Whither Wolsztyn?

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Pt 47-112 on the turntable at Wolsztyn, photo Hubert Smietanka

(Click on photo to see the original high resolution picture and for details of licensing.)

A number of readers have hinted that it’s time for BTWT to bring the Wolsztyn story up to date. In June we published an article with the byline, “Is this the end of Wolsztyn as Europe’s last working MPD?”, and although we have published several posts since then reporting on the ‘return to steam’, we have yet to give a comprehensive assessment of the long-term future of the operation.

This week, four workings have been regularly steam-hauled: Ol49-69 was diagrammed on 77425 / 77426, Wolsztyn 05:28 – Poznań 07:07 / 09:28 – Wolsztyn 11:20; while Pt47-112 was diagrammed on 79322 / 79327 Wolsztyn 05:56 – Leszno 07:10 / 15:43 – Wolsztyn 16:44. On Wednesday Pt47 also hauled a special working at 10:00 from Wolsztyn to Zbaszynek and then the returned to Leszno after which the train became the 79327 diagrammed working to Wolsztyn.

In the short-term, Wolsztyn is ‘back in business’ and the actual summer gap – during which the steam haulage of scheduled passenger trains was suspended – was much shorter than at first announced. It can even be argued that the position of Wolsztyn now is much stronger than it was before the crisis. The enormous outpouring of public support for the continuance of Wolsztyn’s steam trains took everyone by surprise, and will mean that anyone who comes up with a plan to close the operation down is unlikely to succeed.

The recent crisis also proved the professionalism and resilience of Howard Jones’s ‘Wolsztyn Experience’ operation. Making the most of his back up arrangements at Wroclaw and on the Smigiel Railway Howard ensured that none of his paying guests returned from Wolsztyn disappointed. On a number of occasions during the recent break in scheduled workings Howard dipped into his own ‘war chest’ to hire empty stock workings or light engine movements to ensure that all his commitments to his customers were met. Wolsztyn Experience’s main WWW site reports optimistically about a 5 year partnership between Wielkopolska province local authority and PKP. But this is Poland where all agreements have a secret back door escape route.

Taking a long term view all is certainly not well. PKP Cargo’s running of Wolsztyn is reminiscent of the way that Bryn Eglwys slate quarry was run in the last days of its operation. Because the cost of driving new levels to reach virgin slate was prohibitive, the quarries were kept open by mining the pillars that kept the roof of the mine from collapsing. (Eventually the roof of one of the quarry chambers did collapse, but fortunately without any loss of life.) Wolsztyn’s steam locomotives are kept going by a policy of cannibalising locomotives whose boiler ticket has expired and mending and patching, but they really need major investment and professional maintenance if they are to continue running an intensive daily passenger service for many years into the future.

Frustratingly, a solution for the management of PKP’s heritage railway assets was found, but never implemented. Fundacja Era Parowozow was set up by PKP Cargo to take over and manage its historic rolling stock. The idea was brilliant by giving its historic rolling stock to a charity, PKP could write off the transfer against tax. Moreover Fundacja Era Parowozow as a charity could collect funds from businesses and local authorities and could also partner local authorities in applying for EU grants. So what happened? In the end PKP Cargo decided to hold on to its steam engines as use Fundacja Era Parowozow solely as a marketing vehicle!

The short-term nature of this decision will become apparent as PKP Cargo goes through a series of reorganisations to prepare itself for privatisation, and is then privatised and subsequently sold to Deutsche Bahn. In the meantime Howard Jones and others are working on a ‘Plan B’.

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