Archive for March 22nd, 2009

The last survivors – part 1

Sunday, 22 March 2009

zbiersk_wagon

Standard gauge wagon riding on top of narrow gauge transporter, Kalisz Local Railway. Still from You Tube video by drezyna24

(Click on picture to view video.)

Freight carrying on the Polish narrow gauge is fading into history. In spite of valiant efforts by SKPL to keep its freight operations going, it seems unlikely that any of Poland’s narrow gauge commercial railways – passenger or freight – will survive the global economic crisis. Only a handful of narrow gauge museum and tourist railways running a seasonal tourist railways will be left.

Just 8 years ago, a surprisingly large number of Polish narrow gauge railways were still carrying commercial traffic. A good idea of what remained in operation can be obtained by visiting the Polish Narrow Gauge Railways website which was created between 1997 and 2003 by Andrew Goodwin, Steve Goodwin and Dave Meller.

In 2001, spurred on by Juliusz Engelhardt*, Poland’s very own Dr Beeching, PKP closed all its remaining narrow gauge lines. This was done exactly in the same way that that Britain’s branch lines were closed – without taking into account the income of combined journeys consisting of branch line and main line portions. In Poland as in England when the feeder line was closed, in most cases the whole journey – not just the feeder line portion – was lost to road transport.

Legislation was put in place allowing local authorities to take over branch lines (both narrow and standard gauge) that had been had been closed by PKP. However, while local authorities hesitated and tried to reach accommodations amongst themselves, scrap thieves helped themselves to the railway track and contents of workshops. Many kilometres of the Pomeranian and the Kujawy narrow gauge railways were lost in this way.

Not all local authorities saw the value of their railways. The Piotrkow Narrow Gauge Railway was unusual because the preservation society obtained a lease of the railway from direct from PKP without waiting for a local authority to enter into an agreement with PKP. After a few years of operation the Society’s plans failed because the local authorities along the line failed to grasp its tourist potential and wanted to use the railway land for road improvements and other developments.

However, in most cases the preservationists had to wait for the local authority to take over the railway from PKP, and then negotiate their own agreement with the local authority. By the time all the arrangements were in place, passenger and freight traffic had been lost and the line looked more like a scrap yard than a working railway. When this point was reached, individual members of such local authorities who might have been sympathetic to a restoration project, felt that ‘selling’ such a project to their colleagues and to their electors would be an impossible task.

SKPL was founded on the premise that certain narrow gauge railways still had enough freight potential to generate sufficient revenue to maintain a core permanent staff and that local authorities would provide some funding to maintain a basic passenger service and keep freight traffic off the roads. In the event SKPL’s hopes were to prove to be widely optimistic.

The first of SKPL’s lines to fall by the wayside was the Mlawa Railway. The line had been taken over by Krasne District Council at the instigation of  Maciej Kozlowski, formerly in charge of marketing PKP’s narrow gauge railways. The line was first operated by Kozlowski’s Forest Railway Society and then SKPL took over when it seemed that a contract to carry bicycle parts to the Kross bicycle factory in Prasnycz would underwrite the costs of maintaining a permanent staff. The deal feel through because the District Council would not allow a new siding to be built across the highway into Kross’s factory. Faced with insufficient demand for freight to maintain a permanent staff, SKPL withdrew. Unfortunately, in spite of having formed an association to encourage tourist development along the railway, the local authorities seemed incapable of investing any money in the line itself.

(to be continued…)

* the Under Secretary of State in the Ministry of Infrastructure responsible for rail, a similar position to Lord Adonis in the Department for Transport in the UK.