A return journey

by

by Robert Hall

A  lightweight DMU comprising two permanently coupled railcars awaits the ‘right away’ at Koscierzyna Station in August 2007. From a photo by Leinad.

(Click the image to see the original on Wikipedia and for details of licensing conditions.)

Robert Hall, one of BTWT’s guest writers, was a regular Poland gricer, making 8 trips to the country between 1980 and 1994. Now 16 years later he returns to the country to make one last trip. This is what he found.

For assorted reasons there was little opportunity to make elaborate advance plans. A high priority for the bash was – not entirely for gricing reasons – was to take a look at the Trojmiasto (Tri-city) area on the Baltic coast: Gdansk – Sopot – Gdynia, which I had not visited before. At the last-minute I decided to go to this venue first. With the short notice, finding somewhere to stay for the first night would just have to take its chance. A mid-afternoon arrival by air at Poznan meant an early evening express train departure for Gdansk, arriving there just before midnight; and ultimately, the rest of night spent at and around Gdansk Glowny station. Happily all further nights of the tour, were to be spent in greater comfort.

Come the dawn, some time was spent in orientation, and then exploring Gdansk’s prime tourist honey-pot, its architecturally exquisite Stare Miasto (Old Town). This area has been rebuilt after being almost completely destroyed by Allied bombing during WW II. After a walk around, and a call at the monument outside the shipyard area, to those killed in the 1970 disturbances in the city; it was off to Gdynia, which seemed a better bet for accommodation, and is the appropriate launching point for secondary rail services from the Trojmiasto.

The three cities are linked along the main line by the frequent, running from early to late, blue-and-yellow EMUS of the Szybka Kolej Miejska (Fast Urban Railway), serving some dozen stations in the conurbation. One such delivered me to Gdynia Glowna station. Gdynia pleasantly surprised me; I had expected an ugly, no-frills busy port, but in fact much of the town is emphatically a well-frequented seaside resort:, which struck me as more relaxed than its frenetic neighbours. The Dom Marynarza provided adequate accommodation for the next couple of nights. It was close by the sea and about 2km from Gdynia Glowna station. While Gdansk has trams, Gdynia has trolleybuses.

At a Gdynia quayside, moored as a floating museum, is the destroyer Blyskawica, a vessel which had a heroic career with the Free Polish forces during WW II. As I had relatives, interested in such matters, in Cowes, Isle of Wight – where the Blyskawica was built, and where she distinguished herself in counter-measures against an air raid in 1942 – I simply had to go round the ship. It was fascinating to get the feel of how things must have been in a WW II steam-driven warship. There were memorabilia from the ship’s WW II career, and much information about the general history of the Polish Navy. Sadly nearly all of it was all in Polish, I wish I had been able to understand more than a small fraction of the written material.

Time for some gricing. A trip beckoned, to the place which had launched a thousand bad trans-lingual puns – Hel, at the end of its 30km narrow spit of land sticking out into the Baltic, at the end of its branch line, diverging from the main line at Reda. Hel local trains originate and terminate at Gdynia Glowna; I caught the 11:57 departure. It was a pleasant discovery and for me a trip down memory lane. Nowadays it is fairly rare to find a Polish standard-gauge non-electric line with passenger services, where the trains are anything other than the recent generation of modern railcars or railbuses. The Hel branch, in high summer anyway, is an exception: all of its quite frequent local services appeared to be made up of classical railway carriages hauled by medium-size Bo-Bo diesels of classes SP32, SU42, and SM42. Long-distance trains along the branch were also handled by these classes, sometimes double-heading. Furthermore, all local services appeared to include a unit or two of double-deck coaching stock. Purest nostalgia-fodder for me… in the days of real steam in Poland, double-deckers featured frequently on local trains in the steam areas. On lines with mixed traction, sometimes if one were unlucky and a particular train were diesel, there was no alternative to – in order to get to the necessary next point of tour – enduring a run behind ‘the enemy’. In the old times, I got a fair few trips in diesel-hauled double-decker stock, preferring always to ride on the upper deck, for the grand commanding view of the Polish countryside.

Gdynia – Hel locals take two hours or a little more, for their journey. The 11:57, behind SM42-114, delivered me to Hel at 14:15. I had had the notion of travelling out by rail, and returning to the Trojmiasto by one of the boats which in summer ply between various points thereof, and Hel; but it transpired that I was too late – all such boats were booked-up, except for one due to arrive Gdynia at 2030: later than fitted in with my plans. I had just a couple of hours to take in Hel’s seaside attractions before catching the 16:20 local service back to Gdynia, hauled by SP32-202.

I was slightly disappointed by the run. The Hel spit has been generously afforested, to stabilise the sand-dunes of which it is made up; consequently, for much of the journey, one can’t see the sea for the trees. Such views of the sea which there are, are mostly of the landward Zatoka Pucka to the south, rather than of the open sea to the north.

The following day, it was time to leave the coast and head southwards. As far as passenger services are concerned, there has been a butchering of lesser standard-gauge lines over the last 20 years – today’s rail passenger map now looks miserably thin compared to its 1990 counterpart. However, the axe has been wielded more vigorously in some areas than others. South-south-west of the Trojmiasto, there are still sufficient passenger services, on enough secondary and branch lines for it be possible to emulate the intricate itineraries of those zealous 1980s bashers who, armed with a Polrailpass, roamed the PKP network twenty-four hours a day non-stop in search of steam.

I had had an elaborate day’s plan worked out for a rambling journey south, involving an early-morning departure from Gdynia. However, what with the weather that week being punishingly hot, and with my not being as young as I once was, I felt wrung-out on getting back from my journey to Hel, so I decided to bow to the inevitable and cut one line out of my would-have-been itinerary. I got up late, had a leisurely morning, and set out southward on the 13:46 Gdynia Glowna – Koscierzyna.

Most passenger action on surviving standard-gauge secondary lines in Poland, is nowadays provided by the basically new-as-of-this century, generation of modern diesel railcars / railbuses (often four-wheeled, sometimes articulated in pairs) with the to me hideous-looking glassed-in “A4-like curving” ends. As I’m not a techie, and am vague as to the most precise and correct name for the vehicles, I shall rom now on refer to the vehicles concerned as ‘railmotors’.

The 1346 was formed by two-unit railmotor SA 132-005, blue and yellow like the SKM trains, and marked as running under the auspices of Pomorskie province. It bore me off into the unknown: I had never before visited this area of the one-time “Polish Corridor”. This was a region almost never touched on by railfans in the 1980s, because its passenger services had gone predominantly diesel at quite an early stage. Koscierzyna’s depot with its allocation of Kriegsloks (a type found boring by many), used mostly on freight, or on passenger on now-closed lines east from that location, attracted little attention until the very last years of PKP steam, when the soup was getting thin, and remaining steam action of any kind, came to be cherished.

…to be continued

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