town is approaching from the south. Punctual trains, sunny morning.

Below: looking across Rondo ONZ, lunchtime. Gleaming towers of the New Warsaw.

Below: view from the office window, trees splendidly autumnal in the late afternoon sun. Ul. Świętokrzyska cuts across ul. Marszałkowska running into the distance.

Below: it's 16:25 and the sun's already set over Our City; looking west along Al. Jerozolimskie.

A fine city, Warsaw. A great place to live and work.

This time two years:
Slowly on the mend after calf injury

This time three years ago:
Thorunium the Gothick

This time four years ago:
Łódź Widzew or Widź Łódzew

This time six years ago:
A touch of frost in the garden

Thursday, 29 October 2015

A driving ban for architects and developers

Another modest proposal. All architects and developers practising their craft within built-up areas should have their driving licences taken away. They should be forced to visualise and realise their grand schemes from the point of view of the pedestrian or cyclist, users of public transport rather than the motorist. Sharing this idea with Agnieszka in the office, who'd just spent several weeks with a leg in plaster after an accident involving a bus, she said she'd go one step further - architects and developers should have to have a leg in plaster and move about on crutches while designing new buildings and infrastructure.

Everywhere I go around, from one office development to the next, I see the mind of the architect at work. "The path goes from the car park to the office door." People coming by bus or on foot have to wade through mud - or take a 200m detour along a previously existing path that has not changed, because it's administered by the City and not the developer.

Architects and developers are failing to work with the local authority's public transport teams. Little or no thought is given to employees trying to get to their workplace using any other means of transport than the car.

Taking a walk along ul. Poleczki the other day. There's the new CEZAMAT building under construction. Nice neo-modernist elevation - except you won't be able to see it from the road because of the stonking great multistory carpark built in front of it. Centrum Zaawansowanych Materiałów i Technologii - the centre for advanced materials and technologies - stuck in the car-mad 1960s. There's nothing advanced about turning your employees to turn into blobs as they drive to work.

OK, there's a cycle path linking CEZAMAT to Puławska and Okęcie airport. But the cycle path zigzags from one side of Poleczki to the other; cyclists quite rightly ignore the stretch on the other side of the road which necessitates crossing the road twice to the get to the same point. So they cycle along the narrow pavement. Bad planning.

At Poleczki Business Park, there's acres of parking space but only three buses an hour off-peak connect the office buildings to the outside world.

The railway, which passes a 300m to the west, does not stop here. It carries on northward 2km to W-wa Okęcie, and the bus connection from there is highly inconvenient.

Now, let's look at W-wa Służewiec station, one stop up the line from W-wa Okęcie. This station is a crucial transport hub. It brings passengers from Piaseczno and the southern exurbs (and - no doubt - a vast number of Radomites) and from all points north and east to the fringes of Mordor. This bleak office desert of corporate exile is not seen as an attractive place for Generation Y to work in - they dream of redeveloped post-industrial loft spaces in the heart of the city, close to the downtown action, well connected by public transport.

But let's say you do have to work in Mordor na Służewcu. Take a look at the map below. This shows the route you have to take to walk from the Securitas building on ul. Cybernetyki to W-wa Służewiec station. The legitimate way along ul. Taśmowa is 744 metres. The direct route is but 388m. A full 352m further - nearly twice as far.

But few people working on Cybernetyki (lots of new developments to the south and east of the Securitas building) chose the long way. They take the short cut. Let's take a closer look at it (below):

The way to the platform is well-trodden by hundreds of people a day. There is a sign, forbidding the crossing of the track. People have this sign 'in the nose' (w nosie). If you click to enlarge, you'll see a small wooden ladder to help people scramble up to the platform, through the barrier.

This is the Polish Way. PKP PLK SA has evidently not been approached by the City or by developers to do something about the situation. The track infrastructure management company merely carries out the letter of the law by placing a barrier at the end of the platform and a sign across the track.

The British Way would be to seal off the tracks with unclimbable wire fencing - totally - from Warsaw right the way down to Radom and beyond. There would be uproar, and after a while, some planning and budgeting, a safe crossing point would be built here, with proper signage and steps up to platform level. For the record, even at peak times, no more than eight trains an hour run up this track, so it's not unsafe per se. It's just that there's no joined up thinking.

Developers and landlords with property in this part of Warsaw must push the City harder for better access here. My guess is that before too long, corporate tenants will be deserting Mordor for new developments in Wola (like Warsaw Spire and other landmark buildings sprouting up around Rondo Daszyńskiego) as well as trendy post-industrial spaces like the Norblin development I looked at yesterday.

Developers will pluck a plot of likely-looking land and get their architects to copy-paste existing solutions without regard for how the people who end up working there actually reach the place. They need to get there need a big dose of public transport. If not, they will continue to not get it, and the empty glass and steel of Służewiec will become a monument to the simple fact that cars and cities do not mix, and if public transport access is not first-rate, no matter how cheap the property, They Will Not Come.

This time last year:
Do you keep coming back, or do you seek the new?

