The Kujawy Railways 1880-1939


Guest article by ‘Inżynier’

The Kujawy Narrow Gauge Railways at their zenith had some 1,500 of track of various gauges. Here in a guest article ‘Inżynier’ tells the story of their genesis in Poland’s Prussian and Russian partitons, through their role in a post-1918 newly-independent Poland until the outbreak of WWII.


The Kujawy narrow gauge railwys just before WWII. Map ©Bogdan Pokropinski.

(We would have liked to have provided a link to a link to a full size version of this map. But we are only including a low resolution thumbnail, because we have been unable to contact Bogdan Pokropinski to ask him for permission. The map is from Pokropinski’s definitive study of the Kujawy lines, Kujawskie Koleje Dojazdowe. The telephone number that we have for him no longer works. If any reader has a current telephone number for Mr Pokropinski – or would like to draw a new large scale map! – please get in touch. D.)

As regular readers of BTWT will know, the Krosniewice railway closed to regular traffic last year. As well as the passenger traffic, which finally ceased at the end of March 2008, SKPL, had also been carrying freight to and from the sugar factory at Brzesc Kujawski until shortly before the closure. The Krosniewice railway was the eastern end of the extensive Kujawy network, at the western end of which is the Gniezno railway. Regular passenger services on the Gniezno line ended back in the 1980s but freight traffic continued and, when PKP ceased narrow gauge operations at the end of 2001, the local authority took over the railway and, as well as ‘tourist’ passenger trains, continued to carry freight – until about August 2008.

Thus, in the last year or so, we have seen the end of regular passenger services on the Kujawy network, the end of freight traffic on the Kujawy network and the end of the last sugar factory in Poland to be served by narrow gauge railway – although Brzesc had stopped receiving sugar beet by rail in the late 1980s, it had continued to operate a short section of its internal railway, from the coal stockpile to the boiler house, even during the ‘gap’ period in 2002 between the end of PKP’s narrow gauge operations and SKPL starting to serve the factory (during which time, presumably, coal and limestone were supplied to the factory and sugar taken away by road lorry), but the factory has now ceased production.

With the effective end of the Kujawy network as a common carrier railway it is appropriate to look at how such a network came to exist since its history, whilst unique amongst narrow gauge railways, is in essence the history of the whole of the Polish railway network and, indeed, the present Polish state.

In the nineteenth century Kujawy was divided between Prussia and Russia – there was no Polish state as such, although the name was often used to describe the Russian ‘Congress Kingdom’ of Poland (so named because Russian sovereignty over the region was a result of the Congress of Vienna) although it was ruled by the Tsar. The briefest of glances at a railway map of Poland (particularly a map of the railway network at the outbreak of the First World War) will show that there were far more railways in the zone of Prussian control, and so it was that the first narrow gauge railways in Kujawy were in the west and north, forming part of Prussia. The first line was built by Pakosc (current Polish place names are used throughout this article, although in many cases there were slightly or significantly different Prussian names at the time) sugar factory in 1880, a 900mm gauge line initially worked by horses. In the following year Kruszwica and Wierzchoslawice sugar factories opened their first sections of railway; the Wierzchoslawice line was, like that of Pakosc, engineered by Julius Erxleban from Berlin and was 900mm gauge, while the Kruszwica line was built by Krauss to the unusual gauge of 716mm. In the 1890s, these lines were joined by those of Tuczno (900mm) and Matwy (750mm) factories.

Meanwhile, over to the west, a sugar factory was built at Gniezno and its railway of 900mm gauge opened in 1883. After the Prussian ‘law of minor railways’ was passed in 1892, the district authority of Witkowo decided to acquire the Gniezno sugar factory railway and adapt it for public use. Also in the 1890s, the district of Wrzesnia decided to construct a narrow gauge railway to develop the more remote parts of the district. While the Prussian authorities permitted relatively short ‘industrial’ railways to be built to various gauges, when it came to public railways that were close to the border with Russia, military requirements had to be taken into account. Presumably, such requirements were the reason for the conversion of the Gniezno sugar factory railway to 600mm gauge under the control of the district authority; this was the gauge chosen by the Prussian army for its military field railways, so they could easily extend lines of this gauge into enemy territory in the event of war. Indeed, by the outbreak of the First World War the Witkowo district railway had been extended to reach Anastazewo on the border with Russia, and a number of other branches were being built.

