The International Steam Pages
Uniestowo or bust – Poland 1994
Robert Hall continues his accounts of travel round Poland. You may want to
look at the other accounts:
These tales relate entirely to 21st Century experiences:
For those who would like to see the kind of steam locomotive described here, Robert recommends the following galleries of Polish steam:
Of my nine visits to Poland, to date: the first seven were basically in search of steam; and in the main, the standard gauge was where steam “happened” there. By the time I first got to Poland, diesel traction had made big inroads onto the narrow gauge; and what narrow-gauge steam motive power remained, was overwhelmingly of one type – the post-WWII PKP standard 0-8-0 of class Px48. Standard-gauge class variety was much greater. In consequence, as long as PKP standard-gauge steam remained in regular daily use, that was the chief focus of my visits to the country. Though a lifelong lover of the narrow gauge – in Poland, I had to make narrow gauge a lower priority, until standard-gauge steam was effectively no more.
My visit to Poland in 1994, was an attempt to redress this balance. Genuine everyday steam on PKP had ceased to run, except for the special case of Wolsztyn: sad though this circumstance was, it freed me to concentrate on, for me, Poland’s next-greatest delight – its still numerous narrow-gauge lines and systems. Oddly enough, though from the turn of the year 1991/ 92 PKP had been withdrawing passenger services from lesser standard-gauge lines at a horrific rate, its remaining narrow gauge, long seemed to be surviving better. This situation was not to be permanent – from 2001, PKP renounced all involvement with the narrow gauge, letting such lines then still operational, be taken over by interested parties, or simply perish – but in 1994, there was plenty of passenger-served narrow gauge (virtually all-diesel) still to enjoy. I determined to go to Poland, solo, for just over a week in the latter half of September that year, and cover all I could of my most-desired parts of remaining passenger narrow gauge, which hitherto I had been able to experience only “glancingly”, or had had to forego altogether.
The two highest priorities on this agenda were the big metre-gauge complex in Poland’s north-western corner; and the 750mm gauge lines based on Ełk in the far north-east. I had long been interested in the former venue, in part because its gauge had for several decades been a rare one in Poland – found only in the north-west, and on a smaller system just south of Warsaw. The Ełk lines fascinated me, partly consequent on past frustrations: two visits to Ełk in previous years had been time-constrained and heavily focused on standard-gauge steam, leaving me with the chance of only the briefest of looks at the narrow gauge there. A number of other bits of PKP narrow gauge in the approximate northern half of the country, were essentially targeted; the 750mm gauge at Nowy Dwór Gdański was reckoned a “definite” – other sections basically to be let take their chances after the chief objectives had been secured.
The provision of passenger workings on the Polish narrow gauge could seldom have been described as lavish; by 1994, their dwindling had in some cases reached a situation of which Scrooge would have approved. Some of the lesser ng lines ran Monday to Friday only; a circumstance which required factoring-in to the tour’s planning. This constraint applied to part of the Nowy Dwór Gdański system; also to the (in any case extremely meagre) “genuine” passenger workings on the Ełk system. I thus scheduled the first days of the tour, to get to Nowy Dwór Gdański (henceforth to be called, for brevity, NDG) on a Friday, thus to cover its system, including the “weekdays-only” leg. It then made good geographical sense to carry on eastward to Ełk – where information available in Britain and taken by me in good faith, seemed to claim that each weekend, running into late September, “tourist” workings (often hauled by steam locos, which otherwise had long vanished from this venue) operated on the Ełk ng lines, basically one to each of the two termini. This seemed to me, the way to deal with the Ełk situation – guaranteed out-and-back covering “branch of choice”, quite likely steam-hauled (and being at civilised hours, an easier option than the nightmare Mon – Fri “genuine” passenger schedules), to be done the day (Saturday) after the NDG system -- allowing Ełk, in the country’s remote north-eastern corner, to be “ticked off”, thence freedom to concentrate on venues further west and south. A grand scheme in theory: come the Saturday it was, as will be recounted, a case of “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy”.
Travel within Poland was done, as per my usual wont, by means of the “Polrailpass” all-line railrover. Though bothered by a few “treasonous” conscience-pangs, I chose to travel from London to Poznań and back, by road coach – this offering a wondrously inexpensive deal, markedly cheaper than doing the same by rail. Arrival in Poznań was early afternoon on Thursday. Thence overnight, with a couple of “shifts and changes”, to Malbork – targeting the NDG system for the following day.
This system had been in Germany or (weird Treaty-of-Versailles stuff) “quasi-Germany” until 1945. In its heyday then and for a while thereafter, it had been an intricate network running on both sides of the river Vistula’s lowest reaches. Served the cities of Gdańsk and Malbork, and wide stretches of country in between; with, I believe up to the 1960s, an actual 750mm gauge train ferry across the Vistula near its mouth, linking the otherwise separated west-bank and east-bank parts of the system. Even in Poland, such splendours are too good to be “for keeps”; though outliving the train ferry, the west-bank part of the system based on Gdańsk, closed in the early 1970s; the east-bank part lasted longer, but nearly all faded away bit by bit through the ‘80s and early / mid ‘90s. This was to a large extent, a railway to delight the hearts of those railfans who love the rural narrow gauge and “roadside and woodside ways” (or to cause those in the same basic tribe, who consider that Beeching had the right idea, but was a bit of a sentimental softy -- to feel apoplectic, and howl for abandonment, ripping-up, and building-over). Most of the system was wonderfully bucolically winding and roadside-tramway-characterised.
