A reader – who is an expert on the history of Polish narrow gauge railways – writes in to highlight some mistakes and omissions in our recent reporting. He also takes us to task for choosing to publish anonymously. Here are the key sections of his letter followed by our replies.
I’ve been reading your blog for some time and have been tempted to respond to some items in the past, but have resisted mainly because I don’t particularly want to contribute publicly – no particular reason, other than the fact that you want to keep your identity concealed and I don’t feel comfortable revealing mine in a public blog whose writer doesn’t.
It is worth restating that first and foremost BTWT is a campaigning blog. We try to make a difference with regard to the provision of rail-based transport links and the safeguarding of railway heritage. In Britain such activities are entirely mainstream. You have to be very vigorous in your campaigning to earn your own MI5 file and, as far as I am aware, no-one has been killed for trying to prevent the demolition of a historic railway station or trying to reopen a closed line.
Poland is different. A generation of wealthy thugs who formed the U.B. (Poland’s communist era Security Service) have gone freelance and have no scruples in employing whatever means seem appropriate to their limited imaginations to do their masters’ will. I was once punched in the back by a private security guard in Warsaw for parking my car after work hours in a private parking spot. The head of Warsaw’s police was murdered a few years ago for investigating a gang who, inter alia, were trying to redevelop the Warsaw Railway Museum site.
There are many Polish, and even a few English, websites that provide information about the Polish Railway scene. As far as we know we are the only independent website prepared to sponsor campaigns to defend Poland’s minor railways. As often as not, such campaigns bring us head to head with powerful vested interests. As well as saving our own skins, we also have some first class sources that we wish to protect. In the circumstances, remaining anonymous seems to us the best choice.
The first rail related comment from our correspondent concerns our October post about Warsaw’s minor railways.
You seem to have dismissed Robert Hall’s comment about the rack section. The history of the line is not widely publicised but some information is presented on the Schmalspurbahnen in Osteuropa website under the link to Piaseczno. The history is fully described by Bogdan Pokropinski in ‘Kolej Wilanowska’, published by WKL in 2001, ISBN 83-206-1405-8.
The choice of 800mm gauge for the line was not, however, because of the rack section, as the first section of the Wilanow line opened in as a horse-worked tramway in 1891 and the later rack section, from Belweder to Mokotow (Plac Unii Lubelski) did not open until 1894; steam operation started later that year but the rack section was not introduced until 1903, due to the 4% gradient on that 800m section.
The rack does not seem to have been as successful as hoped and had a short life – when the Russians withdrew from Warszawa in summer 1915 they took virtually all the locomotives and much of the rolling stock with them and, while the Germans soon brought in new locomotives (including a couple which had been under construction by O&K for the Warsaw lines before the war broke out), they did not reinstate rack operation.
We didn’t dismiss Robert Hall’s comment , but rather at the time we did not have any more information to hand which would have allowed us to amplify our answer to his question.
Your potted history of the Warszawa narrow gauge missed some of the most interesting aspects – the involvement of the tailor Paszkowski who, due to his contacts with the aristocracy (as his customers) was involved in the metre gauge Grojec line and was so incensed when he found that Henryk Huss (the main figure in the Wilanow line’s development) had obtained an order to transport bricks for construction of new barracks in the city, managed to buy some land over which Huss had built the line between Chylice and Piaseczno, built a house compound (my translation from Pokropinski’s book is a bit hazy here) on the line overnight and demanded that Huss exchange the brick transport contract for the house compound. The loss of the contract put Huss and his co-financier Juliusz Rodys in severe financial difficulty and it seems they were subsequently bailed out by Prince Stefan Lubomirski and Count Tomasz Zamoyski – one gets the impression they were slightly embarrassed by Paszkowski’s behaviour. Lubomirski and Zamoyski were key figures in the Grojec railway, hence the line’s first locomotives being no. 1 ‘Stefan’ and no. 2 ‘Tomasz’.
Another interesting feature of the Wilanow/Grojec lines was the interchange with the Warszawa – Wien railway, the link to which finally opened in 1900 after many years of trying to get consent. When the Warszawa – Kalisz line was built in 1903 the 800mm gauge link was severed and the dire financial situation of the Wilanow line by then meant that a new link could not be financed. Then the Belgians got involved in the narrow gauge. A Belgian owned company had been operating the street tramways of the city for some time and the city authorities wanted them electrified. The Belgians weren’t keen to make the investment so eventually the city terminated the concession and brought in Siemens. Lubomirski and Zamoyski therefore contacted the Belgians, who bought a significant stake in the Grojec, Wilanow and Jablonna lines, bringing the possibility of new investment.
The first such investment, in 1911, was reinstatement of the link to the standard gauge, along a slightly different alignment. The opportunity was also taken to make this link dual gauge, so that it could serve both the 800mm Wilanow line and the 1000mm Grojec line. By this time of course, the Kalisz line was open on Russian gauge so at the interchange station there were in fact four gauges.
We were aware of the personalities who promoted the rival lines, and of some – but not all – of their story. Many thanks for this additional information.
Moving on to another little gripe about historical accuracy, I note that in Robert Hall’s recent item on the Smigiel line he repeats your earlier statement that a communist party official in Rakoniewice was responsible for the section between there and Wielichowo closing in the 70s. I note, however, he does not repeat the statement that the railway thus lost its busiest section. Is this because you have now realised that it wasn’t the busiest section? Certainly the history I’ve read has suggested the line to Rakoniewice was never as successful as hoped.
The 1939 timetable shows there were already no workings between Rakoniewice and Wielichowo, while the 1944 DR timetable shows only one train, running three days per week, between Rakoniewice and Smigiel, while three daily trains ran to/from Wielichowo. The 1946 timetable showed no trains to or from Rakoniewice and by 1961 there were three trains each way between Rakoniewice and Wielichowo but four each way between Wielichowo and Smigiel. I’d say the busiest section was always Smigiel – Stare Bojanowo, with Smigiel – Wielichowo being the next busiest. Both the Rakoniewice – Wielichowo and Stare Bojanowo – Krzywin sections seem to have seen no passenger traffic at various points in history. I believe freight traffic between Rakoniewice and Wielichowo ceased in 1963, so the closure in 1973 seems to me to be the conclusion of a long decline from a not very high base.
The information that the Wielichowo-Rakonowice passenger services were well patronised and that this section was closed on the whim of a communist official came from a primary source, the guard of the railcar that I was travelling in a year or two after the services had ceased! However, now that you have raised the point, I will make a point of investigating as to whether any records exists as to what the passenger carryings on this section actually were. Just a point of clarification, the post that you refer to uses the words ‘a principal source’ not ‘the principal source’, but perhaps, in hindsight, ‘an important source’ would have been a more accurate rendering of what I had been told.
Incidentally, I think the closure of the Wielichowo – Ujazd section was finally brought about by the opening of the Wolsztyn – Grodzisk (-Poznan) line in 1905, although the section to Ujazd seems never to have been successful; from what I can see trains only ran on it on market days and the passenger service ceased as early as 1903
Many thanks for sharing your research with us. When it comes to historical accuracy, railway history is not as well documented in Poland as the UK, and the creation of a definitive record is a task which is still in progress.