Railways in the Podhale. Map from Railmap – kolejowa mapa Polski.
(Click image to go to Railmap.)
Few matters have so bitterly set Pole against Pole as the so-called ‘Balczerowicz Plan‘ – a series of economic austerity measures introduced in 1990 at the behest of the International Monetary Fund by then Minister of Finance, Leszek Balcerowicz. Proponents of the plan point to the sustained economic growth achieved by Poland since 1992. Critics observe Poland’s crumbling railways, bankrupt hospitals, and faltering schools. Jan Winiecki, who at the time was head of the Polish Adam Smith institute, confided once that he thought that Balczerowicz had gone too far, ‘He mopped up the surplus liquidity, which had to go, and then he took some more cash from people’s pockets, just to be safe.’
The fate which has befallen the railway line which used to connect Kralovany in the Slovak Republic to Nowy Targ in Poland shows what ‘might have been’ if Balcerowicz’s economic reforms had not slashed investment in Poland’s railways. On the Slovak side (no IMF adjustment program) the railway continues to operate as far as Trstená, a town of some 7,000 residents, 10 km short of the Polish border near Sucha Horá. On the Polish side most of the 20 km of track between Sucha Horá and Nowy Targ has been lifted and the local authorities are now planning to build a cycle path on the railway formation. Yet it need not have been so as this brief dip into the line’s history will show.
In 1899, the construction of a railway line along the Orava valley from Kralovany to Sucha Horá was completed. In the same year the railway from Chabowka to Zakopany was opened. It only remained to construct the missing link. Two rival routes were promoted: one, from Sucha Horá via Czarny Dunajec to Nowy Targ, was backed by the government; the other, via Koscielisko and Witow to Chocholow, was championed by Count Zamojski. After three years of bitter argument the Nowy Targ route was chosen and the line opened for traffic in 1904. A new steam shed was established at Nowy Targ to provide motive power for the line. The line survived WWI relatively unscathed, but a bridge was blown up at the beginning of WWII and plans to restore the border crossing near Sucha Horá were blocked.
Although the line was now truncated short of the border, traffic on the Polish section of the line was to reach its zenith in the 1950s. In 1949, the Communist authorities decided to construct a model socialist town and steel works at Nowa Huta next to Krakow. The construction activities demanded a never-ending supply of gravel and four gravel pits were constructed close to the line. Those at Podczerwone, Rogoznik and Czarny Dunajec had their own 600 mm narrow gauge railways, and all were operated by small steam locomotives. The largest system, at Czarny Dunajec, used 5 steam locomotives as well as a number of diesel locomotives. In the 1950s, the number of passenger services was increased to bring workers to a giant shoe factory that was established on the Western outskirts of Nowy Targ. The station at Ludzmierz was closed and a new station, Nowy Targ Fabryczny, was opened to serve the shoe factory.
By the 1970s, the permanent way was in a decidedly bad way, and bus services captured most of the passenger traffic. Then, unexpectedly in 1982, the track was relaid between Nowy Targ and Czarny Dunajec. There was talk of reopening the border crossing and using the line to export materials from Poland. But the work on the track was halted as suddenly as it had been begun and the unrestored section between Czarny Dunajec and Podczerwone was used for a time to store redundant goods wagons. The line was served by one or two daily freight trains until 1989 when the 6km of track beyond Czarny Dunajec was lifted. Passenger services had ceased on year earlier. In 1989 the last ‘sheep train’ bringing sheep off the mountains to their winter pastures also ran. The line was steam hauled until the end – in the autumn of 1989 a locomotive based at Chabowka was sent to Czarny Dunajec to retrieve some freight wagons.
After the line’s closure, the Czarny Dunajec municipal council made overtures to PKP to reopen the line, but PKP refused to do this without a major cash injection. In September 1991, Piotr Kumelowski, a New York railway enthusiast with Polish roots launched a last minute appeal to save the line, but alas to no avail. By December 1991, when the track only reached the 9.4 km post, track lifting recommenced. But the line still lives on in the imaginations of local residents. At a meting of the Rada Naukowa Związku Podhalan – a think tank drawn from people who have roots in the area – a proposal by Senator Tadeusz Skorupy to relay the line and reconnect it it to the railway at Trstená was enthusiastically endorsed. Trstená is very close to the Orava lake, a major tourist attraction just over the Polish border.
Trstená and the Orava lake, just 10 km from the Polish border
Senator Skorup’s proposal was supported by a study carried out by a team from Krakow Polytechnic. Sadly, some of the local authorities who had once fought so hard to save the line have now ‘moved on’ and are now working together to build a cycle path on the railway formation.