The International Steam Pages
After Many a Summer – Poland 2010
Robert Hall continues his accounts of travel round Poland, this one is
different because the country and its railways have now changed beyond
recognition. You may want to
look at the earlier accounts:
This tale relates entirely to 21st Century experiences:
A map showing most of the places mentioned below is available at the end of the tale.
“Life’s unexpected developments” -- after sixteen years’ absence, I took a fortnight’s railway-centred holiday in Poland in July 2010. Since my last trip thereto in 1994, a combination of the country’s decreasing attractiveness railway-wise, and personal circumstances, had for a fair number of years dissuaded me from visiting Poland. However; things happening in last few years, “stoked the fire” for me once again – including the coming to be, of contact and “alliance” with an on-the-spot, interested native-Polish-speaker, whom I shall call M.
With my being – often told of before on this site – a latter-day version of Bryan Morgan, in love (situation of steam taken out of the equation) with rural branch lines / light / narrow-gauge railways: that was mostly the scene which attracted me to Poland in summer 2010 – to see what might remain of my most-loved. Steam has continued, and continues, at Wolsztyn; but to be honest, since the earlyish 1990s and ever-increasingly so, that scene has failed to tick my personal boxes , as mentioned in my “Tale” “Big W” – the Wolsztyn system thus did not feature on my 2010 itinerary.
The Polish railway scene over the past couple of decades has been for me, heartbreak-fodder. Mostly inevitable, I’m sure, since Communism’s being found unable to deliver the goods; no less painful for that. Because of aforesaid political factor, until beginning of the 1990s, Polish State Railways (PKP)’s system had remained in use for passenger (with freight also running on all passenger lines), to an extent comparable, regarding the railway map, with what survived in Britain half a lifetime earlier. In the early ‘90s, that stable situation ceased to be, re the standard gauge (n/g was largely spared for a while, but underwent at the turn of the new century, a radical change, not for the better). There was a hideous holocaust, passenger-wise anyway, of the most-remote-rural branches in 1991 / 92. From then on – slower but steady bleeding-away of branch and rural lines, passenger-wise – “vibes” got at the time, that a lot might live on, on the freight scene. The general impression formed that by 2010, branch-line-wise there survived in passenger service (working usually privatised), at best a quarter of what there had been in 1990. This went unevenly – some areas had been clobbered very savagely, others did better; and there was considerable incidence, depending on local-political doings, of lines closing, and opening again.
“Whatever” – it depended on the part of the country. The picture was got that in summer 2010, a denser-than-average network of country branch lines still existed passenger-wise in the one-time “Polish Corridor” area, south-south-west from Gdańsk and Gdynia. I had originally planned to mix my two weeks’ grice between surviving rural branches, hitherto-unvisited narrow gauge lines, and whatever attractions M. might be able to purvey. In general, more was seen potentially to do, than could be fitted into the time available.
Things so worked out that I started my serious travelling, on the coast – first journey heading inland, was on the 13.46 Gdynia – Kościerzyna : a two-unit railmotor (highly modern, as were all such sampled) marked as running under the auspices of Pomorskie province. Changing at Kościerzyna, the next working was by a single railmotor, operated by Arriva, running “by complicated routes” to the junction of Szlachta, where I changed – an hour’s wait -- thence double-unit railmotor, again Arriva-operated, over the branch to Laskowice Pomorskie on the main line Gdańsk – Bydgoszcz, to which route I changed, taking the first available working to Bydgoszcz and overnighting there.
That few hours’ travel on branch-line services, sickened me of such. I have a “brain-maggot” or call it what you will, to the effect that railways truly exist, to convey freight – passenger services just “the icing on the cake”. In recent decades, in Europe and other parts of the world too, said notion has often been thrown out with the trash -- in many places, freight goes by road; if rail survives at all, it is in a passenger-only context. With head, I see that that is how things are – with gut, I hate it. I loathed British Rail’s perceived Orwellian jargon about “basic railway”, = freight abolished, branch line reduced to just tram-type single track there and back, not even an exchange-loop at the terminus – gut-feel, “in that situation, the railway’s dead – be honest, tear it up, let buses carry the punters instead !”
