The International Steam Pages

East Prussia was “the business” – Poland 1991

Robert Hall continues his accounts of travel round Poland. You may want to look at the other accounts:

You may also want to read his Polish Steam Primer or view maps 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.

My final experience of PKP “truly real” steam, involved a week’s visit with several companions, to Poland in July 1991. First part of the tour covered the Wolsztyn area and nearby lingering fully-real steam operations. (To be recounted, all being well, in a future “everything Wolsztyn” piece). “Phase 2” was in the far north-east; Poland’s part of the one-time German province (annexed immediately after World War II, and its German inhabitants expelled) of East Prussia, an idyllic rural region of lakes, forests, and some gentle hill country. A part of Poland fascinating to me, and where genuine steam lingered to its end – per our current-as-then information, doing so precariously at Korsze, and more substantially at Elk.

A fairly horrid overnight journey in the corridor of a crowded train from Poznań, brought the pilgrims into Korsze in the summer early dawn. Scene found there, was worse than the worst envisaged: steam was very nearly at an end. Only incidences observed of steam locos turning a wheel, were arrival behind 2-10-0 Ty2-335, of the 0445 from Skandawa, which then formed the 0610 Korsze – Bartoszyce and return; and in the same time-window, Ty2-277 doing some shunting.

Until late in the day, a fine little country-branch-line system, reckoned 100% Kriegslok on passenger at any rate, had stretched westward from Korsze. One of its sections, Bartoszyce – Głomno (10 km, served by one passenger working in each direction daily) continued freight-only beyond Głomno, and accomplished one of the only three rail border crossings between the Polish, and USSR, parts of old East Prussia. According to my most recent (relatively) information, still did so as at 1996, with the different respective gauges doing “box-and-cox” south and north of the border. Pre-1945, this route through Głomno had been part of a lesser main line via Korsze and Ełk, linking German East Prussia with Białystok, in Russian Poland and later, independent Poland. The other crossings (likewise solely for freight, in Soviet times) were at Skandawa – told of in my piece re 1987, “Kriegsloks with everything” -- and at Braniewo near the coast. In July 1991 passenger service, some half-dozen return workings daily, remained only Korsze – Bartoszyce. The rest of the mini-system had closed passenger-wise, literally in the previous year or so – some freight activity (definitely to Głomno and points north) continuing. “The whole shooting match” west from Korsze would have been running in 1987, for me to sample when in the area; would have loved to do so, but “time and priorities” forbade.

Back to ’91: my sole companion as at that time on that day, chose steam on the 0610 to Bartoszyce. I opted instead (arrangements made to meet again at Elk) to go east and travel on a line which had long fascinated me (and which by indications at the time, might well not long survive passenger-wise): the 34 km branch from Kętrzyn to Węgorzewo – for a very long time (though by 1991 rarely so) steam-worked on passenger, and serving interesting scenes. That objective duly achieved: the 0650 Korsze – Kętrzyn – Węgorzewo (SM 42 diesel loco and a couple of single-deck coaches) was travelled on to its end-point – a one-time several-ways junction, but for long a simple branch terminus: the spacious station supplied with several platforms, mostly trackless. Half an hour’s layover, giving time for a brief wander around the little town of Węgorzewo, then back to the junction at Kętrzyn.

Near its “inner” end, the Kętrzyn – Węgorzewo branch passes close to the remains of Hitler’s fortified headquarters for directing operations on the Russian front – the “Wolf’s Lair”. This site, with its interest for tourists and historians, is possibly a factor in the branch line’s survival-against-the-odds, up to (as far as is known) the time of writing. Regular passenger services on the line were withdrawn not many months after my journey on it. Freight continued to run on it until 2003; the track was not lifted subsequently, and in 2008 a preservation society commenced operations, in summer, on the branch – initially, with small diesel locos hauling four-wheeled coaches. This undertaking had problems in 2009, and whether it operated in 2010 is, anyway to me, unclear. In 1991, the day after my trip over the line, my companions on the tour headed for this venue and paid a visit to “Adolf’s pad in the East”. They had no steam haulage on the branch, but got some indication that the afternoon train from Węgorzewo (on which they did not travel) might well have been steam.

