The International Steam Pages

Keep Distracting 'em, Lech, Steam in Poland 1980

Robert Hall writes of his experiences in Poland. Further tales are linked below:

You may also want to read his Polish Steam Primer or view a map of the route taken.

For those who would like to see the kind of steam locomotive described here, Robert recommends the following galleries of Polish steam:

Robert has also written an epilogue, a two week trip to Poland in July 2010.

As mentioned in another piece of mine on Poland, the final phase of the country's brave struggle to discard the Soviet yoke kicked off at a bad time, from a narrowly selfish railway-enthusiast point of view. That is, coinciding with when the very last remnants of steam in regular commercial common-carrier service in Western Europe faded away, and it became clear that Poland was, by a long way, the European country with the biggest and most active surviving steam fleet.

In a situation of poor timing all round, it was in 1980 that I at last got things together to realise a long-dreamed-of first visit to Poland. The "Solidarity" movement was getting seriously into action, and prudent folk were counselling against Poland as a holiday destination, seeing strong possibilities of things turning ugly there, very rapidly - in various envisaged ways, up to and including an outright Soviet military invasion. It was also opined that the likelihood of tourist visas being granted to folk seeking to visit the country on an "independent" basis, could be slim.

To make bad, worse - a thing probably unrelated, or only remotely so in early summer 1980, things went rather sour in Poland on the specifically gricing front. It would seem that rash actions by certain Western enthusiasts visiting the country had provoked those who handled "security" there, and led to a spell of no permission being given, for organised railfan tours in Poland. The "organised tour" option had long been the only one which guaranteed to a visitor, railway photography without the ever-present threat of being apprehended by authority and having one's films confiscated. The Polish tour in which I had been planning to take part, was cancelled; other projected tours likewise, and it seemed clear that the only way of getting a grice in Poland in summer '80, was going to be via an independent expedition of one's own. On such ventures, photography was nerve-racking and difficult, but not totally impossible - on occasions, it could be done surreptitiously and got away with; and now and again, if authority on the spot were unusually broad-minded, permission could be negotiated ad hoc.

I teamed up with a recently-met fellow enthusiast for Continental railways, and we set about planning our own week's tour of Poland for September 1980, travelling by train and using the invaluable "Polrailpass" all-line railrover ticket. Things so worked out that in the end my friend roped in two friends of his to join us. For the purposes of this piece, I will borrow the names of renowned railfans of the past, and refer to my three companions as Tom, Cecil, and Ernie. Tom and I were the ones who basically knew what we were after in Poland; the other two were more or less "along for the ride". Cecil was primarily a "Britain's railways" enthusiast - he'd been abroad in pursuit of the hobby, but Poland had hitherto been quite outside his remit. Ernie was not a railway fan at all - heaven knows how Tom had persuaded him to join the party. He was a "son of the squirearchy" type - an amiable guy, but utterly bemused a lot of the time, by the gricing antics of his eccentric companions.

We decided to ignore the gloom-and-doom merchants, and make a mildly risky week's visit to Poland. Our "take" was that should the "repression" balloon happen to go up in the brief time in which we were over there, four British tourists in Poland for a totally non-political purpose would be unlikely to be in much danger - at worst, our railwaying would be spoilt, and we would, possibly after some delay and inconvenience, be dispatched back home. In fact, as is known, it was not till late the following year, that "the fertiliser hit the ventilating apparatus". And in the event, on our week's tour - in which we took a good number of pictures - we had surprisingly little trouble. I have wondered whether, paradoxically, the political unrest actually worked to our advantage, in that the guardians of law / order / security had, for once, something real and urgent to worry about, making the persecution of railway photographers a lower priority for them than usual. Throughout our travels (which admittedly did not include Gdańsk), if we had been oblivious to the news media back home, we would have had no idea that we were touring a country in ferment - everything seemed totally placid and business-as-usual. On Międzyrzecz station one afternoon, we heard shouting some distance away down the line: a riot came to mind as the explanation, but it turned out to be only a football match.