In the part of Kujawy controlled by the Russians sugar factories developed somewhat later, with the first sugar factory railway being that of Brzesc, opened in 1900. Dobre sugar factory’s line opened in 1908, followed by Ostrowy in 1910 and Goslawice in about 1912. Whereas Brzesc, Dobre and Ostrowy all had connections to the main line railway to the east, Goslawice was close to the border with Prussia and, although its railway had to be 750mm gauge (like all of those in the Russian-controlled area, for that was the gauge used by the Russian military), its nearest railway was the Witkowo district railway at Anastazewo, which was 600mm gauge. Thus, all supplies to Goslawice (including the locomotives to operate the railway) had to be delivered by standard gauge train to Gniezno, be transhipped to 600mm gauge wagons for the journey to Anastazewo, then be transhipped again to 750mm gauge to reach the factory. Another sugar factory in the Russian controlled area, at Chocen, also developed a short 750mm gauge railway, worked by horses.

So, by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 there were quite a few narrow gauge railways in the Kujawy region. In the west were the 600mm gauge systems of the Witkowo and Wrzesnia district railways, connected together with a total track length of over 100km and interchanging with the 750mm gauge Goslawice sugar factory line with 48km of track. In the north were the 900mm gauge railways of Pakosc, Wierzchoslawice and Tuczno sugar factories, already linked to each other with a total of 147km of track, south of them the 45km of the Matwy 750mm gauge line and close to that the 130km of 716mm gauge railway serving Kruszwica sugar factory. To the east were the sugar factory railways of Dobre, Brzesc, Ostrowy and Chocen, all 750mm gauge but isolated from each other, totalling over 130km.

In August 1914 the Prussian army advanced rapidly through Kujawy and the damage sustained by the sugar factory railways depended on their distance from the former border; Goslawice, being close to the border, survived almost intact but the Russians had sufficient time to evacuate locomotives and some rolling stock from the Dobre and Brzesc systems, all the stock from Ostrowy and the entire railway, including track, from Chocen. A Russian counter-attack led to a Prussian withdrawal and even Goslawice was briefly abandoned by the Prussians but they soon advanced again. The subsequent ‘race of the gauges’ as the Prussians advanced has been fairly well documented elsewhere – as well as reconstructing the damaged Torun-Skierniewice main line, the Prussian military built a number of narrow gauge lines.

The Matwy sugar factory line was extended by a 600mm gauge railway to reach the Dobre sugar factory line at Dobre, which was converted to 600mm gauge as far as its terminus at Plowce, from where new 600mm gauge construction resumed to Jerzmanowo on the Brzesc sugar factory’s railway, thus allowing supply of troops as far as Nieszawa and Wloclawek. In November 1914 a further Russian withdrawal allowed a third rail to be added within the Brzesc factory’s 750mm track so that 600mm gauge rolling stock could reach the southern terminus of that railway at Boniewo, from which point new construction on 600mm gauge recommenced in the direction of Krosniewice. That goal was reached in mid-December and the Ostrowy sugar factory’s track was then converted to 600mm gauge to its southern terminus at Koryta, from where further new construction followed through Leczyca and Ozorkow to Strykow at the end of the year.

Further north the Wierzchoslawice railway was extended east to reach Przybranowo on the Dobre-Aleksandrow line which, although operated by rolling stock from the Dobre factory, had actually been built by the Russian military. The Kruszwica factory’s 716mm gauge line was extended from its terminus at Jerzyce through Piotrkow Kujawski, Sompolno and Kolo to reach Dabie Kolskie in mid-December. The final railway advance was from Goslawice, where the existing railway was either converted to 600mm or became mixed gauge and a new line was built south through Patnow to Konin – the first railway to reach the town.

In 1915 the zone of military action had already moved further east and the newly constructed lines no longer had any military function, but the railways started to serve other needs of the local population and particularly the sugar factories. Thus, in that year a new section of 600mm gauge railway was built south west from Boniewo to Przystronie on the Sompolno-Kolo line and branches were built south west of Krosniewice to Dzierzbice, Krzewata and Opiesin, the latter three enabled Ostrowy sugar factory to bring in sugar beet from a wider area. About the same time, a further section of new railway was built from Wasewo (the terminus of one of Dobre’s lines) to Piotrkow Kuj. on the 716mm gauge line from Kruszwica to Dabie. Even in the west, within the pre-war Prussian borders, there was new construction, because the Witkowo district railway was now supplying a far larger area (including the town of Konin) than it had before the war, and the transhipment facilities at Gniezno were inadequate for the volume of traffic. Therefore, a new branch was built to Czerniejewo, on the Gniezno-Wrzesnia standard gauge line, to create a new interchange station and thus ease the pressure on Gniezno.