The oft-repeated story in Poland; this venue did not get much attention from Western enthusiasts, because it went mostly diesel, relatively early on. By 1994, the NDG system’s two sections reaching Malbork (an architectural gem and tourist-magnet) from opposite directions, were no more as regards passenger services; and also mostly disused in freight terms. Plus, by 1994 the standard-gauge branch linking the Gdańsk – Malbork main line with NDG, had lost its passenger service. The remaining passenger parts of the 750mm system were still tenuously linked with the national network via the ng’s Lisewo – NDG line; but this section’s passenger workings had become sparse almost to disappearing-point. The narrow gauge system’s “main line” between NDG and the coast, had a much more frequent passenger service. Tight train-time logistics dictated my getting a taxi from Malbork to NDG; this road journey gave many glimpses of the 750mm gauge line between the two, then closed in passenger terms, and mostly in freight ditto, but with the track still in place.
Arrived at NDG, I got the next working up to the coast; as with the great majority of my narrow-gauge journeys on this tour, this consisted of a (single) MBxd2 railcar – Roumanian-built, mid-1980s vintage. Travelled on this 08.30 NDG departure, to the coastal terminus of Sztutowo; and its return working, 09.45 ex Sztutowo. This line has two branches from the junction of Stegna Gdańska – east to Sztutowo, west to Prawy Brzeg Wisły – but there came here into play, Poland’s “seasonal” thing (which has appeared to intensify as the years have gone on). It would seem that in Poland, the summer holiday season, in which summer-holiday-ish things (increasingly, including summer-only tourist-bait rail services) are done, basically means July and August. Passenger service to Prawy Brzeg, had ceased after the season, as from the end of August: from then on, workings to Sztutowo only. Unfortunately my circumstances had permitted my getting this week’s holiday, only in September…
Must confess to finding the NDG – Sztutowo run, rather limited in interest: line all on its own reservation, track when I travelled it commendably well-kept – feeling of a “mini-main-line”, physically narrow-gauge, but standard-gauge in spirit. To be quite honest, for me the dullest bit of Polish narrow gauge that I’ve ever experienced. This part of the system – both forks -- now survives under preservation; in theory, I’m glad – in practice I feel with Bryan Morgan, writing of another country fifty-plus years ago (and struggling, with little success, to make the best of things) – “there are many lines which have perished, for which I’d be happy to swap this surviving one”.
Sztutowo has a history: during World War II, it was the location of a concentration camp (German Stutthof) which was infamous even among its peers, for especial nastiness. I remember reading in the memoirs of a Holocaust survivor who underwent a – mercifully brief – spell in Stutthof, that she recalled the last stage of the journey thereto being in the open wagons of a funny little narrow-gauge train. The railway has a halt, 1km short of the terminus, called “Sztutowo Muzeum” – said museum dedicated to precisely that historical episode. Even given ample time, I suspect that I’d have been a wimp and “taken that one as read”.
The way onward, was via the surviving passenger line south of NDG, that to Lisewo --abandoned not very long after. The 14.30 ex-NDG working to the latter (around which – with the highly-infrequent passenger service on this section – the day had to be scheduled) consisted of B-B Lxd2-244, and one old-fashioned type 1Aw green bogie coach. Left NDG with some two dozen passengers on board, which payload progressively diminished, with very few getting on to replenish. This line had in abundance, the attributes of most of its system, save the “main trunk” north from NGD – outright roadside running for much of the way, jinking from one side of the road to the other via unprotected crossings on wildly sharp curves; street running through the centre of sundry villages; snaking around field boundaries with sharp curves and changes of direction. To my taste, a splendid hour and a half of entertainment – which kept bringing to mind for me, the Clogher Valley Railway -- the British Isles’ probable full-on epitome of this particular scene – and the sad-but-comical verse commemorating its demise at the end of 1941:
This spell of bliss ended at Lisewo narrow-gauge station; short walk to its standard-gauge counterpart, and on eastward. Lisewo to Olsztyn was accomplished in the latter hours of daylight. The part of this journey prior to change of trains at Elbląg, had a distinctly religious flavour; I was sitting opposite a nun, while further down the coach, a group of young evangelical Christians vigorously sang spiritual songs to guitar accompaniment.