As regards where in Poland to go: Tom and I did not see totally eye-to-eye on this, and a compromise had to be worked out. It was only in the late 1970s that Poland had been "discovered" in a big way by Western railway enthusiasts. Before then, the Polish authorities' extreme hostility to rail photography, and the comparative abundance of easier steam pickings elsewhere in Europe, had meant that only a relatively few brave and hardy souls had ventured to Poland. When Western railfans began going there in greater numbers, their prime-favourite venue in the country came to be the Kłodzko region and adjacent areas, in Poland's far south-west.

The reason was not far to seek: a combination probably by then unique on PKP. To wit, a high concentration of steam working - including a good deal on long-distance passenger - in landscapes of a kind uncommon in Poland, found only in the country's extreme south: attractively hilly, with the attendant benefits of such for the relishing of steam traction, photographically and otherwise. (There was plenty of "steam in the hills" further east in southern Poland too, but by the 'eighties, that was almost entirely a matter of local workings.) While seeing where people were coming from on these things, I was less than totally enchanted with this part of the country as a "resort for railfans". My objection was the shortage of variety - delightful though the material on offer, was. In those years, "Kłodzko-and-adjoining" were served by only three out of PKP's steam classes, of which, system-wide, there were more than twice that number. Also, this part of Poland was devoid of narrow-gauge lines. To many impassioned photographers, these considerations were of no importance: they were far outweighed by the already-mentioned combination not found elsewhere in the country. With all due respect to the good citizens of this area, I found numerous other parts of Poland more interesting from a railway point of view; but many enthusiasts felt otherwise. Tom was one of these: he made it clear from the first, that he wanted to include Kłodzko in our week's tour. We compromised: outward journey by rail, along the Berlin - Warsaw main line, spend the first half of the week basically in the north of Poland, which I was keen on seeing; then go south-west to Kłodzko, and finally return home by air from Kraków.

So we travelled out, passing through Berlin (West, and East - much document-checking bureaucratic nonsense) in the small hours, and reached Frankfurt-an-der-Oder in the early morning. Our train's East German diesel loco was relieved by a PKP ditto, and we were off across the wide river Oder (Odra), and into the promised land. PKP's big Ty51 2-10-0s were immediately much in evidence; this border location was a great haunt of the class - they worked much long-distance freight on the east-west main line, over the 87km between Zbąszynek, then the Polish western limit of electrification, and the frontier. We travelled through to Zbąszynek, and disembarked there as per plan. This busy junction - festooned all over when we arrived, with red-and-white Polish flags (they loved flags in the Eastern bloc) was at that time one of Poland's supreme steam centres - allegedly, all PKP's "seven-and-a-half", as I think of it, steam classes could be seen in action there.

On the principle of "they (probably) can't shoot us just for asking", we requested permission to photograph, from the station staff. Those whom we approached happened to be mostly female; and in return for illicit money-changing, they were happy to let us phot. Not at all what we'd expected - but (memory-quoting from the "Flashman" novels), "lick up the honey, stranger, and ask no questions". Classes Ol49, TKt48, and one of the rather rare Ty45 2-10-0s, were there for our cameras.

Next, our first steam ride in Poland - along the secondary line south-eastward ultimately to Leszno: double-deck coaches hauled by an Ol49. This took us through a Wolsztyn busy with Ol49 and Ty2, but with its significance-to-be, then unknown; to the pleasant lakeside station of Boszkowo - the point chosen, building in a margin for delay, for transfer to a train in the opposite direction. Said train duly showed up - again, Ol49 on double-deckers - and we rode on it back to Zbąszynek.