I did not join my friends on this expedition, but continued steps-retracing to Korsze, in the hope of seeing more vestigial Kriegslok action. A hope not fulfilled: all that was got, was a memorable but melancholy experience of steam “death in life”, on a sleepy summer afternoon. No steam was moving: the large locoshed and its environs contained Ty2-277 in steam but stationary; eight or so Ty2 / 42 “coaled-up but cold”; and twenty-odd dumped locos of a mixture of classes – Ty2 / 42, TKt48, and three Ty51 2-10-0. Also fifteen or so diesel locos, chiefly class ST 44. The location was virtually devoid of human life; there was just the turntable operator asleep in his little hut on the turntable, and a small group of men at work far down the shed yard. I had planned to seek permission to look around, and – language barrier permitting – get some information about the then steam situation. There was, however, basically no-one to approach; and the steam position was plainly “half a minute, or less, to midnight”. A scene with a slightly spooky feel; and a woeful contrast to things a little over four years previously, when Korsze had been vibrant with Kriegslok activity.

Mercifully, the East Prussian steam scene was holding up better at Ełk – though in far less good health there, than in 1987. Things would likely have been worse there, had it not been for PKP’s attempting at this time to foster in this location, a Wolsztyn-type steam-working-museum scene. What seemed to be happening at Ełk in July ’91, per our observations, was basically, steam on some regular daily local passenger, on some of the lines radiating from the junction, overwhelmingly Ol49 -- the only steam class which we in fact saw in action, while there. Contemporary reports tell of freight activity also by class Ty2 from Ełk at this time; in our brief visit, we witnessed none. Our look around Ełk depot (facilitated willingly by the staff) seemed to show, in usable condition, some nine Ol49 and three Ty2 – with several more steam, dumped. We witnessed in our couple of days in the area, four different Ol49 actually on passenger work – a very short visit, and other enthusiasts who were thereabouts then, no doubt observed more / other steam doings.

This “magnificent four” ‘s steam passenger action was at the Ełk end of the “southern” and “middle” routes from there to Olsztyn; and on the route north and north-east from Eł k. 1987’s steam star turn of the venue – the 113-km-long run by the 1521 departure to Szczytno – was no more; the best that the “southern” route could now offer, was the 0759 over the 72 km to Ruciane Nida, and its 1141 return; which “pair” we duly indulged in, behind Ol49-102 (which had taken me to Szczytno four years before). At this distance in time, I take it that we reckoned this option longer and / or more logistically convenient, than the couple of daily steam workings on the “middle” route; which latter I would, given no-one else to consider, have gone for – having covered the “southern” alternative on the wonderful 1521, four years previously.

There was more-intensive steam action northward from Ełk, on table 535: 28 km north to Olecko, where the table divided – “main line” north-east to Suwałki, offshoot due north to Gołdap – the majority of trains to / from both destinations, were “through”. The odd quirks of things hereabouts at this date meant that while most passenger between Olecko and Suwałki was diesel, the rest of the table’s passenger service, including all Gołdap trains, was very predominantly Ol49. (By this date, Suwałki had lost its own steam allocation.)