On to Olsztyn, whence overnight rail journey to Ełk. On morning arrival there, repaired to the narrow-gauge station. Discovered that, whatever I had learnt back home – this particular Saturday at least, absolutely nothing in the shape of tourist specials appeared to be happening. At the time that I was there, such working(s) should have been making ready to leave; but there was clearly then “nothing doing” in that line – no staff present to try to ask, no notices posted saying “yea or nay” about tourist trains. An Lyd1 0-6-0 diesel, and an Lxd2 B-B (the latter type new on the system since my last visit three years previously) were performing some freight shunting; nothing else was stirring, and the brightly-painted rake of tourist coaches stood motionless on a siding. My tour’s time-constraints discouraged lengthy hanging around in hopes that something might come to pass at a non-scheduled time. Plus, I had been unable (despite efforts back home, verging on the desperate) to get a timetable in book form, to take with me to Poland – and such items were notoriously almost unobtainable “in-country” except at the very start of their currency: thus it had been in Communist times, thus it still was half a decade later. Planning and plan-modifying “on the fly”, were thus difficult-to-impossible. I had spent many hours in the Polish tourist board’s London office, hand-copying – with the staff’s kind permission -- the most urgently bash-relevant material, from their current timetable book; but that procedure did not allow anything near covering of all possible contingencies.
In the circumstances, the only course to take seemed to be to write off Ełk as regards weekend tourist workings, and to plan to return there in the course of the following week, for scheduled “M – F” passenger action. Cue to head westward immediately, to the north-western metre-gauge area, which had some scheduled normal Sunday workings – taking it that train schedules would allow this to be done in a full day’s travel. Thus the day was spent: back to Olsztyn via the most northerly of the then three routes between Ełk and that city; subsequently Olsztyn – Toruń – Piła – Stargard Szczeciński, reached in the early evening. A long, long day’s ride; and to be frank, a rather dreary one – west of Olsztyn, through basically fairly flat and dull countryside ; and in 1994, without the bright spots of former years, in the form of steam encountered en route, or of possible minor-branch-line action at junctions – in the couple of years prior to 1994, most of PKP’s bottom-of-the-heap s/g rural branches, had had their passenger services withdrawn. Plus, frustration and irritation at the Ełk debacle made my mood not of the best.
On this tour, most nights had perforce to be spent going hither and yon on trains, or in station waiting rooms: everything had to be structured around the narrow-gauge lines’ meagre and often-at-ungodly-hours passenger workings – thus, no chance of nights in hotels, unless a hotel were opportunely found very close to a relevant town’s station; and throughout this bash, I seemed perennially out of luck where this matter of hotels was concerned. After evening attaining of Stargard Szcz., the succeeding night was spent travelling north-eastward, followed by seemingly interminable middle-of-the-night hours in Koszalin s/g station’s waiting room. Finally, back south-west a bit to Białogard, to catch the 0720 metre-gauge working from there to Świelino.
As recounted in my piece “Polish Hide-and-Seek”, I had last been to Białogard ten years earlier, and travelled, steam-hauled, on the metre-gauge section south-west thence, to Sławoborze. A good choice, as it turned out: by 1994, the Sławoborze line had lost its passenger service (though then still in use for freight); but, though steam was gone, the m/g in the opposite direction to Świelino, was still passenger-wise in the land of the living. The MBxd2 railcar forming the 07.20, left Białogard’s narrow-gauge station with every seat occupied. This being a Sunday, with folk work-free: the reason for the impressive passenger-load soon made itself known. The line to Świelino ran for most of the way, through thick woods: and Poles (those in exile, too) are great enthusiasts for “free food from Nature’s bounty”; especially -- like hobbits -- where mushrooms are concerned. Terrain traversed, was wonderful mushroom-and-berry-picking territory; and as the railcar progressed, it emptied, halt by halt, as folk disembarked to engage in that activity. For the last few kilometres, there remained only myself and one other passenger.
The same vehicle performed the – notionally separate – 08.24 departure from Świelino, on the sub-system’s then other “leg” to Koszalin. (Sparse schedules meant that this “move” could not be done in the opposite direction – hence my having to go back to Koszalin, where I had already spent much of the previous night.) Through countryside more tamed and cleared, than had obtained before Świelino; passenger complement gradually increased from me-and-one-other at Świelino, till arrival at Koszalin with about a dozen on board. The Koszalin – Świelino line was closed in 2001 (Białogard – Świelino “pre-deceased” it by a few years). The track to Śwelino is still down; and – felt rather improbably (this perceived as a pleasant, but not outstandingly interesting, line) – a preservation movement, wishing to initiate tourist workings out of Koszalin over at least some of the line, is understood to be making some headway. All kudos to those concerned...
Thence, south-west again on the standard gauge, through pleasant woods-and-modest-hills scenery, to Stargard Szcz. In the ten years since my previous (partly Pt47-hauled) traversal of this stretch, it had been electrified; my journey was in a prosaic EMU. Arrived at Stargard, a walk through the town’s streets (happily, maps on display for the public’s benefit) between the standard-gauge and metre-gauge stations. Most usually in Poland, standard and narrow gauges met with only a few paces needed to get from one to the other; Stargard Szcz. was an exception.
