Archive for April, 2008

A Ride on the Dark Track – Finale

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Dartford River Crossing, Tunnel and Bridge

Wojtek turned right, then second left, and we were out of the labyrinth. The sat-nav picked up our route, another 25 kilometres and we were back on the motorway. Now the struggle was to keep awake for as long as it took to get to Calais. (I took it as a matter of honour, and self-preservation, that I would try to keep Wojtek company and awake.) We nearly turned off the motorway one exit too early, but finally we were on the spur road to the car ferry terminal. The time was 4.30 am exactly 24 hours after we were at the start of our ‘by-pass route’ around the centre of Wroclaw.

We passed miles of rusty railway sidings. The unwillingness of SNCF to provide competitively priced stabling facilities for trans Europe freight trains is one of the reasons why so little rail freight passes through the channel tunnel. The other reason is the charging policy of Eurotunnel. Perhaps we should look at railfreight through the Channel Tunnel – or rather the lack of it – in a future post?

We arrived at the lorry check-in for the Dover ferry. Wojtek had planned a kip in the lorry holding area. He was out of luck, the next ferry sailed in less than an hour. By the time the French had checked our lorry for stowaways, the Brits had done the same, but much more thoroughly, and the Brits had checked our passports, there was less than 20 minutes to rest. Nethertheless we both slept.

On board the ferry we decided to try the driver’s restaurant. £4 bought a traditional English breakfast, but the standard was not as good as a traditional UK HGV drivers cafe. We snatched another quick nap and then we were rolling through the Dover ferry terminal – no security check this time – and onto the A2. We crossed under the River Thames at the Dartford crossing and soon the sat-nav was guiding us through the narrow streets of East London to our final destination. Wojtek had been on the road for 30 hours, of which a total of 6 hours had been spent resting.

My journey by lorry from Poland to England by lorry was quite an education, and I will return to some of the things that I learnt in future posts. Meanwhile there have been happenings in the Polish rail arena, particularly as regards the campaign to save the Krosniewice Railway. There have also been developments in Pyskowice and elsewhere. WATCH THIS SPACE !

A Ride on the Dark Track – part 3

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Hollandsch Diep Bridge, HSL Zuid High-Speed Rail Line

Dyspozytor is riding on a lorry from Poland to London to discover why so much Polish freight goes to the UK by road. The first part of his report was published on Sunday.

We pulled into a parking area about 10 am. “Half an hour”, said Wojtek. We slept for two. It was going to be our longest period of uninterrupted sleep before we reached our unloading point in East London. Wojtek had chosen the time for his passage through Germany well. We cruised past Berlin, Braunschweig, and Hanover. We drove through the centre of Bad Oberhausen. This strange 6 km gap in the German motorway network is the result of some nifty lobbying by local residents. They want a tunnel, not a Twyford Down style by-pass.

At 4 pm. we stop at another parking area for our statutory rest period. Several hours ago, Wojtek should have taken a compulsory 7 hour rest period, but by juggling the discs in his tachograph, he had created a second virtual driver that would pass any later inspection. We would be OK, provided we weren’t pulled up by the traffic police. During our 20 minute break we were entertained by the comings and goings of 20 policemen in bright fluorescent jackets looking at vehicles in the parking area on the other side of the motorway. They seemed to be concentrating all their efforts on inspecting the contents of small vans, rather than lorries or cars.

Half an hour later we were overtaken by a white van. The driver seemed to know Wojtek and signalled him to pull in at the next parking area. We stopped, handshakes were exchanged, and the van driver beckoned us round to the back of his van. Inside was an Aladdin’s cave packed with the latest consumer electronics. Perhaps Wojtek would like a plasma TV for his wife? The price was really competitive. Wojtek reluctantly shook his head. Was it something to do with my presence, or the prospect of taking the hot TV through the closely controlled UK border? I never did find out.

By 6 pm. we were cruising through Holland. The interesting feature of this part of the trip was the Hogesnelheidslijn Zuid (High-Speed Line South) – a brand new 300 km/hr high speed railway constructed through Holland and Belgium to connect a new route Antwerp and Amsterdam. The line was completed in 2007, but apart from construction and gauging trains, no services have yet run on the new railway. The villain in the story is the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS). But this is neither the place nor the time. I will deal with ERTMS in a separate post. The HSL Zuid has been constructed practically along the motorway hard shoulder thereby reducing environmental disruption to the minimum.

