Zbiersk – a major junction in 1935
One of the joys of driving by car through Poland in the 1970s was that one could never go very far without coming across something of interest to a railway enthusiast. On the western side of the country that something was, as likely as not, a vintage steam engine pulling a train of goods wagons along some rickety narrow gauge tracks. Alas those days are gone for ever, like the horse drawn carts that used to out number cars in country areas. If only, as one of our regular correspondents is wont to say, one had a vehicle that could go back in time. For those of us not fortunate enough to posses such a machine, the WIG website is the next best thing. I hasten to add that I do not mean the Warszawski Indeks Giełdowy, useful as the Warsaw’s Stock Exchange index might be, but rather the maps published before WW II by the Wojskowy Instytut Geograficzny. The WIG 1:100,000 maps are the equivalent of Britain’s old 1 inch to the mile Ordanance Survey mapping.
The 1950s are frequently considered as the zenith of the Polish narrow gauge. PKP built new lines, relaid industrial lines and largely standardised on the 750 mm gauge. However, though the 50s are the time when Poland had the greatest mileage of public narrow gauge railways, the real n.g. heydey was in the inter-war years, when the newly formed PKP’s narrow gauge lines co-existed with am enormous mileage of other narrow gauge railways. These included private estate railways, forestry railways, sugar beet railways, colliery and quarry railways and hundreds of industrial lines both large and small. Thanks to the on-line archive of historic WIG maps maintained by the Archiwum Map Wojskowego Instytutu Geograficznego 1919 – 1939, a trip back to the Poland of the inter war years needs just lots of time and a little imagination.
Just how large Poland’s network of secondary narrow gauge lines once was, can be contemplated by going on a virtual journey from Kalisz to Zbiersk via the Kaliska Kolej Dojazdowa. (WARNING – the maps are very large files – do NOT click on the links unless you have plenty of hard disk space and a fast Internet connection.) We start at the standard gauge station (P42_S26_OPATOWEK, 1934) The narrow gauge station is on the other side of town, some way from the elegant mainline station, so we better hire a horse drawn dorożka. Some 25 minutes later we arrive at the narrow gauge station (P41 S26_KALISZ, 1935-6). Here a diminutive Kraus 0-6-0T with a distinctively home-made tender waits to haul our two coach passenger train. The guard shouts ‘Odjazd!’ and with an answering toot from the engine we depart from the station. We chug along the main road and reach our top speed of 30km per hour. but soon it is time to slow down. With a shrieking whistle we cross the main road and pull into our first halt, some 12 minutes after leaving the line’s Kalisz terminus.
Though in PKP days the branch to Russow ended in a sugar beet loading area adjacent to the main road, the line was once a model estate railway in its own right.
Soon we are off again, and now that we are away from the main road our top speed seems to be a little higher, but soon we are slowing down again. On our left a private estate railway joins us. It leads to the farmyard at Russow and the watermill beyond. (Though it is now badly overgrown, the track still goes as far as the main road and was used by a special train collecting a party of Brits from the hotel in Russow as recently as recently as 2007.) Soon with another scream from the engine’s whistle, we cross another main road and the branch from the standard gauge goods transshipment point at Opatowek joins us from our right. We trundle slowly into the station at Zelazkow, a short ‘L’ shaped sugar beet branch joins us from our left before we reach the low platform. Hardly have we stopped when we are off again, though some 7 minutes later we are pulling into a rather larger station with a long passing loop at Goliszew. Here we take a little more time time unloading people and their baggage. Now we have a clear run for nearly 4 kilometres, but we do not really pick up speed till we cross a short sugar beet siding and run through the request halt at Zlotniki Wielkie.
Just before we reach Zbiersk another railway joins us, but maintains its own right of way on our left. This wanders all over the countryside and pointedly by-passes all the major villages, but runs close to, or throws off branches, to join the major farms. From its rambling route, which ignores such minor details as contour lines, it is possible to deuce that its construction was the result of an agreement between several major landowners and the sugar refinery that had contracted to buy their sugar beet. Amazingly, after about 20 kilometres this railway reaches its own standard gauge transshipment point at Kucharki. Just before we reach Zbiersk this lines veers off to our left and shortly afterwards splits three ways. The right fork rejoins the KKD ‘mainline’, the middle track runs straight into the sugar refinery, the left fork continues northwards, runs through a wood and serves a brickyard. If we are lucky we might see an elderly O&K 0-4-0 shunting wagons in the refinery yard.
It is interesting to note that the Zbiersk sugar refinery could gather most of its sugar beet without its wagons running over KKD metals and that the factory could also ship its refined sugar to its own standard gauge interchange without touching KKD tracks. No doubt these two facts gave the sugar refinery owners a good bargaining position when negotiating tariffs with the local authority owners of the KKD.
Our trip to Zbiersk – some 25 kilometres in all – would have lasted about 1 hour 20 minutes. Downloading the maps and researching the salient features to be seen during the journey took about half a day. Any readers out there fancy preparing a virtual exploration of the Kujawy Railways, about 1,000 kilometres in all?