With the rather fine metre-gauge terminus attained; the 1542 departure for the only then remaining passenger route therefrom – the 44km to Dobra Nowogardzkie – was formed, yet again, by an MBxd2. Off in said vehicle – observed in the run out from Stargard’s metre-gauge station, copious standard / metre gauge interchange installations: a standard-gauge link line ran round the edge of town, to facilitate – in better times -- freight transfer between the gauges; per info as at 1994, no more metre-gauge freight featured at Stargard itself, though freight action supposedly continued further up the line, reaching the standard gauge by other means. Outward bound through pleasant if unexciting countryside, to Dobra N., reached some hour-and-a-half later. A considerable layover before same vehicle’s departure as the 1827 for Stargard Szcz.
Part of the waiting-time at Dobra Nowogardzkie was occupied by walking a short way along the track north-east-ward – the start of the linking route which ultimately reached the “Shangri-La” of Skrzydłowo. This particular section out of Dobra had in fact had passenger services until two or three years previously. The line became heavily overgrown directly north of Dobra. I walked it for a kilometre or so, and then retraced steps.
The 18.27 Dobra – Stargard Szcz. proved to be the best-used narrow-gauge working that I experienced in my tour. Starting about half full, it collected passengers at sundry intermediate stops until by arrival at Stargard, every seat was taken, and a good few passengers were standing. Many of those travelling were adolescents of both sexes, mostly subdued in demeanour. Possibly a school-related situation: a “weekly-boarding” arrangement in town, for pupils from this remote rural area, and Sunday-evening “back into the jug” after a weekend’s freedom?
Another night of trains and waiting rooms, to make possible a very-early-morning departure from an obscure location. In 1994, the Stargard Szcz. metre-gauge sub-system had two sections passenger-served; linked to each other by a then freight-only line, which had lost its passenger service a short while previously. The other passenger line had to be attained via its junction with the standard gauge at Trąbki; where I duly arrived by EMU in the dark before dawn, to catch the 06.17 departure for line’s terminus at Ińsko. This line proved to furnish a welcome change from MBxd2 railcars. Its service was being worked by Lxd2-247 hauling a pair of the bogie vehicles supplied to PKP by their Roumanian builders at the same time as the MBxd2, looking superficially very like those units (and in the same red-and-cream livery), and usable either as trailers to the railcars, or as loco-hauled stock.
The 26km to Ińsko ran through agreeable scenes, well-wooded and passing within sight of several lakes, including one by the outer terminus. It also included the curiosity of a short subsidiary branch, diverging at a junction and running 3km to Dobrzany – in the distant past, went considerably further, but the section beyond Dobrzany had been abandoned many years pre-1994. Trains between Trąbki and Ińsko made, in the course of their run, a detour from the junction to Dobrzany, and back. In the era of my visit, the pleasant run to Ińsko had been made the venue for a weekend excursion working with semi-open coaches and hauled by a Px48 0-8-0 specially conserved for the purpose; but – “the old, old story” – only on high-summer weekends: I got there too late in the year. A pity, particularly as these excursion workings ran to / from Stargard Szcz., thus covering the then-without-regular-passenger link line between the system’s two branches. I would have arranged this visit to Poland for the peak summer season, if it had been possible...
Summer special events or no, am glad to have done this narrow-gauge tour when I did, because in June 1996, PKP carried out a “purge” of remaining m/g passenger in the north-west, leaving only a small remnant of each sub-system with passenger services. One of the 1996 victims, was Trąbki – Ińsko. For some years subsequently, both before and after PKP’s divesting itself of its narrow-gauge properties in 2001, schemes were contemplated and floated for preservation / tourist endeavours involving the attractive Ińsko route; but they came to nothing, and to the best of my knowledge the line has been dismantled. The Stargard Szcz. – Dobra Nowogardzkie section remains, notionally, in situ today, and there are still proposals for preservation activity on it; but one feels that this is very much in the “forlorn hopes” department. I regained Trąbki by the 07.15 return working, of the 06.17’s consist; then off to the north-west’s third metre-gauge sub-system.
This sub-system, based on Gryfice, was then the only part of the north-western metre gauge, to reach the coast. A rather complicated standard-gauge journey from Trąbki with some changes, albeit within a small compass, brought me to the standard / metre gauge interchange station of Łożnica, just in time for the 13.49 MBxd2 thence to Gryfice. A pleasant 41km run, though hardly a money-spinner as regards passenger payload (this was one of the lines closed in June 1996). As far as the town of Golczewo (not quite halfway; interchange with an as of then closed-to-passenger standard-gauge branch) the journey was through parkland or thick woodland with little sign of human presence – easy on the eye, but not good for rail business: the officially scheduled stops at the four intermediate halts on this section, were ignored – “nobody wanted them”. Over this stretch, the railcar was carrying myself, and two other passengers. Things perked up a little at Golczewo, where half a dozen schoolchildren joined the working; and there was some passenger turnover on the rest of the journey to Gryfice.