Northwards then (TKt48 on single-deck coaches) to Międzyrzecz - a country town with a steam shed, centre of a bunch of overwhelmingly steam-worked "lesser" lines. We overnighted there - off basically north-eastward the following morning. Busy morning scene at the station, including a diesel railcar on a working to Zielona Góra, some way to the south. As far as is recalled, this was the only railcar that we saw in a week in Poland. PKP used such vehicles here and there, but certainly pre-1989, they had never fallen in love with railmotors in the way that some European countries did - railcars on PKP's standard gauge were the exception, not the rule. A year earlier, Międzyrzecz had been Poland's last location with class Ok1 (Prussian P8 4-6-0) in regular service. A couple of them were dumped at Międzyrzecz station, and could be photographed before our departure on the 0810 all-stations for Gorzów Wielkopolski, TKt48-hauled. We left this train 19 km further on, at the rural four-way junction of Skwierzyna; where we transferred to one of PKP's amazing (and at that time, numerous) remote branches which appeared to seek to emulate and surpass, Britain's Bishop's Castle Railway. As with many of its ilk, this line had two workings each way per day: our train was the 0851 Skwierzyna to Krzyż - a tender-first Ty2, two single-deck bogie coaches (one in a bent and battered condition which effectively made travel in it impossible), and in the rear, several empty "bogie bolster" wagons. The run, on a single track almost invisible under long grass, took about two and a half hours for the 58 km to Krzyż. The last 7 km into Krzyż were along the more important line from Gorzów Wlkp., which we had joined at a wayside junction. A couple of Ty2-hauled freights were noted on this stretch. In the main on PKP, freight went diesel a good deal earlier than local passenger, which latter role proved to be steam's great stronghold. One of the few significant differences which I found between my first (1980) and second (1983) visits to Poland, was that in '80 there seemed observably more steam freight around, than three years later.

Krzyż was an action-packed junction where the electric main line from Poznań to Szczecin met several secondary and branch lines, affording plentiful steam activity; it was here that we saw our first class Pt47 2-8-2. Photography proved possible here, without dire consequences. Regrettably, our train onwards - a local running east to Piła - was diesel-hauled.

Piła provided both another new class - Ty43 2-10-0 - and our first experience of the "spoilsport factor". We later became aware that this junction of many lines, was a notorious black spot for anti-photter zeal. Perhaps over-confident from our seemingly effortless photographic success so far in our first day-and-a half in Poland, we photted (without seeking permission) a Ty43 awaiting departure on a branch passenger train, resulting promptly in what is colloquially called, "having our collars felt". Our captor was a railwayman, who conveyed us to an office hut in the goods yard, where he and colleagues set about questioning us. Communication did not go swimmingly - our adversaries knew only Polish, with which we were basically unacquainted: the best that could be done was some pidgin-Russian on my part. We "played dumb" to the best of our ability; after about an hour, the opposition seemingly thought "to hell with it", and let us go, in full unmolested possession of cameras and film. Possible reinforcement for my theory that at this very tense time, the authorities had bigger things to worry about than daft foreigners taking pictures of trains.

Our next mess-up was all our own doing, no officious natives involved. I, fascinated from way back by the network on the (rare in Poland) metre gauge in the country's north-western corner, and tantalised by recent reports of its portion centring on Białogard and seemingly 100% steam-worked, greatly wanted to go to Białogard and experience this gem - so that was the next place on our itinerary. It was mid-afternoon by the time the anti-spy brigade had finished with us. The next train for Białogard, shortly to depart, had a diesel at its head. There was on the other hand, at a nearby platform, a passenger train headed by clean and polished Ol49-1. Tom found the prospect of three-hours-plus behind a diesel, little short of horrendous, in the light of the possible alternative; and suggested that we not get the Białogard train. 

In parenthesis: we had to accomplish this tour to a large extent "by the seat of our pants". In those times, PKP timetables in book form were very hard indeed to come by, in Britain and in Poland alike; we were having to make do without one, and as we went along, glean at stations, information about workings. A hurried decision had to be made. Steam and diesel passenger trains seemed to be pointing in the same direction - snatching in haste, what data appeared to be at hand, we surmised that the Ol49 was on a train due soon to head out along the cross-country line westward to Stargard Szczecinski, from which place it should be possible to travel north-east to Białogard. We accordingly boarded the steam train. It set off; and before long, indications presented themselves, that all was not well. It transpired that our train was not the one for Stargard, but was travelling due east to Bydgoszcz and Toruń. Quick considering of the options made it clear that there was nothing for it but to accept the inadvertent change of plan, and enjoy this all-stations working eastward along the main line behind our 2-6-2. And in due course, out we got at Bydgoszcz (Główny) station. We decided to spend the night at Bydgoszcz - the discovery that the town had a tram system which could be ridden on, having a bearing on that decision.

