The International Steam Pages

“Stretford Bridge” in the East

Robert Hall wallows in Polish nostalgia.. For earlier tales in this genre, follow the links below.

In the, for railway enthusiasts, much happier times of half a century ago and further back, Britain’s rail system was (down to the most obscure and lightly-trafficked branch lines) kept in a highly spick-and-span condition. Certainly so, for anything with a regular passenger service -- unkempt stretches of line on which nature ran riot, were so rare as to attract considerable notice and comment; were all-but unknown, except on the odd privately-owned railway permanently bedevilled by severe financial difficulties. For many decades Britain’s reputed ultimate in, and byword for, minor-railway ruinous decrepitude, was the Bishop’s Castle Railway, just on the Shropshire side of the Welsh border. The line (standard-gauge, private throughout its life) ran for nine and a half miles from Stretford Bridge Junction a little way north of Craven Arms (with its own Stretford Bridge station immediately past the junction) to the small town of Bishop’s Castle. To attain the terminus, the line reversed direction at the penultimate station, involving a certain amount of toil and nuisance. The original intention had been for the railway to link Craven Arms with the Cambrian Railways’ mid-Wales main line, plus a short branch to B.C.; but the money ran out.

The BCR managed to stagger on for a seventy-year life-span, all but one year of which was spent in the hands of the Official Receiver. It was always severely strapped for cash, whereby its locomotive fleet and rolling stock were aged and second-hand; grass and weeds grew luxuriantly over its track; and its trains travelled at a decidedly gentle pace. It finally gave up the ghost in 1935: a bad, black year for minor-railway closures worldwide. I recall that one of the leading lights of the railway enthusiasts’ society at my university lived – with delicious aptness – in Bishop’s Castle; which furnished one of those moments of relief which the railfan occasionally feels, to the effect that while those who do not share his addiction may consider him insane, he is at least not delusionally so: these remote venues cherished in railway lore, do actually exist in their own right.

Visits to Poland in the 1980s and 90s with the object of rail exploration – primarily in search of everyday working steam -- caused me a little surprise in finding that PKP had then, a fair number of passenger-served minor standard-gauge branches which in the matters of “overgrown”, and of unhurried working, seemed intent on giving the Bishop’s Castle Railway a run for its money. (All that follows, concerns standard-gauge lines: the Polish State Railways [PKP]’s extensive narrow gauge was, in assorted ways, always a different kettle of fish.) My rather small amount of experience of the railways of other countries in the European Communist bloc, did not show a situation obviously the same there – at least, not as regards sheer decrepitude and rampant vegetation. Possibly, my travels in these other lands were too restricted for plumbing the extreme depths of rural rail-decline. Jugoslavia, which I visited twice – Communist, but independent of the USSR and “doing its own thing” in the economic sphere, as in others – had begun closing remote minor rural lines, on both standard and narrow gauge, as early as the mid-1960s; possibly a case of deeply-rural railways there, ceasing to be, before dereliction-in-life could set in.

Perhaps the “Bishop’s Castle factor” was a particularly Polish phenomenon. By the late 1970s, it was becoming increasingly obvious that Communism, imposed on the nations of Eastern Europe in the aftermath of World War II, was a system which basically did not work properly – neither economically, nor functionally. A part of the Communist way of doing things, firmly held to, was strong reliance on rail for freight and passenger carriage, “the greater and the less” – whether that fully made economic / practical sense in the late twentieth century, or not. It was well-known that as at the 1980s, Poland particularly among the Eastern-bloc countries, was spectacularly, horrendously broke: with the consequence that under a veneer of order, all manner of things were operationally coming apart. It can be speculated that in Poland especially: although rail passenger services were somehow kept running, including a vast kilometrage of rural branches (for a British equivalent of such coverage, think BR thirty to thirty-five years earlier) – the resources lacked, to keep minor rail lines grass-and weed-free; or in good enough repair for any passenger-train speed above glacially slow, to be safe.