The mid-afternoon scene at said location – the sub-system’s “Crewe” or “York” – was in contrast, memorably animated, with three MBxd2, well-filled, preparing to set out nearly-simultaneously on each of the three routes from Gryfice: the 15.15 for Niechorze, 15.26 for Łożnica, and 15.27 for Uniestowo. The general impression got of the Polish narrow gauge in 1994, was that on the usually meagre passenger workings: those which served particular school / work commuting slots tended to be very well-used – those which did not, often drew extremely little custom (mushroomers-and-berryers aside).
I boarded the 15.27 Uniestowo railcar. The shape of the Gryfice sub-system, was interesting. Until late in the day, its northern reaches formed a basically circular route, linking Gryfice and Trzebiatów (a crow’s-flight 17km or so north-east) “west-about” via Niechorze, and “east-about” via Uniestowo. As late as 1990, that circuit could still have been made by passenger workings (if – particularly outside the high-summer season – one had a lot of time to spare); but by 1994, things were coming unglued. The “east-about” line’s northern approximately-half was closed in the early nineties, from Trzebiatów to the station south of Uniestowo: but after a short while, the 3km between these last-mentioned points, was reinstated. Thus in September 1994, the line boasted – if I have things rightly – two return workings per day over the 23km between Gryfice and Uniestowo: one very early in the morning, the other that on which I travelled on the afternoon concerned. (The vicissitudes of the “west-about” route will be told of in the appropriate place.) The 15.27 progressively shed passengers at the half-dozen stations / halts along its route, till reaching Uniestowo with on board only myself, and two “real people” who disembarked there. Uniestowo was just a tiny halt with a small shelter, where our railcar reversed direction; and beyond which the rails of the closed section toward Trzebiatów vanished out of sight into weeds and grass.
The 16.20 return departure for Gryfice was an instance of the general PKP narrow-gauge pattern in those years. I was the only passenger ex Uniestowo; the first two halts were.passed through non-stop, owing to lack of custom. At the third halt, two people boarded, and there was a small amount of passenger business between there and Gryfice. At a point en route, the for long passenger-less link line to the enigmatic and beguiling Skrzydłowo – overgrown, but seemingly in better-than-terrible shape – diverged intriguingly south-eastwards.
Events for a while from now on, hampered my gricing; and unlike with the Ełk weekend special “no-show”, any fault was strictly on my part. I had gone to Poland with no guide-book of any kind – had seemed to manage just fine on previous solo grices, without such a tome: when place to lay head for a night had been needed, such establishments had obligingly shown up. After five consecutive nights not in a bed, fatigue was overtaking me big-time, and bed for a night was felt to be imperative. A place to stay in Gryfice – reached once more, a little after 5 p.m. – would have been ideal; but I had no idea whether Gryfice purveyed overnight accommodation for travellers. (For many years, there was no certainty that Polish towns on the small-and-obscure side, would offer such accommodation. Even if I had had a guide-book, it might well have made no mention of Gryfice – not a prominent occupant of Poland’s tourist pantheon, unless one is a narrow-gauge-nut.) Most prudent course of action seemed, to catch the train, due about 6 p.m., heading south-west along the standard-gauge line serving Gryfice and Trzebiatów (PKP table 375, plying between Kołobrzeg and Goleniów, with some through workings to and from Szczecin, this line still in passenger action today). The train thus shortly to arrive, ran through to Szczecin (Główny) station: the big city of Szczecin would have hotels in abundance.
To quote Solzhenitsyn, “that’s what the turkey thought”. Delivered at Szczecin Główny about 8 p.m., I discovered that this the city’s main station, seemed not to be in the urban centre, but in something of a quasi-suburban wasteland. Here was where a guide-book, “which in my case I had not got”, would have been invaluable. “Long story short” – I hotel-quested on foot, the area within obvious reach of the station; I tried unsuccessful stratagems to get into the city’s “hotel-land”; but with the hour becoming late, I had to settle for the only hotel found in my searching on foot – the obviously new, high-rise, and obscenely expensive Hotel Radisson. This counted as an emergency – thoroughly wrecked my planned budget for the trip, but “stuff happens”. Making best of bad situation, I thoroughly enjoyed a bath, a long sleep in a bed, and the following morning, heavy punishing of the buffet breakfast included in the night’s accommodation cost.Subsequently I happened to read in a World War II prisoner-of-war memoir, a passage which made me feel a little less foolish about my Szczecin foul-up. A favoured ploy for Allied P.O.W.s escaping from camps in the eastern parts of Germany, was to make for a Baltic coast port – possibly Szczecin, which was then German Stettin. At the port, you tried to find a ship from a neutral, or German-occupied, country, and negotiate with its personnel for you to be sneaked on board and taken out of Germany, hopefully the first step on the way to Britain. If I remember rightly, our hero was apprehended in – call it, for consistency, Szczecin – and returned to his camp. Before this misfortune, though, he found – and recorded in the memoir – Szczecin, to be a geographically confusing place; including the element of the advertisedly main station, not being at all in the city centre. At least I had admirable and heroic precedent for my stuffing-up of things..