Tom was very contrite about the course of action which he had urged, having put the kybosh on Białogard; we set about figuring out what narrow-gauge action we might be able to bag, the following day, from our new and unexpected venue. There seemed to be just one possibility - the northernmost extremities of PKP's biggest interconnected narrow-gauge system, the 750mm gauge one serving the Kujawy region, and sprawling over wide areas to the south of Bydgoszcz. This felt to me, a bit of a come-down from the wondrous steam metre-gauge lost to us by our hasty bad decision. From what I had read about the Kujawy lines, they seemed - while no doubt as charming as the Polish narrow gauge always was - a little dull: peas-in-a-pod-like many other PKP 750mm sections; plus by 1980, there was reported to be a big diesel presence on them. However, it was the northern end of the Kujawy system, or nothing - and in the event, we were lucky, and enjoyed some delightful hours on it.

The next day, we set out south from Bydgoszcz on an electric-hauled local down the middle-of-Poland trunk line linking the Baltic Sea and the Upper Silesia industrial area.

Detraining was at a little back-of-beyond town with a standard-gauge station, where we alighted; and another station on a line of the 750mm gauge system, carrying a very sparse passenger service, one train of which, however, was "just right" for our movements. Or would have been; there were indications on the scene of action, that the service concerned, was not running. Seemingly just a temporary situation, because the line proved still to feature in the 1981 / 82 passenger timetable; at all events, though, on this particular day we had to cover the 19km to the narrow-gauge junction of Dobre Aleksandrowskie not by rail, but by taxi, through fascinating depths-of-Polish-countryside scenes. Even the most impassioned narrow-gauge lover would have had to concede that this run was accomplished very much faster by taxi, than by 750mm train; we reached Dobre A. station (found in a highly somnolent condition) with very ample time to spare, for our targeted northbound working. With one train seeming a "no-show" (and sure enough, it did not put in an appearance at Dobre A., scheduled end of its run), we were prey to a bit of anxiety as to whether the same thing would happen to the next link in the chain, the 1537 from Dobre A. to the junction with the standard gauge at Nieszawa - however, there was nothing to do but to wait, and hope for the best.

Schedules which we had discovered, indicated a passenger working arriving at 1438 from Krośniewice, ( the hub of the system, 72km to the south) and connecting with our hoped-for 1537. We walked out some distance along the Krośniewice line, in very good time for the 1438's arrival. After a while, we were delighted to see a positively volcanic cloud of smoke arising off to the south-east. "Probably just a farmer burning weeds," suggested Ernie. Happily, he was wrong; the origin of the smoke proved to be a Px48, followed by another of the class, being hauled dead, and a long train which appeared to be a "mixed" - the whole, making for some great pictures.

We assumed, understandably, that this was the 1438 arrival, running a little early. As events unfolded, though, it turned out that we were mistaken there. The 0-8-0's consist was a freight-cum-ecs working; the real passenger train sneaked in unobtrusively a little while later - a Lxd2 B-B diesel loco on three coaches. The in-steam Px48 was still in evidence (to our disappointment, the friendly and photting-tolerant station staff were scornful of the steam engine, and full of praise for the smart new diesel). Various shunting movements, while suspense mounted for us - what would haul the 1537 to Nieszawa? The gricing gods smiled on us that afternoon, perhaps in compassion over the clanger we had dropped the day before: a rake of standard gauge wagons on transporter trucks was marshalled, with a single green bogie coach on the end - this proved to be the 1537, hauled to Nieszawa by the Px48. An idyllic deeply-rural steam run of 28 km, involving six intermediate stops, and taking an hour and forty-three minutes. (The Polish narrow gauge was an utter delight, but emphatically not for travellers in a hurry.) Our train was not wonderfully well-patronised, but not a total disaster in that respect, either; if memory serves rightly, for most of the run, the coach contained a number of "real people" as passengers, about equal to us four Brits plus the ludicrously numerous train crew.