We enjoyed a number of runs behind the Prairies between Ełk and Olecko; and I experienced a return journey over the 38 km Olecko – Gołdap branch. This was found to be yet another contestant in the “Bishop’s Castle, eat your heart out” stakes – rickety, heavily-overgrown branch along which trains proceeded not very fast (average 25 km per hour, “better than some” by PKP country-branch standards). The afternoon working from Ełk – Ol49 of course, hauling three single-deckers -- on which I travelled, got tacked on to its rear at Olecko, a few freight wagons, duly conveyed to Gołdap. Beyond Olecko, an hour and a half’s pleasant wander, with five intermediate stops, through delightful countryside -- and for I think the first time ever in my PKP branch-line experience, the train was running almost empty. Not the case, on its early-evening return run: the three coaches filled up almost to capacity, at the terminus. Gołdappers off en masse, to relish the fleshpots and bright lights of Ełk? – at all events, an agreeable indication that the Polish rural-branch scene was “dying hard”. Like Węgorzewo (not immensely far away per beeline), Gołdap presented the poignant aspect of a plain branch terminus which had, long ago, been a multiple-route country junction: far more platforms (most with the track once serving them, lifted) than were needed for its much-reduced role. Olecko – Gołdap lost its passenger service around 1993 / 94, but lingered long after that, for sporadic freight workings. With local branch-line freight seeming as at 2010, almost defunct in Poland, it would appear extremely unlikely that goods trains still feature on the Gołdap branch; but that is surmise, not knowledge.

Weird and un-symmetrical diagramming, as mentioned above, occasioned various oddities on these sections. One such involved what had to be in summer 1991, PKP’s very last named express with steam haulage. Train concerned, was the summer-holiday-season “Pogoria”, between the Upper Silesia industrial area, and the north-east – at peak periods, as far as Suwałki. Observations suggested that this train was Ol49 only on its Olecko – Ełk “leg”, southbound (on which all intermediate stations called at) – arrived at Olecko behind a diesel which then worked the next local back to Suwałki; and was indeed reckoned steam southbound only; its morning northbound counterpart strongly suspected to be diesel throughout. “Take what you can get” -- the “Pogoria” (seven coaches) heading south, was duly photographed, and travelled on Olecko – Ełk.

The “would-have-been” Ełk working-museum scene, spent a fair few years lingering “between the desert and the sown” – seemingly those concerned could neither decide that it was not going to take off, and was thus to be knocked on the head; nor, to vigorously make a go of it. Through the early 1990s, reports alternated between some claiming steam to be finished there, and others reporting on at least quasi-regular steam haulage of short passenger workings on the “middle route” toward Olsztyn. I revisited Ełk in autumn 1994, in search of at last a worthwhile bout with (see below) the local narrow-gauge line. Saw on that visit, Ty2-1279 in steam but motionless on shed over a period of some hours; and at various points close by, some dozen other standard-gauge steam locos – most Ol49, a couple of Ty2 – all cold. No steam wheel was seen to turn in my time then around Ełk; the situation appeared to be “anybody’s guess”. For the next few years, no news seemed to come out of Ełk, and it was assumed that steam must indeed have ended there. Then there showed up an astonishing report, from a seemingly authoritative source, of my friend Ty2-1279 having been observed working a return pick-up freight to Gołdap in October 1997. Plus, a few passenger specials from Ełk with Ol49 / Ty2 in summer 1998. These occurrences would appear, though, to have been the corpse’s last twitchings; it looks as certain as may be, that Ełk steam activity did not continue into the new century.

Back to ’91: being in Ełk, I made afresh the acquaintance of its dieselised 750mm gauge system. As on all of my Polish ventures in steam days, time was maddeningly short, and ruthless “triage” had to be done. Just as four years previously, standard-gauge steam took priority for me over narrow-gauge diesel: the n/g was observed at its Ełk terminus, but very little more was possible. The only change noted on this system, 1991 vis-a-vis 1987, was that the 1950s-style type 1Aw green bogie coaches in use four years before (and still standard stock on the Środa 750mm line in ’91) had been replaced by modern vehicles in red and cream livery, of the pattern introduced in large quantities on the PKP narrow gauge in the late ‘80s: similar in appearance to the concurrently introduced type MBxd2 railcars (built in conjunction with them, in Roumania) and designed to run either as trailers to MBxd2, or loco-hauled. The Ełk system had been re-equipped with these coaches / trailers, but still hauled them with the small Lyd1 0-6-0 diesel locos which had handled all the system’s traffic for many years past. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds” – PKP fell prey to many errors, but certainly never to that one. I did slightly better by the Ełk n/g, than on my previous visit: this trip, I found time to travel on a country-bound train 4 km. to the first halt out, where I disembarked, and walked back into town along the track.