In my essays in “Travellers’ Tales”, about my experience of the Polish railways (PKP) in the 1980s and early 90s, I have written of first-hand journeys on Polish branch lines in this sorry, yet in a way beguiling, state. Have mentioned particularly in this connection, the branches (all thought now long abandoned) Jelenia Góra – Kamienna Góra – Marciszów, and Kępno – Namysłów, in the south-west; Skwierzyna – Krzyż in the “mid-west”; and Olecko -- Gołdap in the north-east. The last-mentioned two, would have to rate as joint prizewinners for carrying on business while buried end-to-end, in luxuriant grass.

Not all PKP’s lesser branch lines in this era, were in so deep a plight; but it seemed that a fair number of them were so. Not that “decrepit” meant “totally useless and pointless”: before 1991, I never rode on any PKP passenger train which did not contain at worst a generous sprinkling of travellers. In part, presumably a captive-market situation, with car ownership possible for only a minority of Poles before the fall of Communism. One gathers also that under the old system and for a little while thereafter, employees of various state enterprises enjoyed rail travel either free, or at extremely generous concessionary rates. One does not see the branch lines making money hand over fist, from the clientele which they had; but the clientele was visibly there. The lines also carried whatever freight traffic customers wished to consign; although plainly in no kind of good health, they were far from completely useless.

I have mentioned in my piece “Kriegsloks With Everything”, the coining by a British railfan journal the expression “Polish Trundlebahn” – exemplifying an aspect often met with in the 1980s, of the PKP ramshackle and barely-holding-together branch line. Namely, a 2-10-0 – usually one or another German WWII “Kriegslok” variety – on a couple of coaches, or even just one, covering at a very slow and cautious speed, a rural branch which was in poor repair and copiously overgrown. This phenomenon was found all over Poland in the earlier 1980s, but seemed particularly often met with in Poland’s “mid-west”, in a wide orbit of the city of Poznań. There was the Skwierzyna – Krzyż line, cited above; and the inventors of the “Trundlebahn” term mentioned as outstanding examples in this geographical area, the Oborniki Wkp. – Wronki, and Chodzież – Gołańcz branches, neither of which I experienced personally -- both now believed abandoned. As I have observed in “Kriegsloks With Everything”: although a 2-10-0 on a tiny branch train tends to look idiotic to British eyes – “different places, different ways”. The designers of the German class 52 standard “bare-bones” Kriegslok -- used on PKP in great numbers as their class Ty2 / Ty42 – created it to (like many loved and valued versatile steam types) “go anywhere and do anything”, including on poor and wobbly track. In any case, Poland did not take the “Trundlebahn” phenomenon to the absolute ultimate. The award for that, I feel, has to go to the scene reported from Indonesia in the 1970s, of a huge Mallet 2-8-8-0 tender loco heading a local passenger train consisting of one four-wheel coach.

I was never a travelling recipient of the “Polish Trundlebahn” experience in its full beauty – a five-coupled steam loco on one coach, over a rickety, neglected branch line. Harking back again, to “Tales” pieces of mine, recalling the two occasions of the closest I ever got to same. One was in 1987 in Poland’s north-east; involving the branch line from the main-line junction of Sątopy Samulewo, to Reszel. This section (as ever, now long abandoned) had at the time, two passenger workings each way per day – one pair of same, at impossible small-hours-of-the-morning times – running further along the main line, to / from the junction. What I saw, but did not venture directly to participate in, was a Ty2 on one coach, arrived at Sątopy junction on the 0452 ex Reszel. The trains were scheduled to cover the branch’s 10km, in forty minutes – definitely on the slow side, even for its general milieu: the mind boggles at what kind of state the track must have been in.