About gut-feelings, not about making sense. Had hoped (with thoughts about Poland at last visit in 1994, when many s/g branches had already lost their passenger services but were still busy with freight), that “maybe Poland still x years behind Britain in railway-ruination – maybe a good deal of local freight still operating.” Impressions taken up on that long afternoon’s travelling, said to me, “not so”. Visual observation delivered – at every station along the branch lines involved – grass-grown, disused goods yards, big or small according to the magnitude of the place concerned – with not a single goods wagon possibly in revenue-earning service, to be seen anywhere in my journeyings.
I found this depressing almost beyond description – to the point of finding these branch lines, meagrely served passenger-only by very modern railmotors (though all same experienced, were reasonably well patronised by passengers) to cause my old “basic railway” revulsion reflex to kick in. Have subsequently discovered that this highly-subjective impression, based essentially on one afternoon’s travels, was not altogether accurate. Whereas the large majority of freight in rural Poland nowadays goes by road; on assorted branch lines, some with passenger service and some without, there are traffic sources which cause freight-train movements still to happen now and again; and there is a certain amount of alternative-route long-distance freight, that travels over lesser lines. Basically, the situation is bad (and likely to worsen – I understand that the railway administration does wish to get rid of individual-wagon-load freight traffic ), but not as bad as my p.m.’s worth of travelling, led me to conclude. Said conclusion, however misplaced, was: I wanted no more of standard-gauge branch lines, except for such as very particularly interested me; henceforth I’d concentrate on the narrow gauge.
Have long told of my Polish narrow-gauge “rock-and-hard-place” problem – PKP was a wonderful system for quantity of narrow-gauge sections, but from way back, had a strong tendency to dieselise same, and surviving steam locos thereon were – likewise from way back -- of one standard class. Steam variety in Poland – in the last dozen years wherein steam ran in everyday service – was on the standard gauge: whence a lover of both steam and narrow gauge, was thoroughly in the squeezer. I mostly went for steam, and largely neglected the n/g – painful though that decision was, at times. With steam no more , except at Wolsztyn – the narrow gauge became a scene of prime interest. In the late 1990s, PKP did a certain amount of “pruning” of its narrow gauge sections which had survived till then; and from the end of 2001, PKP renounced its remaining narrow-gauge lines. The local-government authorities in whose territories they ran, could financially take care of them and find operators for them, or let them perish.
A surprisingly large number of the remaining narrow-gauge lines or systems were, initially, thus taken over and worked by their local authorities – though often, over only part of the route length that they had boasted hitherto. And a surprisingly large number do, essentially, still run trains for the public, at the time of writing; but the Polish narrow-gauge story in the first decade of the 21st century was overall a sad one of decline and diminution.
I was able to visit, and see some kind of action on, a total of six narrow-gauge lines during my tour: four venues totally new to me, and two which I had been to before. To tell fairly briefly, of the two “revisitings”: I had planned to call in at a favourite venue, the metre gauge in the north-west of Poland – one surviving line, providing summer tourist workings only (sometimes with steam), based on Gryfice. Disruptions to standard-gauge passenger workings on that particular day threatened, though, to make it impossible to reach the “metric” venue in time – in the light of a tight personal schedule for that part of the bash – to get any travel on the line. I decided to cut my losses and, instead, make for the geographically more favourable 600mm gauge line at Żnin.
I had visited this location many years earlier, in 1983 (recounted in my “Tale”, “Miss Selinka and Individual Hating”). In 1983, it was Poland’s designated 600mm gauge museum line, with “fun-type” steam passenger workings over the 12 km stretch between Żnin and Gąsawa – also, then, with freight services, mainly if not entirely diesel, over various branches of what was then an intricate little system. All is now gone except for Żnin – Gąsawa, running as a purely tourist line under local-government aegis. This enterprise seems to be flourishing (and has since my visit, passed into the hands of an enthusiastic new management): the line has the good luck to, in its short length, serve a couple of “genuine tourism” venues. In high summer at least, it has by current Polish narrow-gauge standards, an intensive passenger service – was for many years all-diesel (class Lyd2 0-6-0’s), but one of the steam locos was overhauled and put back into commission for the 2011 season.