This time two years ago:
In praise of Retro design

This time three years ago:
First snowfall in Warsaw

This time four years ago:
Of cycles, economic and human

This time five years ago:
Why didn't I read this before? Grapes of Wrath

This time six years ago:
Małopolska from the train

This time seven years ago:
Grading ul. Poloneza

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

In Warsaw's Norblin factory before redevelopment

The Norblin metalwork factory on the corner of ul. Żelazna and Prosta functioned for over 150 years under various guises before being closed in 1982. After that, part of the premises became a museum (closed in 2008). The entire site is to be redeveloped as a mixed-use retail and business centre, with a focus on innovative start-ups and stores not found in mainstream malls. Interesting! I like these post-industrial spaces, which Łódź is becoming famous for (see my posts on Łódź for pictorial coverage of this phenomenon).

Within a few years, this will have all been modernised - in a sensitive way (like the award-winning Grohmann factory in Łódź) with the old machinery refurbished and mingling with modern retail space and incubators for young entrepreneurs. The future and the past together in one development.

How it looks today:

Two furnaces and trolleys in the bright late-October sunlight

A barrow, probably 19th Century

Another view of the furnaces (sunny day not great for this type of photography)

...and pulling back into the next room for a wider view

Machinery once used for cutting sheet metal

Many films and TV series were shot here

The roof has long gone. The old machinery, resting and rusting.

In the distance, Warsaw Spire gets closer to completion.

My father's first house (as an infant) was just behind this factory, to the left of the photo above, within the same block, on the corner of Żelazna and Łucka, before his family moved to far posher accommodation on ul. Filtrowa. A post-war copy of his birth certificate gave his parents' address as one thousand one hundred and fifty five, ul. Łucka. Given that Łucka then (as now) only goes from 1 to 25, and number 11 was a factory making horse-drawn carriages before the war, the clerk copying out the original must have mistaken the 1/5 as 1155, as the building on the corner of Łucka and Żelazna never had 55 apartments in it.

This time two years ago:
Sadness at the death of Tadeusz Mazowiecki

This time four years ago:
More hipster mounts (Warsaw fixieism)

This time five years ago:
Welcome to Warsaw

This time six years ago:
Just like the old days

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Four years of PiS

PiS (Law and Justice) looks like it has won an outright majority in the Polish parliament. Exit polls - usually an accurate indicator of the election outcome - give PiS 39.1% of the vote, with outgoing government PO (Civic Platform) - in power for the past eight years - gaining 23.4% of the vote. Other parties likely to get into the next Sejm - Kukiz '15 (whatever that is), Nowocześni 7.1%, and PSL (anachronistically translated into English as the Peasants' Party) with 5.2%. Failing to get in are the United Left (as an alliance of parties, ZLew failed to cross the 8% threshold, polling just 6.6%), KroWiN MiKKKe (4.9%) and Razem (3.9%).

How does this translate into seats? Out of 460 seats in the Sejm, PiS looks set to command 242, with PO having 133 seats; Kukiz '15 (until last year this guy was nothing than a pop singer) 44 seats; Ryszard Petru's Nowocześni (technocratic economic liberals) 22 seats and Polish politics' great survivors, PSL, with 18 seats.

We don't yet know the outcome of the Senate vote.

If this poll is accurate, we can expect a PiS government and a PiS president. The big question is how much damage will such a government do over the next four years. If election pledges are anything to go by, the cost of these (if they are indeed to be met) will be huge. Who'll pay? Foreign banks and supermarkets? The cost will be immense. Poland will cease to be a magnet for foreign investors, jobs growth will dry up and the pace of growth of the economy will start to slow.

The western media are already talking about the 'right wing' winning power - I equate 'right' with Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, privatisation, freedom and a tough stance against trade unions. If we're talking 'right' as in General Franco, then we're nearer the truth - the Big State and the Catholic Church, not deregulation and empowerment of the individual.

['Poland lurches to the right' bleats the Guardian. Hang on just one second - PiS's economic policies would gladden Jeremy Corbin's heart. Cut retirement age! Handouts to miners! Raise social security payments! Stop privatisation!]

Kukiz '15 will prove itself an irrelevance. Four years ago, Janusz Palikot created a party out of nothing around his own persona. That party entered parliament, as has Paweł Kukiz's newly-created party today. Palikot's party foundered and splintered and went nowhere, despite having a leader who was a professional politician and formerly a successful entrepreneur, and a clearly defined political position (economically and socially liberal). Kukiz has none of these attributes. The people who will have come into the next Sejm on his coat-tails are amateurs, Dude. They have no frame of reference, they'll be like children who wander into the middle of a movie.

Some of Kukiz's parliamentarians will quickly leave to shore up PiS's parliamentary majority, others will hit the tabloid headlines for all the wrong reasons. (Note to Poland's security services - these people are prime targets for the Kremlin's provocations.)

I published seven scenarios for the election, the first of which indeed came to pass. But one I totally missed was the destruction of Poland's social and economic left with both ZLew - an alliance of SLD and Palikot's Movement failing to cross the threshold. The reason was the excellent performance of Razem's Adrian Zandberg in the second TV debate. He showed that the minor left-wing party was in with a chance, pulling up its poll from 1% to nearly 4%, depriving ZLew of the votes needed to take it over the 8% threshold needed for an alliance.