Our route left the HSL Zuid for a while, only to rejoin it again on the other side of the Holland – Belgium border. I decided that the graciously curved catenary supports in Holland were much more attractive than the traditional straight variety installed along the Belgian section of the line. Antwerp, with its long underwater tunnel, was passed without a hitch. Then some 50 km later, the turn off for the motorway to Ostend was closed. Wojtek switched on his sat-nav and I kept a close look out for road signs. Our diversionary route was signposted some 20 km later. So far so good, Wojtek’s sat-nav and the road signs were in perfect agreement. But then after 15 km, our diversionary route was coned off. We had to take a diversion off our diversion! We found ourself driving through an elegant residential area, small bungalows with large gardens. The road was barely wide enough for our lorry! Then we reached a spot where the sat-nav said “Straight on,” and the road sign said “No through road”.

A Ride on the Dark Track – part 2

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Lorries coming off the Calais ferry at Dover Harbour

Dyspozytor is riding on a lorry from Poland to London to discover why so much Polish freight goes to the UK by road. The first part of his report was published yesterday.

My driver said call me “Wojtek” and we shook hands. By now there was a little traffic on the roads. A number of lorries flashed their lights at us. Was there a police checkpoint ahead? Then the radio barked, “Switch off that bloody halogen”. “I haven’t got any halogens,” muttered Wojtek under his breath. We rolled along newly asphalted roads for a few hours. The air became heavy with a strong smell of diesel fumes. “Wroclaw” explained Wojtek. We turned off the main road and proceed a long a narrow road little better than a farm track. Another lorry coming from the other direction had to wait while Wojtek pulled over onto the side of the road. We turned right into a slightly wider road, after a time there were regular street lights and tram tracks running parallel to the road on our right.

It seems that the Councillors of Wroclaw, in a display of environmental conciousness that’s rare in Poland, have decreed that lorries with an overall weight of 18 tonnes or more are banned from the streets of their city. Poland being Poland, there is a slight hitch – Wroclaw is on the direct route from Warsaw and other parts of Poland to the German autobahn system, and – there is no Wroclaw by-pass. So Wojtek, and many other drivers like him, have invented their own bypass. The substandard tracks get them half way round the city, so reducing the chance of a meeting with the traffic police by 50%. By performing this manoeuvre at 4.30 am. in the morning, Wojtek had reduced the chance of such a meeting to insignificant proportions.

We drive along a cobbled street with a tram track in the centre that is in the course of being lifted. Was this part of an EU-funded track refurbishment programme, or a reduction in the City’s tram routes? It was difficult to tell. We drove into an all night petrol station and Wojtek bought a gas cylinder for the small portable stove that he cooks on. Then he checked his lights. The offending light was a fog lamp that seemed to be wired up in parallel with the main headlights. Wojtek put down a tarpaulin on the muddy ground and crawled under the cab. 10 minutes later he had disconnected the rogue foglamp and we were on our way again. We drove over a concrete flyover constructed in the 70’s. Cracks in the asphalt betrayed serious structural problems. A weight restriction sign said 10 T. “Don’t worry”, said Wojtek, We’re only 18.5 tonnes. The bridge is regularly crossed by lorries with weighing 45 tonnes or more.”

Not far from Wroclaw we joined the A4 motorway. Curiously, this recently constructed section of the Polish motorway system has been built without a hard shoulder. I guess that the official who drew up the specification and the contractor who built this section, both benefited from its omission.

Wojtek began making a strange snorting noise and I guessed that he was fighting hard not to fall asleep. It was about 6pm. After another hour he gave up the unequal struggle and pulled into a lorry park cum shopping area to catch “half an hours sleep”. A couple of hours later, with both of suitably refreshed, we set off again. We crossed the Polish border about 9 am. Poland has entered the Shenegen zone so there were no border formalities, but Wojtek did have to stop and buy a 95 euro ticket to pay for his transit via the German motorway system. “We’ll stop in a little over an hour and have a decent sleep,” promised Wojtek. “We’ll arrive in England, whenever we arrive. There’s no rush for this load of furniture.”

A text message brought about the only occasion when I heard Wojtek almost swear. “Cripes! This load of cardboard furniture is wanted in England tomorrow morning!” 1,500 km to go.

The third part of the journey is available here.

A Ride on the Dark Track – part 1

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Narrow roads and wide lorries – photo from The Kielbasa Chronicle

On Thursday evening, we asked the question, ‘Why do a thousand Polish lorries come to the UK every day?’ Couldn’t some of whatever it is that they are carrying go by rail? I’ve always taken pride in being a hands on sort of chappie so – pausing only to stock up with Polish sausage and Zubrowka – I go out on the road to investigate.