Żnin cannot now be reached by passenger train; my journey involved taking the 15.30 bus from Gniezno. With the line not having been my original target, I did not have available, details of its service; hoped to be able to get a train from Gąsawa (on the bus’s route) to Żnin. I was out of luck: on a Saturday or Sunday I would have been in time for the last inbound train, but this was a Tuesday. Instead of a long wait in seemingly pub-less Gąsawa village, for the next bus; I elected to walk along the railway track into Żnin. The 12 km took this verging-on-elderly gricer an unexpected, and unexpectedly exhausting, three hours. I was able the following morning, to watch the first departure of the day, the 09.00, leave Żnin narrow-gauge station behind its Lyd2. It would have been possible to travel on it to the first halt out, then walk the couple of kilometres back into town, in time to catch the 10.25 bus necessary to reach my next port of call by the appointed time; but, still footsore from the previous p.m.’s hike, I “wimped out”.
As stated, the Żnin line is 600mm gauge: basically the only active railway of this gauge now remaining in Poland, though one gathers that sporadic preservation attempts are happening on the remnants of the 600mm system centred on Białośliwie, not far to the north-west. All other narrow-gauge lines visited on this tour, were 750mm – Poland’s most common narrow gauge, by far.
Most of those narrow-gauge railways in Poland which, post-2001, were taken over by local government, functioned thenceforth only in a “tourist” context. There were some exceptions, mostly featuring involvement of the firm Stowarszenie Kolejowych Przewozów Lokalnych (henceforth referred to as SKPL), which specialises in minor-railway operating, on both narrow and standard gauge. After 2001, some half-dozen-plus local-government authorities in various parts of the country, which had taken over narrow-gauge lines from PKP, hired SKPL as the operator for those lines, in a context of keeping them running as a genuine public-transport service – in some cases for freight only, in others for both freight and “real passenger” – tourist workings were also, sometimes, in the mix. Regrettably, this scene has mostly not been a happy one, over the decade for which it has obtained. Very frequently, local government has proved not to be interested – or to have lost interest after a brief “it seemed a good idea at the time” period – in promoting and supporting the railway which had come into its hands; and has seemed to wish only to starve SKPL of the funds necessary for the effective running of the lines, exploiting sundry rates-and-taxes rules and complexities as a pretext for failing to pay up – whence the operator’s pulling out of the deal. The suspicion is unavoidable, that some local-government authorities wish only to put an end to “their” railways, and sell off the railways’ land, for development. At the time of writing, SKPL remains as the operator of only a couple of the narrow-gauge lines which, a decade ago, it was contracted to run.
What has happened over the years on the Śmigiel 750mm line -- the next venue which I visited, linking up there with M. -- would seem to be a classic instance of this sad situation. This referred to in my piece “Big W”. Brief “recap” -- after some years of ever-worsening relations between Śmigiel council the owner, and the operator, SKPL; as from the beginning of 2011, SKPL has pulled out of the deal, basically renouncing this line. Since 2008, only the 5 km between Śmigiel and the main-line junction at Stare Bojanowo, had remained active; with the 18 km north-west from Śmigiel having been “condemned” as being in too great disrepair, for safe operation (pause given, to wonder whether this was genuine; or “dirty work” by the council, in pursuance of their suspected agenda of getting rid of the railway).
At the time of my visit, in late July 2010, the remaining operable 5 km of the Śmigiel n/g line, was in a long non-working spell -- passenger services essentially tied to school days / terms; freight business basically “dead in the water” (last freight action had been in March that year). Local government seemingly not wanting to “play ball” – deep mutual dissatisfaction between them and SKPL: imminent parting of the ways, seen. The council’s official position was their wanting to retain the railway, or some of it, as a purely “tourist” operation – anybody’s guess whether this was just “flannel”, or genuine. Later in the year, things seemingly brightened up for a while – passenger services recommenced at the start of the autumn school term, and there came to be a potential short-term freight-haulage contract (unfortunately, “stillborn”). Sadly, a false dawn – all went badly awry late in 2010, and SKPL is no longer in the picture here. From what heard recently, the railway is still in situ, but almost no wheel has turned in 2011 – a worsening “limbo” situation. The latest news tells of the council’s having had removed, physical rail connection for passenger and freight, to the main line at Stare Bojanowo; things are not looking good...