The next four years will see old scores settled, attempts to rewrite recent (and indeed not-so-recent) history, bizarre economic policies and Poland - the powerhouse of Central and Eastern Europe until tonight - becoming increasingly marginalised in Brussels and in world politics.

But this is democracy. Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. In four years time, things will come right again. No need to panic. I feel much calmer than I did in 2005.

In the meantime - five parties, four of which have some raison d'etre, seem likely to make up parliament. One thing is certain - tomorrow, Poland wakes up to a very different reality.

My main worry tonight is about government. The people who in Britain would be called the Civil Service, who in Poland are the professional administration - urzędnicy. The top layers will be culled for purely political reasons - "not our people". Regardless of their skills and commitment, they will be ousted and replaced by people who can be trusted in the party-political sense. Poland will lose many hard-working and talented administrators for no other good reason than for PiS to shoehorn in a buddy who needs a job (preferably with a chauffeured car, a big office and full secretarial backup).

Pan Prezes (of government agencies, regulatory authorities, state-owned enterprises) - your time is up. And many deputy presidents, directors of departments, as well.

I remember in 2005 meeting a PiS-installed deputy president of a state-owned agency saying that his job was to 'get rid of all the commies' in the next two years.

The danger with this approach is that you lose continuity and skills, often replacing people who genuinely care about what they are doing with people who know or care little about the subject.

No doubt the next four years will prove interesting to me professionally.

This time three years ago:
High Victorian Manchester

This time six years ago:
The clocks go back - but when should they go forward?

This time seven years ago:
Warsaw's first Metro line is completed

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Ogórek by the Palace of Culture

On my way to work today from W-wa Śródmieście across the coach terminal in front of the Palace of Culture - a double-take in the week the internet brought us the Chinese floating city and the Back To The Future 2 hoverboard - a floating hoverbus? No - this is the back end of the Jelcz 043 bus - a common sight in communist Poland. Built under licence from Škoda, it is characterised by its long rear overhang, making the rear seats a bad choice for passengers with motion sickness.

This particular bus on heritage black on yellow heritage number plates has been beautifully restored and looks the piece parked outside the Palace of Culture. Were it not for the resolutely 21st Century backdrop of Złota 44, Warsaw Financial Centre and Q22 (under construction to the right), plus the cars, this scene could have been taken 50 years ago.

Good to see that enthusiasts are keeping these wonderful old vehicles going. Nicknamed ogórek or 'cucumber', the best time to see and indeed ride on this bus is during Warsaw's Noc Muzeów ('Museum Night') when fleets of Ogórki ferry participants from museum to museum free of charge.

This time four years ago:
Autumnal dusk, Jeziorki

This time eight years ago:
Autumn sun going out

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

We wake up on Monday - and...?


You have a stiff drink and retire early on Sunday night before the polling stations close at 21:00; you miss the announcement of the exit poll results and the night-long frenzy of analysis and what-iffery. You wake up refreshed on Monday morning, and head for your favourite Polish news source. What will happen? I've carefully (and soberly) considered seven scenarios - each one entirely plausible. Right now, like Schroedinger's cat, each scenario is both alive and dead at the same time - until that moment we open the box and peer in. Any of them could happen. And if I've missed a plausible scenario, please let me know!

So then we are having...

1) PiS has managed to win an outright majority, with 231+ of 460 seat in the Sejm going to the party. They do not need to find any coalition partners with whom to form a government. A bit like Cameron's Tories on 10 May this year. Weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth from all those who believe that things will take a turn for the worse. Foreign investors start scouring CEE for safer locations for their factories, BPO centres and regional HQs. Servers at Ryanair and WizzAir crash. My blog post headline on Monday: We can only hope.

2) PiS clearly wins the largest number of seats, but remains 20-something seats short of a majority. With whom will it form a government? PO, ZLew, Petru, Kukiz and PSL (in that order) make it across the line. PiS + Kukiz = still not enough seats. Once again, PSL, Poland's great political survivors and jobs-for-the-boys act hold the cards. Kaczyński has to take back a lot of nasty things he said about PSL and swallow his pride. But after five weeks of wheeling and dealing, PiS+Kukiz+PSL finally form a government. My blog post headline on Monday: No rush for the door - just yet.

3) PO does better than expected, after Beata Szydło's whiney, apologetic tone fails to convince voters that she's premier material. PO win just as many (or just slightly fewer) seats than PiS. The late surge, coupled with a good showing from Petru, allows his .Nowocześni party to form a more reformist government with PO, as Kukiz voters evaporate. The new coalition announces a focus making the Polish state more efficient. The zloty goes through the roof, as does the WIG20 Index. Kaczyński and Macierewicz say that the ballot was rigged, and that a silent coup d'etat has taken place. My blog post headline on Monday: Good sense triumphs - and I must say I'm rather glad.