The other was three years earlier, once again in the “mid-west”: on the old PKP Table 393, from Bzowo Goraj junction near the western end of the very long cross-country branch between Krzyż and Inowrocław; to Czarnków and Piła. The first 7 km. of this route from Bzowo Goraj to Czarnkow, had a relatively frequent passenger service, mostly running through to and from Krzyż; the remaining 37km to Piła saw but two trains each way per day – very early morning, and late afternoon – making their leisurely way through the “on-line meadow”. Arriving at Bzowo Goraj behind an Ol49 2-6-2 on the day’s first train out of Krzyż on the cross-country line, Ty43-88 (“heavy” version of the Kriegslok) was observed with its one-coach train at the Piła branch platform, awaiting departure for that destination, at 0440. It would cover its 44km run at an average speed matching that of the Reszel train – some 15km per hour. There is some recent indication that the part of this line between Bzowo Goraj and Czarnków, with a connecting stretch of the cross-country route, may still see freight traffic – whether this is actually so, is anybody’s guess.

I yearned on both of these occasions, to travel on these marvels of un-speedy locomotion, which an average stage-coach of some two centuries earlier, could have bettered; but Polish grices for me, were always fiercely time-constrained, and Polish minor-branch-line timetables hideously meagre – in both instances, indulging in the attraction at hand, would have meant foregoing something else adjudged more valuable.
With the famous and “worth its weight in gold” wisdom of hindsight – if only I had lived my life differently in the 1980s, and done a great deal more gricing of Poland and other places: funds never sufficient, and bled-off by other commitments, which retrospectively, had better never been had. It would have been fascinating to explore Poland – for whatever reason, my lifelong great love among foreign lands – in greater depth, and ŕ la Bryan Morgan, travel its rural lines, which ran in virtually every corner of a large country -- giving time also, to the then numerous such non-steam lines. “Rural rides” would have been offered, through scenes which were partly badly “uglified” by modern development applied with no finesse; but rather more, idyllic in ways more often identified with decades-back in the past.

I feel it likely that – if free travel for Westerners round and about Poland had been allowed in the late 1950s / early 60s – Morgan would have swallowed the nastiness of Communism, and gone there and travelled at length, and marvelled and delighted and written of – and, he being a devout Catholic, especially so in a country which stayed strongly Catholic, against all pressures to the contrary. Again, as written of previously – Poland was one of those countries which did not on the whole, take with great enthusiasm to the diesel railmotor. Post-WWII, such units saw considerable use on narrow-gauge lines -- but on the standard gauge, they were rather rarely found; and tended to be used on relatively up-market routes – the branch-line “rural slums” were loco-hauled (steam or diesel) territory. If only I had had the time and thus opportunity to – as well as steam-chasing – explore the diesel-worked decrepit deep- rural lines, standard-gauge and narrow – more of them, especially as time wore on, diesel, than steam. If only we all had a practice run at life, and then a second try, to be able to make a better fist of it... A good many enthusiasts would probably have preferred seeing these lines abandoned, to witnessing their eking out their last days in disrepair and near-dereliction, even if still carrying a more than ludicrously small amount of traffic. Given any traffic whatsoever, I would love for this scene still to be functioning today.

It became ever clearer that the entire Polish branch-line “theatre of the absurd” commemorated here, was happening on borrowed time; and 1991 / 92 proved to be the era of the great holocaust of PKP’s lowest-ranking standard-gauge branch lines where passenger services were concerned. Many lasted longer for freight, a few possibly up to this day; some were spared passenger-wise in 1991 / 92, but fell in the closures of the succeeding years. Rather oddly, the Polish narrow gauge did better than the lowliest parts of the standard gauge, for most of a decade; but Fate had “a rod in pickle” for the n/g, and well and truly brought it out in 2001 – when PKP renounced its narrow-gauge interests: the lines were thrown on the mercy of the local-governmental authorities in their respective areas. At least the preservation scene affords a chance of survival to a few rural lines in Poland, of both standard and narrow gauge. Our old friend in the Welsh Marches succumbed altogether too early, for any possibility of its featuring in that particular scenario.

Rob Dickinson