I had the good fortune on my July 2010 visit, that an independent party, on the scene at the time, chartered a run by one of the line’s MBxd2 railcars from Śmigiel to Stare Bojanowo and back – on which I was able to travel for the outward leg – heading onward by the main line, from S.B. to Poznań. So I have, twice (1993 and 2010) travelled by railcar Śmigiel – S.B., one direction only. Miracles aside, it would seem that I shall never get on-rail, the line’s section north-west from Śmigiel to Wielichowo; but “them’s the breaks”.
A relatively happier scene re SKPL and the 750mm gauge, involves the bash’s first totally-new-to-me n/g section to be told of. This concerns the one-time 56 km route from Kalisz via Zbiersk to Turek, with a 13 km branch from Żelazków to Opatówek. That branch lost its passenger services “back in primeval times”, but was retained for freight, with Opatówek being the freight-exchange point with the main line; the standard- and narrow-gauge stations at Kalisz, were far apart. Kalisz – Zbiersk – Turek still had (extremely sparse) passenger services in 1990, but lost them shortly after. PKP kept the line for freight, including at the southern end, much of the Żelazków – Kalisz section. Post-2001, local-government authority took over the line, and engaged SKPL to operate it – all in a freight-only context.
“The usual thing” – PKP dieselised this line early, and it was not in a “priority” area of the country for me; so I never visited it in PKP times. The dice have so rolled, that the line has become of late, a prime “resort for railfans of a certain kind” – the last narrow-gauge line in Poland (since that at Śmigiel’s falling on evil days) which still handles a worthwhile and dependable amount of revenue-earning freight. This takes the form of stone, fertilizer, and a certain amount of timber – running now, between Opatówek and Zbiersk, only. Until a few years ago, SKPL operated freight between Zbiersk and Turek too; but, the sad and often-repeated story, the local council losing interest in their railway and just wanting to grab money – leaving the operator with little or nothing to finance operations – via the rates-and-taxes scam. This resulted basically in SKPL telling the council, “go forth and multiply”, and suspending services.
Plenty runs between Opatówek and Zbiersk; but the game still isn’t an easy one. Workings usually take place several times a week, but “as required” – so you either find a place to stay at Zbiersk, the line’s nerve-centre, and wait for a “train day”; or you need someone with local knowledge and contacts. M. nobly fulfilled this role for me – he was able to determine that on a particular day (Monday July 19th), there would be a working from Zbiersk to Opatówek and back. Scheduled to depart Zbiersk 08.00. We were based in Łódż, which M. knows well – very early rising, to drive, courtesy of M., the 90-odd km west to Zbiersk. Arrival pretty well on time, to find that the 08.00 departure had been deferred a little; we enjoyed the hospitality of the SKPL staff, who plied us with tea, and had a quick look around the locoshed and workshops. Train ultimately departed at 08.42. A rather “minimalist” freight working – a class Lxd2 B-B (most frequently encountered loco class nowadays on the Polish 750mm gauge) hauling a transporter truck carrying one standard-gauge four-wheeled van – which had reached Zbiersk the preceding Friday, loaded with fertilizer, and was now being returned empty to the standard gauge; nonetheless, a “genuine” run (they’d have made it whether we had been there, or not).
The loco’s cab was able to accommodate the two-man crew, plus M. and myself – any more occupants, would have been “cosy” at best... the 24 km to Opatówek was covered in about an hour and a quarter. The track seemed fairly overgrown, but in better-than-dreadful condition. Many ungated level crossings, the most momentous being over the direct Kalisz – Turek road – these negotiated cautiously, with a great deal of horn-blowing from the loco. This particular Lxd2 anyway, had two horns, one on each side of the cab – one “shrill”, the other “deep”. At Żelazków, the now disused branch toward Kalisz still had rails in situ, but almost totally obliterated by rampant vegetation.