Our main-line connection from Nieszawa to Toruń was diesel-hauled. At the time, class Pt47 handled many of the locals on this route, but we were not lucky in that respect ("it doesn't do to spoil 'em, you know"). Time in Toruń for another tram-bash (this city's tram system was metre-gauge, a rather rare pleasure). Then, it was off overnight to the south-west - with a bit of a heavy heart for me, but Tom and I had made our gentlemen's agreement. Three different trains, first diesel and then electric (the middle one taking us from Inowrocław to Wrocław, rather a nice conjunction of names) brought us in the following day's dawn, to Wałbrzych. This place bore for us the aspect of one of Poland's most hideous industrial towns - also, subsequently learned, one of the country's worst-polluted. However, in the early 80s it was an excellent steam venue. More pronounceable than it looks, by the way - say "Vow-bzhich" (hard "ch" as in Scottish "loch").

The basic situation in these parts - "steam heaven" for many - was very similar in 1980 and 1983, and may be set out here. "Mecca", aka Kłodzko, with its steam depot, was on the through main line between Wrocław and the Czech border, with secondary-main eastward to Katowice, diverging from same at a junction some 20 km towards Wrocław. Also three branches from Kłodzko; a sleepy rural one to Stronie, a busier one (featuring long-distance through workings) to Kudowa Zdrój, and a third, bordering on secondary-main-line status, running 51 km north-west to Wałbrzych. Steam action chiefly by the locos of Kłodzko shed - three classes, the only three found in this corner of the country: Pt47, TKt48, and Ty2. Most passenger on the main line, expresses in particular, was diesel; though a minority of express working was, seemingly at random, Pt47. The several semi-fasts per day between Kłodzko and Katowice were dependably Pt47 for the more-westerly majority of their run. All passenger on the Stronie and Kudowa Zdrój branches was TKt48 - more excitingly so on the latter line, which climbed impressively into the mountains close to the Czech frontier, and featured on heavy through workings linking with further afield, double-heading by the 2-8-2Ts. The Kłodzko - Wałbrzych line, also scenic, was overwhelmingly steam on passenger - an impartial mix of Pt47 and TKt48. Class Ty2 headed some local passenger trains, did assorted shunting and "departmental" work, and performed some freight haulage. The one significant difference between 1980 and 1983 here, was that in '83, considerably less freight seemed to be steam (much of it was diesel even in 1980) - though even in '83, some steam freight hung on.

Our morning local train from Wałbrzych to Kłodzko produced our first Pt47 haulage, tender-first. Rest of the day - followed by a night spent at Kłodzko - was spent "valuing" the action around the town. In the main - with one exception - photography was no great problem, and we were allowed to look around Kłodzko shed. Fate dealt us something of a low blow in that when we were there, services on the scenic Kudowa Zdrój branch were curtailed to about its "bottom third", owing to heavy engineering works on its upper reaches: trains were running only for the 15 km to Polanica Zdrój. (The suffix "Zdrój", often met with in Polish place names, betokens "Spa". Musing is prompted as to whether, if Britain's Great Western Railway had been in Poland, its station at Bath would have been called "Zdrój [Zdrój]" - leading to further ponderings as to whether the muser ought to get out more.)

We took what there was to take, and got the TKt48-hauled train up the temporarily truncated branch, to Polanica Zdrój - where we experienced our only "confiscation" episode of the week. Ironically, the victim was poor non-gricer Ernie, who decided to take a picture of our train at the end of its run. He was promptly pounced on by an apoplectic stationmaster, who proceeded to tear an incomprehensible Polish strip off all of us, and to insist that Ernie open his camera and surrender his film. Ernie was amazed at this hysterical vehemence about something seemingly so very trivial - it made no sense to him. Tom and I tried to explain that this was just the way things were in Eastern Europe, and it was, for sure, not about making sense. Tails between legs, four Brits travelled back down the hill to Kłodzko behind the TKt48 - more of the steam scene was sampled (cautiously, and without getting into further hot water); till -- fairly early after our overnight journey -- as the famous diarist put it, "and so to bed".