Midnight, I’m picked up by a lorry at a crossroads somewhere in central Poland. The driver explains that he’s not the driver that’s going to take me to the UK, but the first of several cut outs. We drive for two hours over deserted roads. He quizzes me about the UK. Are there so many advertisement hoardings along the roads? Are there so many narrow roads lined with trees? I ask him if he’s ever driven to the UK himself. He answers that he’s been offered the chance, but reckons that he’d get pretty lonely, driving for days at a stretch with no one to talk to, so he prefers to drive in Poland. He seems glad of my company. Once we have to slow down as a lorry pulls into the road just ahead of us, but its driver signals that we should overtake.

Eventually, we pull off the main road and drive some 10 kilometres along a narrow country road. We reach a small town/large village. In the dark it’s difficult to tell. We pull up alongside a tall house. The driver says goodbye and gets into a car and drives away. Ten minutes later another driver pops into the cab, takes the keys away and vanishes back into the house. It begins to get cold. I fall into an uneasy sleep. The driver returns. We’re on our way. Suddenly a 4×4 with darkened windows screeches to a halt. My luggage and I are unceremoniously decanted into the new vehicle. The new driver tells me that I’m late and that the boss will not be pleased. We drive well outside the safety envelope for this sort of road. A massive iron gate blocks the way ahead of us and slides open on our approach. We’re in a yard, with lorries everywhere. I’m told to get out. The driver drops off my luggage and roars off into the dark. A man emerges from a block of flats and waves for me to follow him. He leads me to a blue DAF cab unit attached to two traillers. My luggage is hoisted in. He starts the engine and allows the air pressure build up, he let’s out the clutch and we’re off. Two thousand kilometres to go!

The second part of Dyspozytor’s journey is here.

On the road again

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Cheshire County Council road signThis will be my last post for three days. I hope to meet up with you again on Sunday evening. I will be travelling from Poland to England in an articulated lorry loaded with furniture. During the 1,500 miles of my journey I’ll be asking why a 1,000 lorries like this make the journey from Poland to England every day and why more of this stuff doesn’t get despatched by rail. If all goes well I should gather some good material for a couple of posts.

So let’s take some time out. Those of you who have become interested in our campaign to save the Krosniewice narrow gauge railway, consider devoting the time that you would have spent reading BTWT to writing a letter instead, to the Mayor of Krosniewice. Please don’t forget the all important copy to the Minister of Infrastructure. You’ll find all the information that you need (names and addresses and a sample letter) in earlier posts.

Our road map

Thursday, 3 April 2008

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Ania, one of the school children who
regularly used the KrKD, decorates
the last train. 31.03.2008

(Clicking the picture leads to more.)

Behind the Water Tower started as a ‘niche’ blog some 10 weeks ago. Our intention was to celebrate the variety of Poland’s railway heritage and to encourage railway enthusiasts from Western Europe to visit Poland. If we had a ‘hidden agenda’ – it was a hope that some of these western visitors would befriend their Polish counterparts and help the Polish societies with their work. The bigger societies, such as FPKW, PSMK and SKPL, already have links with the outside world, but there are a score of lesser-known railway societies, struggling against enormous odds to develop their railways and railway museums, who desperately need assistance.

After a month or so of experimental blogging (it’s no easy task to find something new and exciting to say every day) external events suddenly took a hand. A massive and irrecoverable crash on our original host, forced our move to WordPress.com, but how to inform our ten or so readers? We prepared an e-mail to everybody we knew who was interested in Polish rail. Some of these were members of an informal group of anglo-poles who meet to dine in Warsaw once or twice a year. We added all their names for good measure! The e-mail pointed out that it was easy to get crossed off the mailing list. Neo, a friend of ours, also posted a couple of links on the kolejelist discussion group.

Dyspozytor waited for the floodgates to open (Please take me off your mailing list at once!) but no angry e-mails came. The regular readership climbed to about thirty, peaking to twice or three times that figure when we carried an article of interest to a particular group. Then came the closure of Krosniewice, with the main Polish narrow gauge discussion group indulging in an orgy of mutual recriminations as to whose fault it was. (It’s not the fault of any Polish railway enthusiast, but it’s entirely the fault of Madame Mayor!)