At Opatówek, the s/g van was run off the transporter. SKPL has a tiny s/g diesel shunter stationed at Opatówek, which our driver drove to pull the van off the transporter and on to standard-gauge track. No revenue-earning freight to take back to Zbiersk; but return journey was made hauling the empty transporter truck which had conveyed the van – it was gathered that the transporter had some minor fault which needed attending to in the Zbiersk workshops. Slightly better time made on the return, than the outward, run. M. and I travelled onward by car, heading north, before splitting up to meet up again a couple of days hence. Initially followed part of the out-of-use Zbiersk – Turek section of the line – rails still just visible, but overgrown to the point of “not visible for much longer”. People such as us feel, “heartbreaking”; the mileage of those on Turek’s district council, no doubt varies...
To the best of my knowledge, the position described re freight between Opatówek and Zbiersk, still obtains at the time of writing. The nature of the working on which we travelled, was something of a tip-off that at least at the time at which it happened, Poland’s rail administration was still open to handling freight in small quantities – a single van-load of fertilizer to an obscure destination – it was just that most consignors had no more interest in using rail, and opted for more convenient and flexible road transport instead.
With a certain amount of the bash being based in Łódż, enjoying M.’s kind hospitality, attention turned toward lines in that hitherto-hardly-known-to-me general area. “Red-hot” on that scene, was what had been in PKP days, the Rogów – Biała Rawska 750 mm line. As ever – dieselised early by PKP, thus “not on my menu” pre-mid-1990s. Survived the turn of the century, taken into local-government ownership but adopted by preservationists, to become in the estimation of most of those interested, Poland’s best working-preservation achievement of recreating the atmosphere of the narrow gauge in post-1945 PKP times – with the proviso of “no steam” (the outfit has a pair of Px48 0-8-0’s, but they are not in working order).
A line originally 49 km long; the entire route length has physically survived the post-2001 ups-and-downs. Picture in recent years has been, regular workings in preservation (summer Sundays only), between Rogów and Głuchów, 17 km out. On a very few days of the year, special workings over the whole 49 km between Rogów and Biała Rawska. Sunday July 18th was firmed-up, for a visit to this line. Two return workings on the day, the earlier just the 8 km Rogów – Jeżów and back, the later, Rogów – Głuchów and return. We opted for the later, longer run. Formed of a 1950s-era Bxhpi 1AW bogie coach, in dark-green livery, in which – wanting to be as authentic as possible – we travelled; two semi-open bogie coaches rebuilt from coal wagons; and a bogie utility van (“brankard” in Polish rail jargon) , seemingly indispensible on all Polish narrow-gauge tourist workings. Hauled by a tiny 0-6-0D, Lyd1-215. The train set out, crossing on the (ungated) level a little way out of Rogów, the trunk road eastwards from Łódż, occasioning big traffic queues. Through pleasant tranquil gently-undulating countryside, past intermediate stations at Jeżów and Białinin, to arrive at Głuchów some 35 – 40 minutes after leaving Rogów.
At Głuchów, the experience took on what would be an ongoing distinctively Polish character. The train’s amiable guard gathered up the passengers, and led them off through the village, to visit its handsome church. One was given to understand that this excursion was basically compulsory (M., with medical issues precluding his walking far or fast, was exempted). Spirit entered into, of the preservation outfit recreating life as in Communist days, when one was always being obliged to do assorted things, supposedly for one’s own good... at the church, the guard orated to his “charges” for some ten minutes, outside the building; then led them inside, for another ten minutes or so of “speechifying”. My minimal understanding of Polish, could make out only a few place names; had to wonder whether the guard was perhaps a zealous Catholic, seizing the opportunity to mix in with historical / geographical info, a religious pep-talk for his captive audience? (I was subsequently assured that “what the guard said” was purely secular / informational.)
After the church-bash, the flock were left free to explore the village, or make their way back to the station. The organised fun was not over, however – next phase, to take part back down the line at Jeżów. While the rest of us were hitting Głuchów’s high spots, M. had called in at a nearby grocery shop to equip us for the next attraction. It came to be understood that “campfire cook-outs” are a beloved thing in Poland. The Scout movement survived in Poland alone in the Eastern bloc, throughout Communist times, and still thrives there nowadays. Very many Poles of all ages were involved in their youth – or are still involved today – in Scouting, or its other-ideology alternatives; and greatly relish the cook-out ritual associated with that activity. The train ran back to Jeżów, and made a prolonged halt there. On a green tree-ringed patch, with benches, close by the station, a bonfire was lit (wood for same, brought in the train’s utility van); when it was burning well, grilling of sausages on sticks, commenced. M. had bought at the grocers’, a couple of sausages for the purpose, and a few bottles of beer – a convivial time was duly had.