4) As above, though with PO unable to form a government with Petru alone. In this version, PSL has made it back into Sejm, as it always does, polls notwithstanding. More wheeling and dealing, more jobs in state enterprises negotiated for the boys, and a fragile three-party coalition is formed. Relief from the markets that the gloomiest prognostications have not come true. More grumblings from PiS about a 'conspiracy'. My blog post headline on Monday: Don't let PSL at the honeypot.

5) A knife's edge, in which ZLew plays a deciding role. Palikot? Acceptable to PO. Greens? Unia Pracy? Ditto. Leszek Milllller? Beyond the pale when it comes to cutting a deal with PiS... but would PO be desperate enough to try to form a government with the Assorted Lefties as a coalition partner? Possibly - even if it meant bringing That Irritating Man back into the corridors of power. Another advantage for PO would be the ability to ditch PSL. Would Petru be needed as well as the lefties? My blog post headline on Monday: Lefties call the shots

6) Comedy Central (for those not having to live it): PiS with Kukiz and KorWiN form a government (may this NEVER happen). A nuttier re-run of 2005-2007, with PiS playing PiS, Kukiz cast as Samoobrona (remember them?) and KORwIn playing the League of Polish Families (gay Teletubbies and main-road mini-skirt ban). The world's media decamp to Warsaw to relay humorous goings-on to their readers and viewers back home. Poland becomes world's laughing-stock. I mean, Corbyn's never going to form a government - this collection of clowns already have! KoRWiN and Macierewicz in one government? WHAT a hoot! My blog post headline on Monday: Got to laugh to keep from cryin'.

7) Stalemate. PiS gets 220 seats. PO gets 185 seats. ZLew gets 40 seats. Petru gets 15 seats. No one else gets in (reminder to non-Polish readers: a party needs 5% of the vote to get over the threshold, a alliance - such as Zjednoczona Lewica - needs 8%). No Kukiz. And the usual kingmakers, PSL, fail to make the 5%. Who you gonna turn to, PiS? The heirs to PZPR, or the anti-statist voice of the free market? My blog post headline on Monday: With which devil will PiS get into bed with?

Dear Readers - if you can come up with any other (relatively) plausible scenario, please do so in the comments box below. And remember - anything can happen in the next 100 hours. Bronisław Komorowski enjoyed a 40-point lead over Andrzej Duda and lost. And that in the UK General Election held in May, not one opinion poll taken the day before the vote predicted an outright Tory majority. Like zero. So polls often get it wrong. Voters, when pushed (as also in the case of the Scottish referendum last September) tend to choose safety and security over the radical and unknown.

So - what do YOU reckon will happen on polling day?

This time last year:
Bilingualism benefits the brain

This time five years ago:
Crushed velvet dusk in my City of Dreams II

This time six years ago:
Going North, the quick way

This time seven years ago:
Glorious autumn dusk

This time eight years ago:
Last man voting?

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Kielce - the woes of Poland's second-class cities

If your city doesn't have a mediaeval Old Town, royal palaces, sandy beaches, renowned universities, a hip cultural life, corporate headquarters, world-class industry clusters, business outsourcing centres - then what?

I've written about my least-favourite Polish city, Białystok - time to visit another of the also-rans, Kielce. Ranked 17th among Poland's cities by population size, Kielce is home to 200,000 people, so about the size of York. It has always rivalled its neighbour 75km up the road, Radom, in terms of size (Radom's bigger at 225,000), manufacturing industry (Kielce's is stronger) and administrative importance. After the reforms of 1999, Kielce became the capital of Świętokrzyskie province, while Radom was swallowed up as the poor end of Mazowsze. Radom's unemployment rate is currently 19.3% (yes!) while Kielce's is 8.6% (Warsaw's is just 3.8% by comparison).

If you ever plan to motor south from Warsaw, take the Krajowa Siódemka (national route no. 7) which runs through Radom (100km), Kielce (175km) and Kraków (275km). The Siódemka is taking shape... here it is between Skarżysko Kamienna and Kielce. Still some work needed between Radom and Skarżysko, but by a faster connection than the wretched railway line.

A town, like Białystok, which developed rapidly under Russian rule in the second half of the 19th Century. Its excuse for not having a wonderful Old Town? The mid-17th Century invasion of the Swedes. Who burnt it. Below: an Old School Challenge photo - other than a solitary satellite dish (how 1990s!) and some graffiti, this Socialist Realist estate shows no traces of the modern world.

Below: despite the drabness of an overcast late October morning, Kielce feels more prosperous than its northern neighbour Radom. Few pawn shops, hardly any chwilówki (consumer loan) outlets or currency exchange bureaux - the hallmarks of poorer towns where migration to western Europe is commonplace.

Left: Old school block of flats. This is what English people immediately think of when you say 'Poland'. Drab, grey, communist buildings. The full-length advert for Centrostal Kielce, a firm noted on the Warsaw Stock Exchange without an English-language website, smacks of the 1990s.

But while it's visibly poorer than the Big Six Polish cities, Kielce is not run down. It feels well administered.
Right: Kielce's shame. The 1946 pogrom in which 42 Jews - survivors of the holocaust - were murdered by their Polish neighbours must never be forgotten. This plaque is on the wall of the building on ul. Planty 9, on the banks of the river Silnica that runs through Kielce. Next year will mark the 70th anniversary of the pogrom. (Poland's English-language skills have come on since 1990s - there were evidently no native speakers around then to check the text.)