After late and leisurely departure from hotel, the day was basically written off for “rest and recuperation” in Szczecin. The complementary magic-and-misery, of the Polish narrow gauge’s very sparse passenger services – plus stuff on own agenda – meant my needing to be in Gryfice early the next morning. Sooner than chase the possible phantasm of crash-pads in Gryfice (with more parting with money in the event of success), I spent the intervening night doing the trains-and-waiting-rooms thing, at last reaching Gryfice long before dawn.
One of the various good things about Gryfice, is its being the location (then and now, though “now” is, one gathers, in the melting-pot) of Poland’s railway museum dedicated to the metre gauge. For the purposes of this bash, a look at the museum was deemed nice if possible, but not a “must”. Was lucky, in this. I rolled up at the museum about 7 a.m., in about the first of full daylight. The curator – an amiable chap -- was on hand, and happy to open up for me and take my entry fee. Chance got, of a good wander round: museum held then, an open-air collection of thirteen steam locos. Some were from the assorted one-time private but co-operating companies which made up this metre-gauge system (these locos of German origin, this whole area having been in Germany till 1945), some were from other formerly metre-gauge railways in post-1945 Poland – PKP tried, from late 1940s on, to sub-standardise on 750mm for its narrow-gauge lines: converted a fair few, from other wider or narrower gauges. The far north-west defeated them, though – in fact, one previously 750 mm system there, they reinstated on metre gauge. Also, a few post-WWII Px48. Plus, museum had a most interesting indoor section, with abundant displays of photographs, of which I got a quick run-round – utterly fascinating, even if one does not know Polish. The charming curator facilitated my visit in all ways possible, within limitations of no language in common. Would have liked to spend much longer there; but catching of the 08.00 Gryfice – Niechorze, was imperative.
The sparse-services thing – at this time, the approx. “two return workings per day” convention, held sway on the line which I still needed to cover, from Gryfice to Niechorze on the coast. Another factor meant that leaving Gryfice was likely to be for keeps. I wanted to take a good look at the Baltic Sea, which has always rather fascinated me; and Polish steam had, in its latter days, basically not obtained on the coast. The 08.00 had an almost immediate 09.20 return working; but going back to Gryfice on that, would mean only a fleeting glimpse of the “briny”. Plan was thus to travel out to Niechorze, “value” the Baltic, and get back to civilisation probably by bus. As often on this tour – I would have been in much better case, had it been possible to do it in the July / August high-summer period. As at 1994, the metre-gauge section from Niechorze to Trzebiatów ran only in high summer, when it had a quite generous daily railcar service, plus a Px48-hauled tourist working; in late September, though, it was totally inactive.
The 08.00 MBxd2 Gryfice – Niechorze working, was “as usual” on these lines at this point in history – traversing pleasant but unspectacular countryside, and carrying very few passengers: many scheduled halts passed through non-stop, owing to no custom. At Niechorze, I duly made my way to the shore. Good to set eyes on the sea at leisure, but in fact, not very exciting: had the appearance here, of a wooded marine creek, rather than the bounding main; and played host to more mallard ducks, than gulls. The Baltic is strange – a rather un-sea-like sea; if I have things rightly, its water is markedly less salty than the world sea-and-ocean average for such content. Sztutowo on the Nowy Dwor Gdański system, visited a few days previously, is supposedly on the coast; but the sea was not actually visible from the rail route, and my schedule that day gave no time for lingering at the line’s outer end.
Getting into Niechorze proved easier than getting out again. It and Rewal, six kilometres back along the rail line, are denominated “seaside resorts”. Rewal I gather, is a bigger place; but as regards Niechorze: Blackpool it sure wasn’t. Seemed a tiny settlement, with no visible inhabitants; no shop in view, where I might have been able to try to enquire about buses; and nothing like a bus stop, in evidence. It being a nice enough day weather-wise, the simplest expedient seemed to be a spell of foot-gricing – I ended up walking along the railway track, the 17km to Trzebiatów. The most interesting feature en route was a modern concrete bridge, of several spans, over the river Rega. This bridge has brought trouble in recent times: in 2000, its condition was adjudged so poor as to be unsafe, and since that year, all rail services have been suspended between Trzebiatów and Pogorzelica, the first station east of Niechorze. The track is still in place, and there are and have been for the past decade, plans and hopes to repair the bridge and run trains once more; but funds for the task have not so far been forthcoming.
This sub-system contains the only part of the north-western metre gauge, still in any kind of regular service. Year-round “genuine” passenger services between Gryfice and Niechorze were withdrawn in 2000; but every year since then (with local-government authority taking over when PKP relinquished all narrow-gauge involvement), daily tourist workings have run in summer, over the Gryfice – Niechorze – Pogorzelica route (mostly concentrated shuttle-wise, on the coastal stretch): hauled if the visitor is lucky, by the line’s one operational Px48 – otherwise by an Lxd2. As mentioned above, notions are harboured – assuming possibility of the problem bridge being repaired – of re-activating the Trzebiatów – Pogorzelica section; in fact -- could this be accomplished -- the idea has been floated, of closing the stretch between Gryfice and the coast, and running the tourist operation from Trzebiatów instead.
