A return journey – part 2

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Przewozy Regionalne railbus at Miedzyrzecz station owned by Lubusz province.
Photo © Tomasz Nowak.

(Click on image to see more photographs taken at Miedzyrzecz station by Tomasz Nowak.)

The second part of Robert Hall’s return trip to Poland after a break of 16 years.

My journey would now take me over some of the northern reaches of the Magistrala Weglowa (Coal Trunk Line), opened in the 1930s to link the Upper Silesia mining and industrial area with Poland’s then only port at Gdynia. Some of the route between Gdynia and Koscierzyna was 1930s new build, other sections made use of the pre-World War 1 Prussian State Railways network. An hour and a quarter’s run through pleasant gentle hills brought us to Koscierzyna, and a neat connection there with single-unit SA 106-104, representing the 15:24 departure southward. This vehicle carried the markings of Kujawsko-Pomorskie province, whose local rail passenger services are at present operated by Arriva.

As we set off, my attention was unfortunately distracted from Koscierzyna railway museum’s steam locos outside the MMPD by an altercation with the railmotor’s guard. It appears that the Polrailpass no longer covers all of Poland’s passenger services but only those operated by PKP Intercity and other PKP subsidiaries. At first we headed due south along a Magistala Weglowa section opened in 1930, called at a couple of stations including Olpuch, then at Bak branched off south-westward on a line which was also new post-WW1. A pause of some length at Czersk, where connection is made with the Pila – Tczew cross-country route (once Prussia’s main line between Berlin, and Gdansk and Kaliningrad (formerly Konigsberg). As we waited for the connecting train I saw a loco-hauled train of single-deck stock, and a modern railmotor. At last, SA 106 moved on, to Szlachta junction where I was to change, and thence further south – though whether to Wierzchucin or right through to Bydgoszcz, I was unable to determine.

The pleasure of leisurely railmotor journeys over a quite intricate system of rural lines was marred for me by one big difference from my 1994 visit – all these country lines now appear to be devoid of freight services. Every station at which we called that afternoon, sported a grass-grown, disused goods yard – big or small according to the magnitude of the place concerned – with not a single goods wagon in revenue-earning service. I had observed the same on the Hel branch the previous day. Sixteen years previously, although very many lines had by then lost their passenger services, plentiful local freight action had been in evidence.

I find rural railways carrying no freight at all, and seeing no use other than by local passenger services, intensely saddening. In the Beeching era in Britain, some railway enthusiasts expressed the sentiment that they would rather see lines closed, than the trains on them running empty. My journeys in Poland this year bred similar feelings. My gut-reaction was that these lines were in a condition of death-in-life, hanging on by a thin and rather ludicrous thread, and that I would prefer to see the railway administration put an end to the farce, sweep the whole thing away, and do an honest job of ripping the tracks up and ‘having done’. I admit that this is an emotional, illogical and unfair reaction. All the services on which I travelled that afternoon, had a reasonable number of passengers. In fact, from Gdynia to Olpuch, the railmotors were positively crowded, thanks to a large contingent of Scouts-and-Guides, who disembarked at the latter point. The lines are seeing some use, but in a context which put me of wanting to undertake much further standard-gauge-branch-exploration in the days ahead.

One of the two saddest sights for me this year – both for the same basic reason – was the station at Szlachta, where I had an hour’s wait between workings. Szlachta was once a four-way junction, today three of the original four lines still meet here. Szlachta is a spacious station with four platforms and five platform roads. It has a large goods yard, now weed-grown and utterly deserted. There was plenty of grass growing over the passenger tracks, too. All this is protected by an elaborate array of semaphore signals, which are still solemnly operated for the passenger workings. The station building is decaying, with no public access except to the neglected waiting room. A notice on the former booking-office window stated, if I interpreted it correctly, that from a date in 2009, tickets would no longer be issued at Szlachta station; all ticket business to be transacted on-train. At the time of my visit, Szlachta still had a stationmistress; there for operational matters – dealings with passengers would appear to be no longer part of her remit.

I found the scene most horridly depressing and as my hour in the grave-like quiet of Szlachta junction wore on, disquieting fantasies began to set in. Was I to be marooned forever in this doleful spot? Perhaps my departed SA 106-104 was the last service ever to call here? The sight of a double-unit SA 134 coming into view from the east – the 16:36 ex Laskowice Pomorskie to Szlachta – to become the 17:39 return working. This working (again, operated by Arriva) waited for a while beyond its scheduled departure time, for a late-running railmotor to pop-in-and-out-again on a northbound counterpart working of my 15:24 ex Koscierzyna.

The other truly heartbreaking sight was Miedzyrzecz station, a few days later – de-staffed and seemingly deserted, all in very dilapidated physical condition. There was a big overgrown and totally empty goods yard. The only activity on rails was one just-arrived railmotor terminating there. A painful contrast to how things were at Miedzyrzecz on my isit there in 1980. The place was then a busy country junction, a focal point of an intricate net of branch lines, with a loco shed whose inhabitants – chiefly class TKt48 2-8-2Ts – worked those routes. Almost everything was steam, with frequent comings and goings. There was plenty of freight action. There were staff everywhere. Everything ran quite smartly, though in the rather dispirited fashion which was the norm in Communist days. The scene thirty years later, was a most wretched come-down.

As regards scenery, Szlachta to Laskowice Pom. was a delectable run of some 40 km through gently idyllic scenery, often traversing thick mainly-conifer woodland, and calling at a succession of sweet little towns. What a superb preserved steam line this could make, if such matters could be arranged in Poland, as they are in Britain. My aversion to dead railways, with nothing left except meagre railmotor services, was so acute that I decided against my original plan of travelling on yet another branch – the line from Laskowice Pom. to Grudziadz. The idea had been to stay overnight at Grudziadz, sample its metre-gauge trams on the morrow, before proceeding southwards on the secondary line which serves the town. I felt, though, that I had had enough of moribund branch lines. so I baled out at Laskowice Pom. on the Gdansk – Bydgoszcz electric old main line. An opportune southbound local emu showed up quite soon, and delivered me to Bydgoszcz at a not too late hour.

Bydgoszcz was another place that I had last visited in 1980. On exiting from the city’s Glowny Station, I was concerned to see tram tracks in the cobbles, but no masts nor wires. Had the city’s metre-gauge tram system been axed. In fact, the trams are still busily functioning, but the branch that ran right to the main station, has been axed. Next day with a morning to kill in Bydgoszcz – a nice enough city, but not prime tourist-bait – a tram ride was duly had, choosing a good long route from the centre, out to start of countryside on city’s eastern edge. Then a post-lunchtime departure on a Gdynia – Katowice through express, to reach Lodz early in the evening. I kept a sharp lookout on the run southward, for traces of the ill-fated Kujawy 750mm gauge system, but saw nothing – the tracks, were too overgrown to pick out in passing.

…to be continued

More photographs of Miedzyrzecz:

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