On both the other narrow gauge tourist trains on which I travelled during this tour, the bonfire / sausage-grilling routine featured at some stage of the proceedings. Feel that this would not work as a gimmick on most British preserved lines – difficult at best, to fit in with their usually more intensive schedules... “Bonfire fun” over, the patrons re-embarked on the train and travelled back to Rogów. A delightful line: travel over its whole length would be – well, interesting – but, with its happening so rarely, seemingly difficult to encompass unless one lived in Poland.
Personal feeling regarding “tourist narrow gauge” vis-ŕ-vis “in-commercial-service-but-moribund standard gauge”: am a lover of the narrow gauge in the first place – born too late to know the n/g in my own country, in any context other than the preservation one – can thus accept situation of surviving n/g elsewhere, being there only for fun, and enjoy that on its own terms. Maybe not fully logical; but “where is it written” that hobbies must have anything to do with logic?
Next tourist narrow-gauge line covered was that from Przeworsk to Dynów, in the far south-east of the country. I had been to Przeworsk many years before, but with tight time-constraints, and strongly focused on standard-gauge steam... the 46-km Przeworsk – Dynów line is reckoned the best narrow-gauge line of true PKP lineage, for scenery (including Poland’s only n/g tunnel). Regular passenger services on the line ended in the early 1990s, but it remained in use for freight. It lasted beyond 2001 under the ownership of a consortium of local-government authorities, long operated on their behalf by SKPL – for freight, and arising at some point, for summer weekend tourist trains. At the time of my visit in July 2010, the line was still SKPL-operated – tourist trains (one return working) on summer Saturdays and Sundays, and open for freight traffic re the very rare occasions when there was any on offer. As of then, SKPL were on the verge of pulling out – not because of strife with local government, just because of what had become a situation of minimal use of the line, and its being geographically far removed from SKPL’s headquarters at Kalisz. Local government in this area would seem to be more than usually well-disposed to their narrow-gauge line as a tourist attraction, whereby seeming hope for the line’s future. As per latest heard, SKPL has indeed relinquished operating the line, but tourist workings continued in summer 2011.
Saturday July 24th 2010 saw the day’s tourist train, due to depart Przeworsk n/g station at 09.00, formed of an Lxd2 diesel loco, four 1980s-vintage Roumanian-built coach / railcar trailers, two semi-open coaches clearly constructed for the tourist trade, and the obligatory “brankard” utility van. The train, gratifyingly well-filled, made a punctual departure. Scenic gem (in Polish terms) though this line is, the excitement of that kind obtains basically on its southern half. The earlier parts of the journey are essentially on the flat, though with pleasant rolling country to the side, and the hills enticingly ahead. Sharp bends in the route, though, are a feature right from the start. The most exciting part scenery-wise, is in the 7 km or so south of the line’s renowned tunnel – hard climbing, and spectacular twists-and-turns-and-curves. Past this stretch, the last 4 km into the big village of Dynów are on the level, though between high and splendid hills. The run end-to-end took two-and-three-quarter hours. Px48-1734 sat at Dynów station – a pleasant sight, but completely non-operational.
With the terminus attained, nearly three hours were spent there. The bonfire-and-sausage-grilling ritual was held in that time, for those whose thing it was. An alternative attraction: at Bachórz, last station on the line before Dynów, there is adjacent to the station a pleasant restaurant, entitled “Pod Semaforem” – with a railway semaphore signal erected on the establishment’s road-facing forecourt. An excursion thereto, for those interested, was included in the rail trip. The loco, having run round the train, took back to Bachórz just the two semi-open coaches with the restaurant patrons; and at the end of the restaurant trip, propelled the two coaches back again to Dynów. British health-and-safety folks would have “had a cow” – thankfully, they were not there to witness what was done.
At 14.30, all fun-and-games concluded, the re-assembled train set off “back down the hill”. Participants seemed happy and highly convivial: there would appear to be an appreciative clientele for these workings. Feel very glad to have covered this line, and hope that it may continue to run for many years to come.