When the war ended in 1918 a new Polish republic was created, formed from the Russian Kingdom of Poland, the previous Prussian province of Posen and various other regions that had, for the last century or more, been controlled by Russia, Prussia or Austria. Thus, the whole of the Kujawy region was now part of Poland. Local railways such as the Witkowo and Wrzesnia lines remained under local authority control, whilst most privately owned ‘industrial’ railways continued under private ownership, but narrow gauge railways that had been built for military purposes were taken over by the ministry of railways and the newly created Polish State Railway, PKP. In Kujawy, the situation was complex, since many of the military railways included sections that had originally been built by sugar factories, but these now formed part of the state railway. The sugar factories’ needs were addressed by various means, including running powers over the state railway lines, supply of materials to build new lines, financial compensation for losses and convenient terms for construction of new lines, although settlement of such matters continued into the 1930s.

Soon after the war, the new ministry of railways drew up plans to upgrade the railway, much of which had been constructed using panel track of the ‘Jubilee’ variety, to make it capable of serving the needs of the region on a long-term basis. The plans envisaged wholesale conversion of the lines to 750mm gauge, but the first action after the war was construction of a new section of 600mm gauge line from Sompolno to Cegielnia on the Goslawice network, which provided the final link to create a narrow gauge network extending from Borzykowo and Gniezno in the west through to Strykow in the south east, Nieszawa, Wloclawek, Aleksandrow and even to Pakosc in the north west.

However, whilst much of the system was 600mm gauge, there was a significant section in the north (albeit not under state control) that was 900mm gauge, sections in the north east that were only 750mm gauge, several sections that were dual 600/750mm gauge and, in the middle of the network was the extended Kruszwica line of 716mm gauge – at a very early stage (possibly at the same time as the Sompolno-Ciegielnia link was built) a third rail was laid within the 716mm rails between Sompolno and Przystronie, so that 600mm vehicles could travel across the network from Gniezno to Ostrowy. This was important because Poland had inherited the railway networks of its erstwhile occupiers and those networks had been developed to serve the needs of those empires, so were not suited to the needs of the new nation. For example, the shortest standard gauge route between Poznan and Warszawa was via Torun and, in the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-1921 there was a desperate need to transport horses from the west of the country to the east for the cavalry (such was the situation at the time, that horses were still a key military need – the Polish army still had relatively little mechanised armour at the outbreak of the Second World War). Despite the inconvenience of transhipment, which was no doubt easier with horses, being capable of transhipping themselves, the narrow gauge was thus a key link in the railway network.

Another development soon after the war was addition of a third rail, to 600mm gauge, between Jerzmanowo and Brzesc, which allowed the factory at Brzesc to receive beet from areas that were only served by the wartime lines. While most of the wartime lines survived for many years, an early casualty was the Ozorkow-Strykow section, over which civilian traffic was very light; it closed in 1921 or 1922. In 1921 the lack of a standard gauge railway between Poznan and Warszawa was addressed by construction of a new line which cut across the narrow gauge network at three locations. At Konin the narrow gauge railway was cut back slightly from the previous terminus at Czarkow, to a new standard/narrow gauge interchange. At Kolo a flat crossing was created between the narrow gauge to Dabie and the new line and again a new interchange station was built to serve the town, while on the Krosniewice-Ozorkow line a new interchange station was built at Krzewie and a bridge carried the new standard gauge line over the narrow.

The first line to be converted to 750mm gauge was Dobre-Boniewo in 1922, followed by Boniewo-Przystronie and then Piotrkow-Sompolno-Przystronie-Kolo-Dabie in 1923. At the same time as the latter change, Kruszwica sugar factory converted the whole of its network to 750mm gauge; an interesting aspect here is that for some time Kruszwica continued to be responsible for the whole of the 716mm gauge section, presumably because it made sense for all of the equipment on that gauge to be housed and maintained in the one depot. This change of gauge was probably the trigger for development of the facilities at Sompolno, which became the main rolling stock workshop for the system, while Krosniewice became the locomotive workshop, with various motive power depots scattered around the network.

In the west, the wartime interchange at Czerniejewo became redundant once the standard gauge line opened to serve Konin and Kolo, as Gniezno interchange was now only serving the rural area for which it had originally been intended, thus the link to Czerniejewo closed in 1923. The southern end of the Wrzesnia system had previously been Borzykowo, a village on the border between Prussia and Russia, while the town of Pyzdry a few kilometres to the south had no rail connection. With the former border now having no significance, in the early 30s the railway was extended to Pyzdry and a number of short branches added to the Wrzesnia system.