Below: ul. Sienkiewicza, Kielce's main drag, is a pedestrian thoroughfare linking the railway station to the heart of the city.

Kielce has a brighter future, I believe, than Białystok or Radom. It has a thriving exhibition centre (Poland's second biggest), plenty of manufacturing industry, tourism - as a base for the Świętokrzyskie hills to the south-east, agriculture and food processing, and the nearby spa-towns of Busko Zdrój and Solec Zdrój.

This time two years ago:
Wine connoisseurs or wine snobs?

This time three years ago:
Poland's golden autumn

This time four years ago:
Visceral and permanent - a short story

This time five years ago:
Crushed Velvet Dusk in my City of Dreams II

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

I'm Payin' Taxes, What Am I Buying*

Monday's Rzeczpospolita somewhat belatedly broke the news that of all the 55 countries surveyed by OECD, the rich economies' club, Poland is third from bottom when it comes to the efficiency of its tax system. The information comes from OECD's Tax Administration 2015 survey, published... in August. The fact that the news has only made it to the front page of Poland's newspaper of record is either testament to the fact a) that OECD's press office is not particularly effective or b) that Rzeczpospolita's journalists are slow in picking up stories or c) that it's coming up to election time.

Anyway... The point is this. According to the OECD report, in the UK it costs 73p to collect £100 of taxes. In Poland, it costs 1.60 złotys to collect 100 złotys of taxes. In other words, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs is more than twice as effective  as Poland's Urząd Skarbowy. Of the 55 countries surveyed, only Japan and Saudi Arabia performed worse than Poland.

The reason is clear to all who pay taxes in Poland and have any dealings with the Polish tax authorities. There's far too many resources wasted on chasing small amounts of money - tax inspections of small businesses that end up costing tens of thousands of zlotys in staff time and letters and court costs etc - and the poor entrepreneur turned out to have diddled fiskus (intentionally or otherwise) to the tune of a few hundred zlotys.

Poland's tax regulations are opaque and they are interpreted differently in different tax offices across Poland. One may say - "Yes, that's a legitimate business cost", another may say "No - you are trying to fiddle the State - we'll see you behind bars for this you hochsztapler, you!"

As anyone who's faced a tax inspection in Poland (as I did back in 2001), it is a stressful time. You really don't know what the outcome will be. With the best will in the world - and with the best tax experts by your side - the decision is a coin-toss. All down to interpretation. No clarity. No website that will inform you.

[Incidentally - what's the current VAT registration threshold in the UK? Click here, then here then here and within three intuitive clicks you are finally here, and you know it's £82,000. Now try the same thing for Poland... Start here - and I challenge you to find the information. Go on! I challenge you! I clicked 19 times before giving up. Can you find out what the VAT registration threshold is in Poland in less than 19 clicks?]

In the UK, demonstrating a lack of ill-will, a desire to help and basic honesty, coming clean to HMRC saying - "I made a genuine mistake here, based on my misunderstanding of x", followed by the correct payment, will see you right. In Poland, the entrepreneur in this situation may find himself dragged through the tax tribunal, his business destroyed, his workers without jobs - and at the end of the day the supreme tax court says that he was in the clear all along.

HMRC employs 63,800 people - roughly one person per every 1,000 UK citizens. Poland's tax office employs 48,800 people - roughly one person per every 750 Polish citizens. We clearly need to be more tightly controlled because we can't be trusted.

This control costs money. More inspectors - so what do they do? They inspect. These inspections often cost more than they bring in, because there's less focus on the big picture, an inability to see the wood for the trees. And inspectors, being only human ("Ile trzeba dać, aby nie dać?") need to be monitored, and those monitors themselves need to be checked for clean hands.

But has been progress. Should anyone in Rzeczpospolita think that publishing this damning indictment of the PO government's lackadaisical approach to reforming the tax administration will damage their chances at the polls, may I point out that the one zloty sixty it currently costs to bring in 100 złotys of tax revenue compares rather well to the situation when PiS was last in government (1.94zł/100zł in 2005 and 1.76zł the following year).

Poland deserves a better functioning state. In many areas, the private sector has overtaken its peers in Western Europe when it comes to competitiveness and even productivity. But the dozy urzędy need to move with the times and implement best practice - if the UK, a more populous country, a bigger economy, can collect taxes twice as cheaply as Poland does - it means there are lessons that can be learned.

On the same day as Rzepa led with this story, it emerged that Facebook paid less tax in the UK than my nonagenarian father, on UK sales of £105m. Now, while the social media company has stayed within the letter of law, the ethics of shifting costs from one country to another with a lower corporate tax rate is deeply questionable. I for one will stop using or visiting Facebook until such time as the company pays the full whack of UK corporation tax on its UK sales. Shifting profits offshore as transfers to other subsidiaries within the same group to pay for 'management costs' or 'intellectual property' or 'trade mark use' is plain bullshit and should be stopped by governments. Tax rules drawn up for the industrial age need to be urgently revisited.

