From Poznan to London – part 2

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helmstedt

Crossing the border at Helmstedt. Photo Alan Winston

(Click to go to the Helmstedt 1970-71 website and see more of Alan Winston’s remarkable railway photographs.)

The story so far. Dyspozytor has decided to give himself a treat and travel from Poznan to London by train. He has set himself a budget of 100 euro for the journey and is going to try to book the journey on-line. Yesterday he tested the PKP InterCity on-line booking system and found it useless. Frustrated by his lack of progress he starts to reminisce about travelling between Poland and the UK by train in his youth.

In the good old days it was easy. You marched up to the booking office in London’s Liverpool Street Station and bought a ticket. One ticket, all inclusive no fuss. (Of course, if you were a Pole going in the other direction, it was not so easy. Unless you were travelling on Communist Party business it could take 6 months or more to get your passport. This had to be handed back to the authorities on returning to Poland.)

You left London around 10 in the morning on the Hook Continental from Liverpool Street to Parkestone Quay. A British Railways Steamer took you to Hook of Holland. Here your Polish couchette coach would be waiting for you. This coach would be your home for the next twenty hours or so. A change of direction at Utrecht, then the train steadily rattled Eastwards across Europe: Amersfoort and Hengelo in Holland; Rheine, Osnabruck, Hannover and Braunschweig in West Germany.

West Germany was always good for a sight of its huge 2-10-0 heavy freight locomotives. The West Germans were sensible. They didn’t abandon their coal mines and heavy industries overnight the way Britain did, and they didn’t junk their best freight locomotives prematurely either.

Then the fun began. First Helmstedt where in the middle of the night you said goodbye to West Germany.

PASS KONTROL!

Out comes your passport, the border guard checks your face and photograph coincide you are rewarded by a nice stamp in your passport. Then Marienborn where the East German border guards welcomed you to their Democratic Republic.

PASS KONTROL!

Then just as you were settling down back to sleep in a socialist state.

PASS KONTROL!

You were being checked out of East Germany.

PASS KONTROL!

And welcomed back to capitalism in West Berlin. At this time of night it was easy to get out of synchronisation. Am I in the East or West? But to an old hand like myself, there was no problem. West was where the Coca Cola ads were. No time to get comfy though,

PASS KONTROL!

This is it chaps. This really is goodbye to the West.

PASS KONTROL!

With a bit of aggression this time, as if the East German border guard resented the easy way you could flip between East and West. And then the train stopped. Berlin seemed in those days to have half a dozen main line railway stations, but at this one the train stopped as if it was going to go no further. I have a vague memory that this could have been Berlin Friedrichstrasse, but if any BTWT readers know better, please write and let me know. I once asked the train guard how long we would be stopping here, and on being told 90 minutes, I went off – quite unchallenged (I only had a transit visa for East Germany) – for a wander around East Berlin. It was quite impressive, with grey concrete being the predominant theme.

The reason for the wait was to allow the train to link up with the Brussels-Moscow express and plenty of recovery time had been built into the schedule. I remember one particularly hard winter when on arrival at Hook of Holland we discovered that our Polish railway carriages had not made it on time. When we finally set off we were about 5 hours late and lost time all the way. On arrival in Berlin we discovered that the Moscow express had gone on without us. The East German railway company, Deutsche Reichsbahn, dumped our carriages in a siding without providing any steam heating. Our breath froze on the windows and formed brown cigarette smoke coloured icicles which nearly reached the floor.

We survived by opening our suitacses and putting on every item of clothing we could find. Poles smoked and drank their whisky which they had been given by their relatives in England in return for the vodka that they had brought from Poland. Everybody became very friendly. It was almost an anti climax when, some 8 hours later, PKP sent out a rescue train of steam locomotive and heating coach – one attached to each end – to take us to Poland. Then one final,

PASS KONTROL!

On the East German-Polish border, followed by a much more polite,

Dokumenty prosze!

and we were in Poland on the home stretch. That really was travel! At the journey’s end one’s passport was covered in stamps recording each stage of the adventure. Today’s youngsters don’t know how easy they have things these days. Now where was I? Ah yes, I remember now. I was going to tell you about The Man in Seat Sixty One. Well, if nothing more urgent comes up, I’ll tell you about him tomorrow.

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3 Responses to “From Poznan to London – part 2”

  1. Gavin Whitelaw Says:

    Ah, memories, 1990 and couchettes to Poznan from Koln (They had gone from Hook by then) and the very last dregs of East German transit visas (Needed them on the outward journey, but two weeks later they had gone!). I remember the problems we had in 1990 when I first went to Poland on free passes as I worked for BR then. I can’t remember why but I had to go and get an International ticket from Orbis in Poznan and it took AGES!!!

    You think that it would have got better in the past 19 years but no, the Poles DO like their paperwork!! :-) Only 1.5 hrs from Stanstead to Poznan now so a couple of days in Poland is now feasable. I remember flying by LOT via Warszawa and seeing my bag being transferred as the only through bag onto the Poznan flight…

  2. Robert Hall Says:

    The old “going east by rail” scene prior to the fall of Communism, certainly had an atmosphere to it (and the Helmstedt 1970 / 71 pictures are marvellously evocative).

    At time of my first visit to Poland, in 1980, I was naïve and ill-informed about some aspects of these doings. On the eastward train journey, it came as a surprise to me that – our train being one to destinations in the Bloc, not a specific West Berlin corridor working – we entered East Germany, and then as a matter of ordinary procedure, ran into and served West Berlin, then exited ditto back into East Germany; with passport formalities at every step of the procedure. I had expected that the train would avoid West Berlin altogether, going round the Berlin ring line and into an East Berlin terminus, then back out again from same, and on to the Polish border.

    The bureaucratic pantomime thus experienced – and learning that it was the standard way of things day in, day out – prompted me to wonder whether the Cold War truly was “real and earnest”; or whether all concerned were, in fact, using it as a pretext for entertaining themselves by playing silly buggers in a complicated way – plus, this stuff would be a means of creating jobs. By any ordinary common-sense standards (as opposed to those of the international-affairs scene) the whole business with Berlin was truly bizarre…

  3. Christian Says:

    As you might leave the station and were able to walk around in East Berlin without an extra passport check, this long stop of the train must have happened in “Berlin Ostbahnhof”. The environment of this station was indeed impressive, a lot of concrete (houses and esp. The Berlin wall in the vicinity). – The next two passport checks his (first by the East Germans, and after a short time by the Poles) must be followed in Frankfurt / Oder then.

    Christian

    With a bit of aggression this time, as if the East German border guard resented the easy way you could flip between East and West. And then the train stopped. Berlin seemed in those days to have half a dozen main line railway stations, but at this one the train stopped as if it was going to go no further. I have a vague memory that this could have been Berlin Friedrichstrasse, but if any BTWT readers know better, please write and let me know. I once asked the train guard how long we would be stopping here, and on being told 90 minutes, I went off – quite unchallenged (I only had a transit visa for East Germany) – for a wander around East Berlin. It was quite impressive, with grey concrete being the predominant theme.

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