In the mid and late 20s further standard gauge lines were built through parts of the region – that from Kutno to Lodz passed under the narrow gauge Krosniewice-Ozorkow line by a bridge, while the Herby-Gdynia line (built to link the industrial region of Upper Silesia with the new Baltic port) crossed the Przystronie-Boniewo line and the Dobre-Sompolno line as well as the Kruszwica factory network; bridges were built at all such crossing points. In the early 30s a new stylish locomotive depot was built at Krosniewice and station buildings were added here and at other locations across the network. The Krosniewice workshops were enlarged so that they could carry out all locomotive overhauls and Sompolno was developed so that it could construct new rolling stock. By now the central core of the network was 750mm gauge but the former Goslawice network west of Sompolno was still 600mm gauge. Locomotives from that section were transported to Krosniewice over the 750mm gauge sections on special wagons. The last major work carried out on the PKP network prior to the Second World War was construction of a new line to Wloclawek Port, on the Wisla river.

Most of the sugar factories had built new lines after the First World War but then the economic crisis began to bite. Pakosc factory closed in 1931 but its railway was taken over by Tuczno. A new sugar factory railway, to 600mm gauge, had been built in the 1920s to serve Lesmierz factory, which was linked to the PKP network at Sierpow on the Krosniewice-Ozorkow line; during the depression Lesmierz took over the railways of the Mlynow factory, some considerable way to the east of the main Kujawy network.

By the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 the system consisted of the Tuczno and Wierzchoslawice sugar lines, still 900mm gauge, but linked to the Dobre and Kruszwica systems; the central PKP network of 750mm gauge lines linked to the Brzesc, Dobre, Kruszwica, Matwy and Ostrowy lines; the 600mm gauge PKP lines west of Sompolno; and the 600mm gauge lines still operated by the district authorities of Gniezno (Witkowo district had been absorbed into Gniezno in 1927) and Wrzesnia. The 1939 timetable showed passenger services on the lines:

Gniezno-Niechanowo-Anastazewo (38km)
Niechanowo-Mielzyn (13km)
Wrzesnia-Pyzdry (24km)
Anastazewo-Jablonka-Konin (37km)
Jablonka-Ciegielnia-Sompolno (31km)
Ciegielnia-Wilczyn (16km)
Sompolno-Dobre-Nieszawa (63km)
Sompolno-Przystronie-Kolo (26km)
Przystronie-Boniewo (26km)
Boniewo-Jerzmanowo-Smolsk-Wloclawek (26km)
Smolsk-Brzesc (7km)
Jerzmanowo-Dobre (35km)
Boniewo-Krosniewice-Ozorkow (73km)
Krosniewice-Ostrowy (8km)


The German invasion of September 1939 passed through Kujawy in less than two weeks. The narrow gauge railway network suffered relatively little damage and was back in operation, under DR control, in October. There were some changes to the network during the Second World War, with a number of sugar factory lines being converted from 900mm to 750mm gauge, new 750mm and 600mm gauge lines built to link sugar factory systems and some changes at Gniezno. After the war the common carrier lines were all absorbed into PKP and converted to 750mm gauge so that, with the connected sugar factory systems, there was a network of 750mm gauge railways totalling almost 1500km in extent, and linked to the Lesmierz factory’s system (which largely remained 600mm gauge until final closure in 1986/7). Significant line closures started in the early 1960s and, despite the introduction of transporter wagons and powerful diesel locomotives, both the PKP and sugar factory systems saw a gradual decline over the next 40 years. But that, as they say, is another story.

Detailed pre-WWII Polish Military maps published by Wojskowy Instytut Geograficzny, Poland’s equivalent of the UK’s Ordnance Survey, of the areas through which the lines ran are available here.


2 Responses to “The Kujawy Railways 1880-1939”

  1. Robert Hall Says:

    Article greatly enjoyed. The Kujawy n/g system’s first few decades of history were, for sure, most fascinatingly varied and colourful (World War I, while basically a hideous disaster for mankind, spawned some highly interesting gricing-type by-products ) – till PKP in its early years, embarked on rationalising-and-standardising.

    Impression received is that, in contrast — when Western enthusiasts started to visit Poland in strength, from about the start of the 1980s, this system was not one of the top-favourite narrow-gauge venues. It can be supposed, combination of the landscape through which it ran, being on the dull side even for a country whose scenery is not one of its principal assets; and its being on the 750mm gauge, early-highly-standardised re motive power and rolling stock; and a strong diesel presence from early on (though steam not completely ousted till start of the ‘90s). Interest increased, when there came to be little else on the Polish n/g still operating “real service for real users”; but as recounted, that all ended early in ’08.

  2. Timothy Sanford Says:

    Awesome article! I live in Bydgoszcz, close to the heart of it all. Good work guys!

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