* A great tune by The JB's...

This time four years ago
One stop beyond

This time five years ago:
Who am I? (Kim ja jestem?)

This time six years ago:
First snow, 2009. Ghastly!

This time seven years ago:
Train links to town improving

This time eight years ago:
A beautiful Sunday, south of Warsaw

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Mapping Wałbrzych's Gold Train

Many thanks to Matt Padden for sending me a link to a high-resolution scan of a 1936 map of the area to the north of Wałbrzych, where the alleged Gold Train awaits its discovery.

Here's the area around Wałbrzych Szczawienko station, or Nieder Salzbrunn as it was before WW2 (below) The yellow area is where the train is reputedly hiding. The yellow circle highlights the junction from the Waldenburg-Breslau main line from which ran a short spur, leading, in 1936 - nowhere. It ran just 100m or so from the main line before coming to a stop. The main line cuts through a finger of higher ground, rising to a maximum of around 15m before falling away again. This suggests that an artificial hillock was not built over the suspected Gold Train, rather a tunnel would have had to have been excavated between two cuttings. Question is - why. Click to enlarge.

Now here's a composite map with the current Google map of the area superimposed over the 1936 map. Look at the area within the yellow ring above, and compare it with the same area below. I've marked two yellow lines - one which is the 1936 spur, the other being the same spur but on the current map. Different - greater - angle from the main line. Some time after 1936, this spur was extended to run parallel to the main line as far as ul. Uczniowska, before swinging east to what was a communist-era ceramics factory (now the site of a Toyota showroom).

Finally the current Google map on its own. The ceramic line is clearly visible. The tracks have been ripped up, the sleepers remain in place. The question is - was the short spur visible on the 1936 map extended before 1945, or after the war? And most importantly - was a third line built between the main line and the spur? If so - it may well hide the Gold Train.

Any more clues greatly appreciated!

[Update, 31.10.2015 - thanks to Anon for a link to Polish military map prepared in 1956 and published in 1959.] Again, I've marked the positions of the siding and the putative Gold Train site. This suggests that the ceramics factory was built later, and the siding extended to it then. Meanwhile, the 1956/59 map shows an interesting cutting/embankment to the west of Szczawienko station.

This is marked as an eleven-metre drop - enough to hide a train in!

This time last year:
Respect the pedestrian at crossings
[Poland's senate voted this down last week - keep slaughtering pedestrians, o lazy, murderous motorists - the law is still on your side!]

This time two years ago:
Autumnal gorgeousness in Warsaw

This time three years ago:
The genius of Donald Tusk

This time four years ago:
Tragic road accident kills 18: Has Poland learnt anything from it?

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Apple time down south of Warsaw

When the sun shines like this in October, one must leave town and take a look at the orchards that stretch in a wide, deep, belt centred on the town of Grójec. Of all apples grown in Poland (and that's a lot), 35% come from around Grójec. They are red, large, sweet, acidic, high in antioxidants and very tasty. The combination of warm summers and early frosts (this morning it was -1C) creates an apple that is far superior in taste to those from further south in Europe.

As you travel around the region, you see orchards everywhere. The dwarf trees are grown to ensure easy pickings; farmers use special narrow tractors that can work their way up and down the rows.

These photos were taken many kilometres apart, yet the landscape is the same; so many orchards, so many trees, so many apples. (Meanwhile our own apple tree at home in Jeziorki has borne no fruit - not a single apple - this year, after a bumper summer in 2014).

All over southern Mazowsze there are posters for labour agencies advertising Ukrainian workers for hire for seasonal fruit-picking. These are crucial days - the weather will turn nasty in coming days. Sleet is forecast for Tuesday.

Below: Leżne, picking is under way, an apple train awaits the freshly picked fruit. These custom-built apple trains are everywhere.

Below: Łychów, punkt skupu ('purchase point'). These are dotted around the region, attracting trains of containers full of apples. There are weighbridges, fork-lift trucks, and heavy-goods trailers that will take the apples to food-processing factories.

Below: Mogielnica, some 20km south-west of Grójec. An empty apple train heading back from the punkt skupu. Current prices are surprisingly strong despite the Russian embargo, with 'industrial apples' (jabłko przemysłowe) fetching around 50 grosze (9p) per kilo, and top-quality eating apples, sorted and properly handled, at 90 grosze (16p) per kilo. Then there's the wholesaler's and retailer's mark-up, and we consumers end up paying around 1.50 złotys - 2.50 złotys a kilo of eating apples in the shops. Wonderful juice-in-a-box (five kilo of industrial apple makes three litres of juice) costs around 12 złotys retail for a three-litre box.

Below: Mogielnica. A once-a-year payday has its costs.

This time last year:
Poland gets anglicised as Britain gets polonised

This time two years ago:
Ale, architecture and city politics

This time three years ago:
The pros and cons of roadside acoustic screens

This time four years ago:
Moaning about trains again

This time five years ago:
Warsaw streets - Dolna, Polna, Rolna, Smolna, Wolna. Lost?