Ełk was the final port of call on 1991’s tour; it was then modern traction all the way, along main lines of increasing magnitude, to Białystok and thence to Warsaw, and the flight home.

Forsaking from now on, what was done in fact, for what could not be done (but would have been highly pleasurable). Thoughts turn to another far-north-eastern branch which I would have liked to experience; unfortunately no longer available in 1991. This was the 13 km line from Giżycko to Kruklanki – passenger on it, believed Ty2 to the last, but withdrawn in PKP’s late 80s / early 90s minor purge, which had also made an end of most branch passenger west of Korsze. In 1987, I had seen the Kruklanki branch at its main-line junction, but had lacked the time to travel on it; four years later, the opportunity was gone. This line’s outer terminus is one of my all-time favourite place-names in Poland; puts me irresistibly in mind of the jousting knights’ song in T.H. White’s “The Sword in the Stone” –

“Till the woods ring again and again
To the clanks of the clanky true men.”

(For silly songs, give me Mr. White any day, rather than trendy, posturing bilge about lumberjacks) -- in German days, the place was Kruglanken.

Throughout the area of former East Prussia, a higher proportion than usual in Poland, of rural railways which there had once been, were -- as at when Polish ventures first became possible for railfans from the West -- in an abandoned condition. Most of the thus affected lines in the region had been victims of the traumatic events of early 1945, when the Red Army overran these far-eastern areas of Germany – which shortly thereafter, ceased to be Germany. With the invasion and its great disruptions, many rail services were suspended; and on numerous local lines of both standard and narrow gauge they were never resumed, for passenger or freight.

Part of this is down to the drawing of the highly arbitrary and artificial new border running west to east, and dividing East Prussia between Poland and the USSR, cutting many rail lines in the process; however, a fair number of lines which died in 1945, fell fully within Polish territory – could seemingly have been incorporated into PKP and put back into service – but in the event, this was not done. One takes it that people had a lot on their minds in those times, and keeping numerous sweet-but-marginal backwoods railways running, went on the back burner if anywhere at all. And I gather that some reaches of East Prussia have been since 1945, rather depopulated, with low transport requirements. This obtains, notwithstanding the events of population-swapping – grisly “musical chairs” on a huge scale -- with, overall, the expelled Germans of ex-German lands annexed by Poland, being replaced by Poles ejected from the regions which were the “far east” of Poland until World War II, but annexed after that war by the Soviet Union. A few Germans were left behind by mistake in the Polish-annexed territories; such folk mostly wanted to leave, and resettle in West Germany, but throughout Communist times, were not allowed to do so. Some of these 1945-onward doings would have been funny, if they weren’t so sad...

The former prolongation eastward of the Reszel branch, mentioned in my piece on my 1987 visit, was an instance of how things often went as at 1945. Similarly, the three branch lines mentioned above (travelled on by me, or in the case of Kruklanki recently deceased) had been in German days only parts of a dense network of such. Same, had included lines from Węgorzewo to Gołdap, Węgorzewo to Kruklanki, and Kruklanki to Olecko; all of these lay completely within post-1945 Poland – might have been reopened by PKP, but apparently weren’t: from the onset of Communist times, southern East Prussia was honeycombed with ghost branch lines.