In 1994, some parts of the north-western metre-gauge complex were reported still to handle freight traffic, by means of standard-gauge wagons on transporter trucks. In my admittedly brief and fleeting travels in the area, I observed in a number of places, standard-gauge wagons on such trucks, but witnessed no actual freight movements. Feeling thus got, that freight action on the m/g seemed not to be at a very high level.
Resuming narrative: Trzebiatów attained on foot, mid-afternoon; next train on standard-gauge table 375 caught, eastward to Kołobrzeg. In those times, passenger on this line was routinely coaches hauled by class SU45 diesel locos. Electric traction from Kołobrzeg on: rather wearily, lengthily eastbound overnight, to reach Ełk early the next morning. This was a Thursday, so normal weekday passenger workings taking place on the 750 mm. A mere three years earlier, this two-branch system had had by PKP narrow-gauge standards, a fairly ample service; but dwindling-and-decline had been rapid. In September 1994, the published timetable offered (Mon. – Fri. only), for the system’s longer fork to Turowo, one early-morning working inbound and one early-evening outbound. Weirdly, its other leg to Zawady Tworki had, per timetable, just one working in one direction – I forget which – with no balancing one in the other. The lot of commuters resident in Zawady Tworki and intermediate points, must have been a strange one... There was also a lunchtime return working between Ełk and Sypitki -- on the Turowo branch, one stop past the junction at Laski Male. According to the journals, train crews allowed visitors to travel on the empty-stock workings corresponding to the “one-way” early and late runs per timetable. I tend, though, especially when travelling alone, to be a timorous soul. The Ełk narrow gauge had never seemed to be a lucky venue for me -- possible scenarios suggested themselves, of the language barrier making it impossible for me to communicate what I wanted; or of encountering uncooperative / hostile rail staff, and finding myself marooned overnight in the East Prussian boondocks. I decided to play safe, and content myself with the return run to Sypitki, 16km out.
As touched on in previous “Travellers’ Tales” pieces, the Ełk narrow-gauge system was an idiosyncratic one. It had been one of PKP’s first narrow-gauge sections to be fully dieselised (mid-1970s). This was very much an “up-to-a-point” modernisation attempt, though – taking the form of putting all workings, passenger and freight, in the hands of tiny class Lyd1 jackshaft-drive 0-6-0 diesel locos. No diesel railcars – widespread on the PKP narrow gauge since the 1950s – were brought in; and for a very long while, transporter trucks to carry standard-gauge wagons – likewise, much used on PKP’s ng – were not introduced: all freight must have had to be trans-shipped at Ełk. The only difference which I observed between 1987 and 1991 visits, was replacement between the two dates of old 1950s-pattern coaches, with vehicles of the type built for PKP in Roumania in the mid-1980s, unitary with the MBxd2 railcars and with the capacity to run either as trailers to those railmotors, or loco-hauled coaches. By 1994, transporter trucks, and at least one class Lxd2 B-B, had arrived. Still no railcars; though I gather that a little later an MBxd2, no longer required on its hitherto home line, was transferred to the Ełk system and served there for the latter’s final few PKP years.
On my visit, the Sypitki return working was formed by Lyd1-221 and two Roumanian trailer / coaches. Most of the passengers, outbound, were primary-school-age children. The train sat for about a quarter of an hour at Sypitki station, whose denizens most in evidence were a huge and magnificent turkey-cock and his harem. Loco ran round, and took out the 1340 return working, which attracted very little custom. A noticeable trait of this line, was its seeming – for the Polish narrow gauge – well and solidly engineered, with sizeable earthworks. This factor likely connected with the Ełk system’s having been at its origin in the area’s German days, metre-gauge; was converted by PKP to 750mm in 1951, with the locomotives initially going to the metre gauge in the north-west of Poland.
At Ełk narrow-gauge station there were to be observed the two steam locos used on the tourist trains when they ran: Px48-1752, and (originally for forestry railways) “Las” type 0-6-0T 1984. Also, rather oddly, on a short length of dual-gauge track, four assorted 600mm gauge steam locos, in poorish shape. After 2001, the Ełk narrow-gauge system was taken over by the local-government authority, and run on a “tourist” basis. It is understood that at the time of writing, the whole system is notionally still physically there and in commission; but tourist trains (often steam), running basically at summer weekends, normally traverse well under half of it.
As mentioned in another piece of mine on “Travellers’ Tales”, for a while in the 1990s a not-very-highly-motivated attempt was made, to have Ełk as a standard-gauge steam museum venue ŕ la Wolsztyn. Role-reversal in relation to callings-in by me at Ełk in previous years – in 1994, my limited time had to be focused on the narrow gauge, with no chance for specific investigation of the s/g steam position. On the day I went to Sypitki, one standard-gauge locomotive at Ełk – Ty2-1279 – was in steam, but apparently just sitting motionless at the locoshed.