As at next morning, just two more full days of the bash, left. We departed from Kłodzko around midday, on a semi-fast for Katowice - 200 km by rail, covered in a little under five hours -- in the '80s, with Polish semi-fasts, the emphasis was more on the "semi" than the "fast". We were headed, as could be relied on, by a Pt47 ("right way round" this time). A splendid feast of steam for the first three-hours-and-some, on double track through pleasant rolling hilly country; many steam-hauled trains in the opposite direction, including a modicum of freights behind Ty2, and also steam doings at intermediate junctions. Tom, a more sociable character than me, got into quasi-conversation (across one heck of a language barrier) with a couple of young lads from near Kłodzko, who were delighted - if a bit puzzled - to encounter a British tourist in their obscure corner of Poland, and took him along to their compartment in the train, and plied him with vodka and did their best to chat. I was enlisted for a while, to help out with the "chat", with my having the - very relatively - best language skills of the four of us (two years of Russian at school fifteen years previously, quickly wearied-of and mostly forgotten). When on the grice, I tend to be a misanthropic wretch, wanting just to soak up the delights of the rail and steam scene, and with no desire to be distracted by having to interact with non-kindred-spirits; however, one can't be a total Scrooge (well, some railfans can, and are - but they achieve a higher order of indifference to what others think of them, than is within my grasp). I "did the polite", and enjoyed the proffered vodka, for a while - my fractured Russian was not much help in the communication department, and as soon as I decently could, I "made my excuses and left", in the journalistic phrase, and went back to my seat in the next coach, and resumed gricing mode.

At Kędzierzyn Koźle, our Pt47 came off and was replaced by an electric loco for the remaining hour and a half through the ugly (and by the 1980s, not particularly steamy) Upper Silesia industrial belt to Katowice. Thence a local emu for two more hours-odd through the gathering dusk to Kraków, our destination for the night.

Two nights in Kraków, with one intervening day, our last of the tour. A day for which we split up. Cecil and Ernie, not extreme hard-core gricers, decided - being here in Poland's No. 1 tourist venue -- to spend the day in normal tourist pursuits. I had a yen to go into the mountains to the south, bordering Czechoslovakia, and sample a bit of the steam passenger which obtained in the area. Tom was not very interested in that option, because said steam passenger action was, reportedly, all-Ty2. He had done a good deal more foreign gricing than me, and had had much experience of "Kriegsloks" in other countries, to the point of finding them a bit boring. He opted to spend the day going electrically, some hundred km east from Kraków, to Dębica, a junction into which steam (Pt47 and other) worked on a line coming in from the north - had some success, including photographic, in this venture.

I went south-west, first by emu the 70-odd km into the hills to Sucha Beskidzka, junction for the line to Żywiec (as in the celebrated beer). Sucha B. - Żywiec gave me a blissful hour and a quarter's run behind a Ty2, through beautiful mountain-foothills scenery. The three-way junction of Żywiec ( then, electric line in from Bielsko Biała to the north, steam lines east to Sucha B. and south to Zwardoń) afforded the spectacle of a Ty2 on a train of double-deckers awaiting departure for Zwardoń, with young soldiers pouring into the coaches in quantities which seemed to suggest a bet along the lines of "how many. can you get into.?" I'd have loved to join them, but time did not permit - it had to be back with Ty2 to Sucha B., and thence emu back to Kraków - including en route, at the junction of Kalwaria Lanckorona, the unexpected sight of a Ty2-hauled freight.

And next day, "that was it", and the flight home - but a fascinating one, with less cloud and more vision, than one usually has - overview got of rural Poland, with "fields in strips", interspersed with what looked like a great deal of woodland. Hopes of sightings from above, of trains proceeding under steam and smoke clouds, were unfulfilled: we were seemingly too far up, to distinguish such things. At all events, a memorable flight.

Rob Dickinson