Decision time – do we join the MOANERS, sitting on the fence helplessly, wringing their hands and blaming each other – or do we emulate John Wayne? We decided to wade into the battle to save the Krosniewice Railway, guns blazing! One of the administrators of Swiat Kolejek Waskotorowych (Polish narrow gauge discussion group) published a link to our campaign and yesterday’s readership broke through the roof! It will take a few days for things to settle down, but if we end up with a base of, say 30 to 50 readers prepared from time to time to type out the odd letter, we will be very content!

We hit a ton!

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

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One hundred hits – 16.15 today!

At 16:15 local time BTWT registered 100 hits for the first time. Of course, some of these hits will be web spiders, bots and other creepy crawlies, but even so reaching a ton is a nice achievement, bearing in mind that just over a month ago we moved the blog from Tooum.net where BTWT was originally hosted. Our previous best ever was 83 hits where we peaked on 8 March this year when we ran the story Skierniewice Success. I guess quite a few members of the Polish Association of Railway Enthusiasts popped in that day to see what we had written about them! On 11 March we had a mini publishing boom carrying three articles, Tribute to Howard Jones, Last Krzeszowice Engines Saved and The Papal train. Our efforts gained us 58 views.

On 18 March when our feature Oxenholme then and now brought us 55 views. Many of our visitors were Arthur Ransome fans for whom Oxenholme is the model for Strickland Junction in the Swallows and Amazons novel Pigeon Post.

So when we hit 100 visitors earlier today we were very pleased. It showed that our campaign to save the Krosniewice line was bringing in interest from outside our usual readership. But then the viewing statistics kept on rising! By 18.50 we had hit 150 visitors with no sign of a slowdown!

At this point we did a little investigation and discovered that someone had posted a link to our letter writing campaign on the Swiat Kolejek Waskotorowych (The World of Narrow Gauge Railways) discussion group. (WARNING – Polish only site) We read through the thread and were disappointed to see a succession of mostly negative posts from MISERABLE MOANERS! (Yes, that’s you if you haven’t yet written to the Mayor of Krosniewice yet!) So we contacted Andrew Goltz, Anglo-Pole and Swanage Railway founder and asked him to give SKW a good kick up the backside. His efforts brought in even more visitors. By 21.30hrs we had passed the 200 mark.

But the graph was still rising! A further check indicated that we were now getting traffic from a German railway discussion forum. Following the links back we found some beautiful photographs taken on the last day by the German visitors that we had written about on Monday. Just click on the picture below to see the rest of these sad and evocative pictures.

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For some hauntingly beautiful pictures of the last
rites on the Krosniewice Railway click on the picture

Meanwhile the graph kept rising. By the time it reached 253 views it was time for bed. Now if everybody who visited BTWT just gave up 15 minutes and wrote a letter to Mrs Herman, the Mayor of Krosniewice – and then spend a quick 5 minutes forwarding details of this blog to their friends – Dyspozytor and Co. would be very happy bunnies indeed!

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253 hits 01.59 (23.59 GMT) Time for bed, vertical
scale has been adjusted to match the top graph.

Krosniewice, last train photos

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

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Just received, I thought you should see them ASAP ‘as is’. I’ll might add captions and a proper commentary later today. Pictures by Tilo Rosner, who travelled all the way from Dresden to catch the last train.

Come to Chabowka! Yes, but when?

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Steam shuttle Rabka Zdroj – Chabowka Skansen, 2006

The Chabowka Steam Gala is the headline event of the Polish heritage rail calendar. Held traditionally on the last weekend in July, it involves not only all the steamable locomotives in Chabowka, but also visiting locomotives from Wolsztyn and abroad. The parade is actually held at at Rabka Zdroj, a little way up the Nowy Sacz line, and involves not just steam locomotives, but vintage passenger and freight trains as well. My mate Neo, at the kolejelist discussion group, has organised two study trips for UK railway societies to visit Poland’s surviving narrow gauge railways and rail heritage sites, and I hear that his British visitors consider the Chabowka Steam Gala to be the highlight of their trip.

So should you tell the wife that she’s taking the kids to Ibiza by herself, and that your company has sent you on a week long team building course at the end of July – and join Neo and his colleagues as they celebrate British-Polish friendship in various engine sheds all around Poland? Well, err… No. We don’t actually know when the Chabowka Gala will take place this year! It should be taking place on Saturday July 26. However, Wojciech Balczun, Chairman of the PKP Management Board, is entertaining some VIPs in September and has asked Zbigniew Gondek, his local Operations and Technical Support Director in Cracow, to consider moving the event to September. Our charming ‘cleaning lady’ friend, who empties the paper bins at PKP Cargo Warsaw HQ in Grojecka Street, has everything in hand and we will let you know just as soon as a definitive date emerges.