Last narrow-gauge visit of the tour, was for me breaking totally new ground. There was at one time, north-east of Kraków, PKP’s second-largest interconnected narrow-gauge system (maximum extent some 330 km) – only the Kujawy network, dead-centre in the country, was bigger. Like so much of PKP’s 750mm gauge, this system, chief junction with the standard gauge at Jędrzejów, was dieselised rather early. Plus, the whole large “patch” of the country in which it was situated, became at an early date very poor for standard-gauge steam – so most people, including myself, didn’t go there.
Decline on the Jędrzejów 750mm gauge system set in relatively early, with various sections losing their passenger services and in some cases being totally abandoned, as early as the 1970s. Passenger-wise, section after section fell out of use, with withdrawal of passenger service from the last stretch in 1987. A “core” of the system continued to carry freight for most of another ten years, and some tourist passenger workings, with fair regularity, were instituted. Basically, by the time of PKP’s divesting itself of its remaining narrow-gauge properties in 2001, commercial services on the system had finished. Local-government authority took over ownership of what remained of the network. By that time, the thirty-odd kilometres between Jędrzejów and Pińczów via Umianowice (the system’s one-time chief junction) were still semi-active, for tourist trains. The disused sections Umianowice – Raków and Pińczów – Wiślica had in 1996 been declared a protected “historical landmark”, with the track left in place – still basically so today, though a good deal has been lost to the present-day scourge of minor lines in Eastern Europe, rail theft (for sale to dodgy scrap-metal dealers). As at 2001, all the rest of the system had been lifted, or was shortly to be so.
In recent years, the only regular action on this once very extensive system has been one tourist train on summer Sundays, run by enthusiastic volunteers, over the Jędrzejów – Pińczów section. This working was my objective for Sunday July 25th. An early departure from Kraków on the main line north-eastward, with an interesting ride through, to me, completely new scenes – pleasant moderate hill country, as opposed to the great degree of flatness often encountered in rural Poland. On arrival at Jędrzejów, a conundrum presented itself – “find the narrow gauge”. In n/g passenger days, there had been a kilometre-long 750mm stretch through the town, from narrow-gauge station and headquarters, to a “halt” outside the s/g station (exchange of freight happened by other, and more complicated, means); but nowadays, the link line through the town is lifted and obliterated, and the narrow gauge exists in isolation. Fortunately, I had about an hour and a half in hand, so there was time in which to figure out how to get to the n/g station.
With that goal attained, the tourist train was found there awaiting its 10.00 departure. Make-up was a Roumanian coach / railcar trailer, two 1950s-type Bxhpi 1AW coaches, one of them labelled “Bufet”, and the usual “brankard” van. Motive power was, once again, a Lxd2. This line has an operational Px48, but it sees service only on rare special occasions; on this day, it was tucked away out of sight in its shed. On departure, the train was well filled with excursionists, both adults and children. The strategy which this outfit employs to “bulk out” a basic thirtyish- kilometre run each way, to a not repellent but not outstandingly interesting end-point, the large village of Pińczów, is “up and down / to and from, with pauses at intermediate place of interest”. Train departed promptly, and spent an hour and a half travelling the 31 km to Pińczów (track on this line in truly awful condition, making a snail’s pace appropriate). Pińczów brings to mind the old Clogher Valley thing of “she ran through back gardens and down the main street” – except that for the last kilometre or so to the station, the railway basically IS part of the main street: rows of houses on each side, and in between, the main street / road, and parallel to it, the narrow-gauge rails – with a stretch of grass and occasional trees, separating road and rail. The local inhabitants would seem to be very good, as regards not blocking the path of the once-weekly train by car-parking.