My time in Poland was running out: coach departure from Poznań was scheduled for early the following afternoon. Travelled, through heavy rain which had set in (after my Sypitki trip, fortunately), electric-hauled from Ełk to Białystok – my first traversal of this line in daylight – and on to Warsaw (Centralna) station, and several tedious night-time hours in the waiting room there. Something of a “duty warring with inclination” situation, came about. In principle, I would have time to travel to Poznań and then 40km beyond that city, to do an early-morning bash of one more narrow-gauge section; in fact, I felt tired and grimy and rather surfeited with rail travel – strong temptation experienced, simply to take one more train, to Poznań, and just “chill out” there until coach time. Forced self, in the end, to trek out to the ng line – a decision of which I was subsequently very glad.
The section concerned was, again, 750mm gauge: access point Opalenica, on the Warsaw – Berlin main line west of Poznań. With Opalenica having been until the early 90s, on a branch of the Wolsztyn steam standard-gauge system, I had visited the location in the past, and fleetingly seen the 750mm at its station adjoining the main-line one. This had been until a few years previously, an X-shaped system radiating from Trzcianka Zach. junction, to the main trunk line at Opalenica and Nowy Tomyśl, and to “in-country” termini at Lwówek and Duszniki Wlkp. By 1994, passenger service remained only on the Opalenica – Lwówek bar of the X. Freight action took place by then, virtually only in the sugar-beet harvest season; but featured also, on the network’s then passenger-less Trzcianka Zach. – Duszniki branch. (Trzcianka Zach. – Nowy Tomyśl, abandoned.) Ten years earlier, the whole system had been in passenger service, and was 100% steam-worked (class Px48, of course). I had seen it then, including steam “performing”, from the main line in passing; but there had been no opportunity to alight and sample it. A little later in the ‘80s, the system lost steam, in the onslaught of the alien invaders from Roumania (MBxd2 railcars, in strength); plus dieselisation of its freight, at the same time.
As things were in September 1994, this struck me as not a colossally enticing venue: one line, yet again MBxd2-worked, on the penny-plain usual gauge, through flat and humdrum scenery. However; the various time-devouring frustrations during the tour, had rendered out of the question, visits to several lower-priority lines. This one WAS “doable”: it seemed highly feeble to let fatigue prevent me from covering it.
I thus boarded, in the first glimmering of dawn, the MBxd2 forming the 05.50 Opalenica – Lwówek. Travelled to the outer terminus, and took the railcar’s well-patronised 0706 return working. At the system’s hub at Trzcianka Zach., we crossed with the 0720 Opalenica – Lwówek MBxd2; then, something unexpected and extraordinary happened. The two railcars – the other, first, closely followed by ours – headed northward out of Trzcianka, and turned right onto the supposedly closed-to-passengers Duszniki Wklp. branch, proceeding to run along same thus in convoy. Rather casual-seeming operation, which would have been likely to cause hysterics in British “health-and-safety” folks – the two vehicles being deemed, for the purpose of this exercise, “one engine in steam”? Maybe a kilometre up the branch, the railcars halted at a roadside point adjacent to a school; where numerous pupils of secondary-school age disembarked and streamed into said establishment. After which the two railcars ran back to Trzcianka, and resumed their prescribed journeys. This manoeuvre had been a complete surprise to me: not mentioned as such in the timetable (though with the phenomenon having been discovered, possible clues discernible therein, via length of time which workings shown to spend “at” Trzcianka) nor in any continental-rail-oriented publication that I had seen in Britain -- it gave me considerable satisfaction, to tell the journals about it. Just blind luck that I happened to be travelling on a start-of-school-day working; and in general, thank heaven for schoolkids, as regards their furnishing the Polish narrow gauge with some passenger business. Even in the past couple of years, the one or two narrow-gauge lines in Poland still running “real”, not tourist, passenger services, have had same intimately tied to school days and terms.
Also cause for self-congratulation for having vanquished sloth vis-a-vis the Opalenica line: most unexpectedly – it having been seen as one of PKP’s relatively busier and healthier narrow-gauge operations – it closed to all traffic about a year later. Very gratifying thus, to have got this one in the bag. Others – all 750mm gauge -- which might have been covered in whole or in part, had the tour run more smoothly: the Rogów – Biała Rawska line south-west of Warsaw; the routes from Krośniewice, headquarters of a once enormous but by 1994 shrinking system; and the line based on Śmigiel. The last two mentioned, I had visited on previous trips, but in a tantalisingly fleeting fashion. And, very bottom of the pecking order, the 3km stretch (mixed-gauge, with passenger on 750mm and freight on standard) at Pleszew – main-line junction, to “Town” station.
A tragically large quantity of Polish narrow gauge has come to an end over the past twenty years or so; on the other hand, though – given the circumstances, surprisingly much continues to cling to life in one way or another. Only a couple of the lines / systems mentioned in this piece, as actually visited or might-have-been-so, have perished utterly – and there has been attempted floating of preservation schemes, for those as well. Re the others involved, action of some sort – whether genuine commercial, or tourist / preservation – continues at the time of writing; even if in some cases, on only a fraction of the kilometrage that was active in 1994... and as in most things now to do with railways in Poland, with a considerable question-mark hanging over the future.