Meanwhile, somebody please tell Neo!

On yer bike!

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

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Groningen Railway Station just look at all that
space allocated to pedestrians and cyclists!

I’m grateful to Christian Wolmar, Britain’s rail pundit, for giving me the idea for tonight’s post. What with saving the planet on Saturday and trying to save the Krosniewice Railway on Monday, recent posts were going to be a hard act to follow, and I was really stumped. Then I read Christian’s blog about his trip to Holland.

I am in Holland for a ten day speaking tour to local groups of the Anglo-Dutch friendship society and I plan to post regular items on the blog on my thoughts. Whenever I go to Europe and spend a bit of time there, it amazes me just how different each society is from Britain, and indeed from each other. I hope that the growing dominance of the European Union does not change that.

I went for a run this morning in the suburbs of a small town called Hengelo… Just on this short run, it became so apparent the way that life is organised around the bicycle.

I ran along a Fitspad, a bike path, for a couple of miles, and when I ran outwards, there were just a few students and the odd youngster on their bikes, but on the way back, the cycle path was full of kids, parents with kids on bikes, parents with kids on the back, and groups of teenagers. It was cycle rush hour just before school was starting and it was so nice seeing all these children cycling to school… (more… )

11 days later Christian was in Groningen where 57% of the journeys in the city are made by bicycle.

Staying in a small town 10 km from Groningen, I borrowed my host’s bike and rode in to town to see how it managed to become the place with the greatest modal share of cycling in Holland. I had been there five years ago and discovered that it was not just happenstance, but a deliberate result of keeping cars out of the city.

Riding in, it was noticeable how car traffic thinned out as I got closer to the rather badly reconstructed main square, which had been badly damaged by heavy fighting in the war as the Canadians chased out the Germans in 1945. The inner ring road has virtually no cars and, of course, lots of space for cyclists. Inside that ring, there are virtually no cars. Indeed, the crucial decision to encourage cycling rather than cars had been made in the 1970s when that ring had become chock full of traffic.

The reason for the town’s success in achieving a modal share of over 50 per cent for cycling is nothing very complicated. The crucial point is not only being pro-bike but to some extent being anti car. That is the stumbling block for policymakers in this country. You need both the carrot and the stick. (more… )

Christian’s posts got me thinking, maybe we could reduce our CO2 emissions in a way that would actually make our towns more pleasant to live in and would be beneficial for our health? I started Googling ‘Groningen cycle paths’ and discovered another interesting post on the On the Level blog.

Groningen was amazing. I travelled of my own volition– something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, to experience the city with the highest percentage of cycling in Europe. 57% of all trips are made by bicycle in this student town in the North of the Netherlands. It surely did not disappoint. As soon as I arrived, I was a little overwhelmed at the numbers of people on bikes. It was like Critical Mass everyday. The way it should be. Paradise on wheels.

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Railway station, cycle park!

The City of Groningen’s 21st century solution to the problem of cycle overcrowding at their railway station – the brand new underground bike park. The station now has room for more than 4000 bicycles, all of them monitored 24 hours a day and many of them valet parked. There is bike repair, rental, and sales, and the facility is linked to other bike stations through a membership scheme. Cycling in Groningen, and indeed much of the Netherlands, is just the norm. By prioritizing cycle traffic over cars, the Dutch engineers have managed to balance the roadway’s playing field and allow a blossoming of bicycle transport as a practical network useable by just about everyone. (more… )

So what has Poland learnt from European mistakes and European best practise? Very little I’m afraid. The country as a whole is still hellbent on ‘catching up’ Western Europe, even if that means copying faithfully all of Western Europe’s stupid mistakes. Warsaw is a mess with motor car traffic snarled up for 12 hours. There are few decent cycle paths and – instead of converting the City’s tram system to a semi-metro, which could be done relatively cheaply and quickly – the city authorities are very slowly building a Russian style classic metro at the rate of one new station every couple of years. (A semi metro goes underground only where it has to, and runs as a fast tram elsewhere.)

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Wawel Castle and Vistula cycle path, Craców

Cracow, which has always been the intellectual capital of Poland is different. Here new cycle paths are an integral part of new road developments and several fast tram routes are being built across the City. But the Warsaw City authorities are too proud to learn from another Polish city. Perhaps someone should arrange a trip for them to go to Holland instead?