Quick run-round by the loco, and back the way came, the 9 km to Umianowice – system’s one-time Kinnerley, Stranorlar, or whatever such you may fancy, with a triangle with rails still in situ. The station is nowadays equipped with plentiful picnic tables and benches – with shelter in case of inclement weather – and a covered stage / dance floor. Recorded pop music played therefrom, with Beatles numbers prominent, during the long lunchtime layover – wherein the participants duly picnicked. After lunch, the train ran back once more to Pińczów (presumably those who wanted to stay meanwhile at Umianowice’s “fun venue”, did so), returning thence to Umianowice. Another layover there, for about an hour, for the more or less obligatory “campfire cookout” (for those not too full from lunch). There are some indications that at times, the first 2 km of the system’s eastward “fork” from here, as far as Hajdaszek, and back, can be travelled on the train during this second layover, as part of the day’s doings; no indication of such a thing being “on the menu” on this particular day. This might have been because at about this time, quite heavy rain had set in – though not sufficiently to deter the keener sausage-grillers. Maybe because of the rain, departure from Umianowice was some quarter-hour before scheduled time, with the train getting back to Jędrzejów about 17.45.
I could not help reflecting that the majority of members of the British public would have found a day excursion like this one, stupefyingly boring – their patience would have been exhausted, not many hours in. Can only conclude that Poles – hardened by many decades of Communist misery – are less difficult to please. All the “customers” on the trip, of all ages, seemed so far as I could make out, to take great pleasure (not noticeably alcohol-fuelled) in it. The volunteers operating the train did their very best, in all respects, to make things enjoyable. Not always, in ways agreeable to me – train was fitted out with loudspeakers which throughout most of the journey pumped out a musical assortment, seemingly mix of pop and folk, some (if my poor comprehension of Polish did not mislead) railway-themed. I usually hate being bombarded with unsolicited music; but recognise my being in that, rather strange; and “when in Rome...” The “Bufet” coach sold assorted snacks / fizzy drinks / juice, also postcards; and as well, draught beer, which I duly purchased, and fairly basic hot food – burgers / kebabs / chips, which I passed on, fearing that it might be horrid (M. has sampled same, independently, and pronounced it OK). An unusual degree of enterprise seen here: Przeworsk line train’s “Bufet” offered only a poorish selection of soft drinks and packet snacks. Overall feeling got re Jędrzejów line, was of an undertaking in a bad situation, doing its damnedest to make the best of same. Local-government authority in ownership of the line, is understood not to be very keen on it, with an ever-present possibility of their taking steps to put an end to the whole thing – tourist / preservation operations have carried on “under the shadow of the gallows” for several years past. So far as is known, these operations continued in summer 2011; but the future remains uncertain. It is heartily to be hoped that this railway may long survive, and in time run more frequently, and further, than it does at present.
This line offers an agreeable journey in its own right: runs some of the way, through splendid “darkling woods”; and there is between Umianowice and Pińczów, a by Polish standards steep escarpment on the east side of the line. In earlier times, the major division-point of the system (whose life began in the form of World War I Austrian 600mm gauge military railways) was not Umianowice, but Hajdaszek, at the “top of the hill”. The line as first built, descended the escarpment from Hajdaszek to Pińczów by means of zig-zag reversals. This, and the system’s being on 600mm gauge, continued until the early 1950s, when PKP carried out conversion to its preferred 750mm sub-standard gauge, and initiated a less arduous realigned route between Umianowice and Pińczów, abandoning the former section with its zig-zags. An interesting system with an interesting history – with the way that things happened to go, sadly neglected by most railfans.
A “kind-of” part of the Polish narrow-gauge scene, can be seen to involve urban tram systems – which in a number of Polish cities are on the metre gauge. M.’s city of Łódż is one such – furthermore, at the time of writing (though likely not for much longer), its metre-gauge tram network both intricately serves the city itself, and operates long-distance routes (making up Europe’s most extensive city-and-environs tram system) in several directions: the longest being thirty-odd kilometres northward, to Ozorków, where connection was once made with PKP’s 750mm Kujawy system. Plans were made in my 2010 bash, for a run by tram to Ozorków and back; sadly, a breakdown on the day concerned, kyboshed same, and “so much to do, so little time”, meant little actual travelling experience of Łódż’s trams – a couple of shortish metropolitan runs, and no more. Per recent news, the municipality of Łódż has pronounced sentence of death on the tram system’s long-distance routes, to happen approx. end of 2011 / beginning 2012. It might not come to pass; but overall feel nowadays concerning Poland and things-on-rails, is – “anything bad, will probably be what occurs.” Future visits to the country by me, not seen as likely; and the question could arise as to whether there would, anyway, remain anything railway/tramway-wise, worth visiting.