This time seven years ago:
Ditches, landscapes, autumn

This time eight years ago:
Golden autumn in Łazienki park

Friday, 9 October 2015

Chill beneath blue skies

The first frost has made itself manifest; since Wednesday night, when I returned to Warsaw from Wałbrzych, it's been cold. From 22C on Sunday to 1C this morning, it's been a massive drop in temperature. Yet the skies remain clear and the rain stays mainly somewhere else. Here it's sunny and dry - and cold. Today's maximum temperature was 9C in the early afternoon.

Our City looks fabulous today. A day to put on the polarising filter and seek out the Sublime Aesthetic - the City of Steel and Glass beneath a Sky of Indigo. Those frequently felt familiar flashbacks keep flashing away.

Below: the fountain to the north of Pałac Kultury. In the background - from left to right - Złota 44, the Intercontinental, Rondo ONZ 1 and Warsaw Financial Centre. Beneath the fountain, a touching sight - a group of primary-school children laying wreaths at the Janusz Korczak memorial.

Left: the InterContinental Hotel with the sky cranked up to max. The cutaway in the building allows sunlight to fall on the blocks of flats behind it.

The swimming pool on the 44th floor of the hotel, at the same level as the clock on the Palace of Culture, is the highest in Europe. To the right of the InterContinental is the Warsaw Financial Centre.
Right: not a poster - another photo with the polarising filter intensifying and darkening the blueness of the sky.

Taken from outside Warsaw Central railway station, looking up at Złota 44, with the glazed copulas of Złote Tarasy shopping centre in the foreground, and the Lumen building to the right. Warsaw's looking right grand today.
Below: ul. Świętokrzyska, near my office (to the right of this photo). I like the Iberian typeface on the awning over the shop, the American flags and the 1,000cc Kawasaki police motorbike parked out front. Since the second line of the Metro opened, the stretch of Świętokrzyska (Calle Santacruz) from ul. Marszałkowska to Rondo ONZ is looking finer than ever, with broad pavements and a cycle path. And a great kitchen-equipment shop.

Left: looking at Złota 44 and the Palace of Culture from the west, in the late afternoon. This view, along ul. Złota, one of the two streets bisected by the Palace footprint (along with ul. Chmielna) shows nicely the postmodern, the neo-classical and Warsaw's surviving pre-war tenements in one shot.

In two weeks time, the clocks go back, the hammer comes down. Five months of gloom. Any sunny day is a bonus. The darkness makes us appreciate the summer months all the more; it is a time to work hard, earn money and save up to enjoy the easier living that summer brings us in the Northern Hemisphere.

This time last year:
Art Deco architecture in Renfrewshire and Ealing

This time two years ago:
Vote to see off HG-W or not?

This time four years ago:
Poles vote for continuity

This time five years ago:
Our daily Polish bread

This time six years ago:
Why we should abandon the car; Palace of Culture in October sun

This time seven years ago:
Proto-park+ride, Jeziorki (then a dozen cars a day. Today, it's 70+ cars left on the verges of ul. Gogolińska).

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

I visit Wałbrzych in search of the Gold Train site

Explore Wałbrzych is the town's new advertising slogan, so I set out to do just that. My night train from Warsaw arrived at Wałbrzych Miasto at 07:14. (I slept well the whole night, thanks to two shots of pigwówka - quince vodka - before boarding the train.) Now, Wałbrzych has four stations (from south to north - Główny, Miasto, Fabryczny and Szczawienko) strung out like pearls along 12.5km of winding railway line that meanders through the town.

I'm on my way to a conference for Polish exporters at the HQ of the Wałbrzych Special Economic Zone. It's on the northern edge of town near Szczawienko station. I've got to be there at half past nine, so I've got over two hours to explore. I walk from Wałbrzych Miasto to Szczawienko, and then reaching the latter, I take off into the hills in search of the Gold Train.

Below: I approach Szczawienko station. That Germanic architecture lends an air of quiet menace to the place.

It's at this station that things start getting interesting. There's an abandoned spur from the main Wałbrzych-Wrocław railway line which then runs parallel to it northwards for a while before swinging off to the east to the former site of a ceramics factory. The rails have long been pulled up. However, between the spur and the main line is an interesting hump of land, towering over both (to the right of the picture below), within which a third railway line containing the fabled train could quite feasibly be buried.

Below: I cross over the high ground and the possible gold train tunnel to find the disused line. Now just wooden sleepers remain of the track bed.

Ventilation shafts? I peek inside and take a few snaps. More like sewerage. Smell like drains. The Gold Train could be directly in front and down several metres.

Below: the roped-off area, between the disused track and the main line, north of ul. Uczniowska has been thoroughly searched by army sappers. The army has finished checking the area out and found nothing except six rounds of rifle ammunition from WW2. No land mines, no chemical weapons – but then the Polish army's kit for scanning beneath the surface of the earth only 'sees' as far down as one metre. The radar location device that was used to 'show' the location of the Gold Train is good for 70m. But then there's only one of these devices in Poland, and the Polish army doesn't have it.

Right by the taped-off area is a large billboard promoting the town as #wAUbrzych (that's AU as in the chemical symbol for gold). On the one hand, visitors are invited to explore Wałbrzych. On the other, you are forbidden to go into the trees beyond. Smaller posters bearing the same message adorn nearby bus stops.

