English lessons

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A wagonload of steel from Germany arrives in Srem in December 2009. The Czempin – Srem line is operated by SKPL and is in the process of being taken over by Srem municipality. Further takeovers of branchlines by local authorities are unlikely to receive the support of rail minister, Juliusz Engelhardt. Photo Jacek Stawinski, SKPL.

Hopped onto a Tanie Linie Kolejowe (PKP Intercity’s ‘cheap’ brand) train to Warsaw to take part in a conference about the future of Polish rail and in particular Przewozy Rejonalne Poland’s second train operator owned by the 16 provincial governments. Other panel members included Juliusz Engelhardt, the Undersecretary of State responsible for railways at the Ministry of Infrastructure, and Janusz Piechocinski, the Vice-chairman of the Sejm Infrastructure Committee.

In the short slot allocated to me I pointed out that the privatisation of BR did not bring about many of the benefits that it was supposed to. Because it was carried out by breaking BR up into over 100 separate companies, it actually increased the cost to the taxpayer of maintaining the railways by a factor of three – and still the UK has the most expensive fares in Europe.

Janusz Piechocinski leaves early, but I get a shot at asking the Minister Engelhardt a question. Given the reappraisal of wagonload freight traffic recently evidenced by the creation of the Xrail Alliance. Would the Minister agree that it would be rather strange for a freight to carry right across Europe by rail only to have to complete its last leg in Poland by road? A number of local authorities have taken over their local branchlines in order to keep them operational in the manner of the shortline railroads of the USA. However, during the transition period – before a local authority has been granted the freehold of the railway land and only possess an operating licence, it would appear that Polish law prevents the local authority from applying for EU funds or investing its own monies in the railway. Would the Minister talk to his colleagues in the relevant Ministries in an attempt to resolve this situation.

Mr Engelhardt replies that, it is a mistake to think that PKP or the Ministry don’t want to hand over disused branchlines. Rather it is the case that a number of local authorities have announced that they want to take over their local branchlines, because local government elections are looming. They are very naive and have no idea at all of the burden of legal and regulatory obligations which they would acquire if they take over the railway.

He has avoided answering my question and I lob in a supplementary. I apologise for my poor Polish, no criticism of the Minister, the Ministry or PKP was intended. My question was about those lines that had already been transferred by PKP SA to local authorities, but where – because property transfer formalities were not complete – the local authorities felt that they were precluded from making any investment in the railway infrastructure. The Minister gives a similar answer to the one he gave before, pouring scorn on the efforts of local authorities to take over their branchlines. His answer does not bode well for Poland’s shortline promoters including my Polish narrow gauge friends and local authority bosses like Jozef Zajkowski struggling to take over the Lapy – Ostroleka railway line from PKP.

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