This corner is scenically an enchanting area, in parts pleasingly hilly in a modest way. Another branch which perished in 1945, was the route which originated from Gołdap, initially running eastward (diverging from the Olecko line at the first station out of Gołdap) roughly 40 km to Żytkiejmy, heading from there northward – what would have been after 1945, straight over the Soviet border -- ultimately to a main-line junction in the province’s “lost north”. On its now-Polish reaches, this was quite a scenic line (a “latecomer”, opened by the Deutsche Reichsbahn in stages in the 1920s, though initiated pre-WW1), including two very impressive parallel viaducts which are still in situ – to quote the ( for “real tourists”) guidebook: with the line abandoned, the viaducts have the appearance of “huge surrealistic sculptures in the middle of nowhere. With the tall pillars supporting the wide elegant classical arches, the bridges have the air of a Roman aqueduct.” 

East Prussia specialised, and specialises, in wonderfully sonorous place-names (at least, does so still on the Polish side of the border; north thereof, names of communities were drearily Sovietised). The above-described one-time line out of Gołdap ran through (in each instance, Polish name first, then German ditto): Botkuny / Buttkuhnen, Dubeninki / Dubeningken, Bląkaly / Blindgallen, Poblędzie / Pablindschen, to (pièce de résistance) Żytkiejmy / Schittkehmen. East Prussia does well with names lending themselves to rude schoolboy humour; but, perhaps, “let’s not further go there”. And on what is now the Russian side of the border, a narrow-gauge line served a place called, in German days, Gross Brittanien – which I’ve always felt to be rather nice – “Tommy-and-Jerry-fallings-out” notwithstanding. 

Throughout the Communist era, the USSR’s slice of East Prussia (in Russian terms, the Kaliningrad Oblast’) could as well have been the dark side of the moon: a mysterious land totally off limits to Westerners. Like much other hitherto forbidden territory in the former Soviet Union, the area (nowadays a detached portion of Russia, separated by Lithuania, from the rest of the country) may be visited by all and sundry who get tourist visas. There is now a rail passenger service across the Polish / Russian border at Braniewo – basically one express each way per day, running between Gdynia and the Russian sector’s chief city, Kaliningrad (German Königsberg). Although there are adjoining lines on both European (1435 m) and Russian (1524 mm) gauges right the way through to Kaliningrad, it seems to waver to and fro from time to time, whether the passenger trains run right through, or whether one must change at the border. As often observed – “funny lot, those Russkies”.

For quite some while post-1991, venturesome folk who visited “Russian East Prussia” described it as direly run-down and polluted and forsaken, but retaining some degree of charm; and having here and there still a quite strongly German appearance and “feel” – notwithstanding the lack for the past half-century-plus, of German inhabitants. However, the latest edition of the “Lonely Planet” guide to Russia, thinks otherwise. Gives an outright “rave report” on the Kaliningrad Oblast’ – approximately quoting: plenty of fine hotels and restaurants and a youthful outlook, plus all the traditions of the big parent country – beautiful countryside with mind-boggling wildlife, splendid beaches and fascinating historical sights too – friendly, open-minded locals, with their proximity to “Europe proper” making them much less insular than the denizens of “big Russia” – and Kaliningrad especially, a surprisingly cheerful and vibrant city... I feel a bit torn, on this matter – agreeable to hear reports that somewhere is basically a nice place; but there’s a kind of glum pleasure in perceiving an area as sad and decayed and downfallen.

“Whatever”, the Kaliningrad Oblast’ is unfortunately not much of a resort for railfans. It is gathered that for a couple of years after 1945, whilst the most important lines had quickly been converted to Russian 1524 mm gauge, a considerable number of lesser 1435 mm gauge lines were kept running “as were”; likewise possibly some of the area’s abundant narrow-gauge lines. In the late 1940s, however, Soviet authority decided on abandonment and demolition of surviving lines of gauge 1435 mm and under (in some cases, direct conversion into roads took place); there remained thenceforth, only a 1524 mm “principal lines” skeleton. And steam in the area is long gone.

The author would add an assurance that he is not in the pay of any putative “East Prussia Tourist Board” – some German / Polish / Russian joint venture dedicated to persuading people to visit, and spend money in, that corner of the world: he has simply found the area highly intriguing, both in principle and in practice!

Rob Dickinson