Below: a good view of the likely Gold Train site. It would be right here, centre of the pic. Note the flattened land on top - this is where the army sappers did their bit.

After the conference, I had an hour and half before my train home, so I set out to outflank the police cordon from the north. I made my way down to the track take a look. Look behind the train (click to enlarge) - this is where the line would have entered the tunnel under the raised hump of land. And note too the police car to the right of the frame.

So - here we are on a Google Earth map, rotated so that North is to the right to fit better. The main area in the yellow box is where the train is currently suspected to be. I took the above photo from the right-hand edge of the map, towards the taped-off area. 

When will the official search start in earnest? Will the Gold Train ever be found? Human curiosity and one of the greatest stories in Poland in recent years come into conflict with the dull reality of the Polish State. Poland has yet to discover the efficiencies that come from joined-up government. This is 'Polska resortowa', 'Polska silosowa' – a state of uncommunicative fiefdoms and information jealously hoarded in silos. It is the state of 'spory kompetencyjne' – disputes of competencies – between organs. These are either negative (“This is not our agency's/ministry's/office's business – it's yours”) or positive (“It's not your agency's/ministry's/ office's business – it's ours”).

In the case of the Gold Train, we have the following actors involved: The Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. The Ministry of National Defence. The Ministry of Administration and Digitisation. The Lower Silesian Marshal's Office. The Lower Silesian Voivode's Office. The Office of the Mayor of Wałbrzych. Polish state railways' infrastructure arm, PKP PLK. The police, and finally the Straż Ochrony Kolei (SOK – the railway protection service). All these bodies will be having a stake in the game. They will be making suggestions, criticising others' suggestions, coming up with plans, finding allies for their plans, altering the plans, drawing up timetables that stretch into an indefinite future – and all this before we consider the political dimension – this month's parliamentary elections, local party politics, rivalries, jealousies etc. The Premier's office is too busy worrying about re-election to get involved (evidently no political party can see any capital to be made from either a) hurrying up the search or b) delaying the search c) saying anything about the search.

Within weeks the leaves will turn an even more gorgeous shade of gold and will drop off the trees, making the site more exposed to scrutiny (the bridge on ul. Uczniowska will become an even better vantage point). By Christmas, snow should fall, making incursions into the zone difficult as footprints will be traceable. Nothing much will happen this side of next spring. Heavy excavating plant should be brought in, preceded by careful soil analysis and army sappers. Media and popular pressure should be exerted on the authorities to proceed with a dig once the election is out of the way.

The Gold Train might be there, it might not be. If it is – this will be the biggest thing since the Titanic was found on the ocean floor. If not – well, let me take another look. It's down there somewhere.

Just as the Loch Ness Monster, which has generated (I'd guess) billions of pounds in tourism revenue for the lake and surrounding towns and villages since the 1930s, the legend of the Gold Train can become a huge draw for Wałbrzych and vicinity. Książ castle and the sites associated with the mysterious Projekt Riese around Walim. But the promotion needs to be carefully thought through. The balance needs to be right. Not Disneyfied and sanitised – but then on the other hand we don't want freelance explorers doing dangerous things to themselves and others with sticks of dynamite or falling down holes. People should be encouraged to get involved in the mystery, come up with their own pet theories, go on long rambles from Point A to Point B, calling in on cafes and restaurants before falling asleep, happy, in agroturystyki which offer simple but clean accommodation and hearty fare for tired explorers. Enterprising Wałbrzych householders will hopefully expand the baza noclegowa rapidly in coming years to be able to welcome curious tourists from around the world.

I've had a small sample today of the potential of Wałbrych as Town of Legend. The atmosphere in early autumn (a light mist would have been nice); the gloomy brick of this former German mining town, the rolling hills, the eternal mystery of what happened around these parts between 1943 and 1945. Why did the Nazis – fighting total war on all fronts – divert so many resources to dig so many tunnels and caverns into the mountains to the south-east of Wałbrzych? What did happen to the treasures looted by the Nazis in the East? What else is hidden in this complex? This is all fascinating stuff.

A final point about Wałbrzych. I was last here in 2008. Since then, the town has really come on – mainly as a result of its thriving Special Economic Zone. Ul. Uczniowska which was then nothing more that a dual carriageway lined with street lights running through empty fields is now flanked with factories providng jobs to thousands of people for scores of kilometres around. Gold Train or not, it's a city rising from its knees after the collapse of its coal mining industry. But with the Gold Train legend, Wałbrzych has the potential to become a great city.

This time last year:
Return to Scotland, still a part of the United Kingdom

This time two years ago:
Warsaw's Plac Unii opens - and changes colours

This time three years ago:
Tatra time (worth another watch and listen!)

This time four years ago:
The passing of Old Poland

This time five years ago:
A glorious week

This time six years ago:
Trampled underfoot: Sobieski and the Turks at Vienna

This time seven years ago:
The first, spontaneous signs, of a Park + Ride at Jeziorki

This time eight years ago:
Early autumn atmospheres, Jeziorki