Points in the snow

by

After the snowstorm – Lodz winter 2009. Photo BTWT.

On Monday, the snow came. By the end of the day, everything was covered with a thin coating, as if a giant had sprinkled icing sugar over the city. Come Tuesday, it was snowing heavily, although the gritters and snowploughs were conspicuous by their absence — snow clearing has been privatised and tenders allocated on a ‘lowest cost’ basis. I had a dental appointment scheduled for 15:00 which I wisely cancelled — public transport was paralysed and road traffic was barely moving. That night there was a proper snowstorm, winds were gusting up to 60 mph and tiny particles of snow were finding their way past the window frames into the room. On Wednesday, the weather quietened down somewhat, so on Thursday, I thought I would brave the cold and have a go at getting to my dentist.

The dental surgery is at the other end of town but fortunately lies on the same tram route as my home. I had a premonition that it might be a long time before I got back, so I bought myself an all-day tram and bus ticket just to be on the safe side. I was in luck — the very next tram was mine. The driver took extra care at road junctions and the journey took about ten minutes longer than the usual 40 minutes. There is something wonderfully soothing about a tram gliding on tracks covered with snow.

The walk from the tram stop to the surgery was quite hazardous. Although the tram stop in the central reservation was linked by a subway to the pavements on either side of the dual carriageway, there was no cover over the stairs — the packed snow had turned into ice and the steps ere dangerously slippery. Having reached the pavement, I had one more major road to cross, this time on the level. Here the snowploughs had pushed the snow to the side of the road so I had to clamber down an icy bank to reach the road surface. I slipped, but luckily there was a lull in the traffic and no harm was done.

At the surgery there was a TV set in the waiting room displaying a news program showing pictures of a paralysed UK — lorries were stranded at the roadside, trains halted at intermediate stations; motorists were skidding. I felt a little smug to to be living in a country that regarded a snowstorm as a normal occurrence.

An hour later, I left the dentist with two new fillings and a wallet 200 zloty lighter. It had grown dark. I walked to a different tram stop to avoid crossing the main road. As I reached the low platform, one tram pulled away, but it was not my route, so I was worried. Half an hour later no new trams had come from either direction. Quite a crowd had built up at the tram stop and I was getting exceedingly cold. Eventually people started drifting away to join the queue at the bus stop on the other side of the subway. This seemed like a stop smart move, so I followed suit. A bus soon turned up. I didn’t recognise the destination, but the interior was warm and inviting so I jumped on board.

At first, the bus preceded in the same direction as my intended tram journey. We passed a reversing loop when many of the trams that terminate short of the line’s eastern extremity reverse direction. Here there was a long queue of abandoned trams. It wasn’t clear what the trouble was; from my later experiences I guess that the points into the reversing loop had become jammed with packed snow which had then frozen. When the tram driver attempted to change the route, they became stuck in intermediate position preventing trams from either continuing their journey or swinging round in the loop.

My bus turned to the right. This is what I had feared. It wasn’t a road I knew well and as the bus turned first to the left and then to the right I quickly lost my bearings. I consoled myself with the thought that being in the bus was a lot warmer than waiting outside for a tram that was not going to turn up. Suddenly an old factory appeared on the right. I had once identified as building as a former brickworks and supposed that in its heyday it had operated a short narrow gauge railway. This was good news — all I had to do was to pray that my bus would continue to travel due North and it would intercept the other East-West tram  line.

I was in luck, the bus had a stop about 50 yards short of the tram tracks. I got off, walked to the crossroads and then struggled another 200 yards through the snow to reach the tram stop. I cursed at the lack of bus-tram integration and crossed the road with great difficulty. There were high banks of packed snow on either side. I was in luck, two trams had just preceded eastwards over this single-track section, so a tram travelling westwards was due soon. When it arrived, the tram was much colder than the bus and our driver was inclined to leave the tram doors open for as long as possible, but at least it was moving in the right direction – West. The main question now was  —  would there be trams running North on the route that I needed to take me for the last leg home?

My tram meandered somewhat in the style of a sailing boat tacking against the wind. It would reach a North-South route, turn to the left, then turn right, and continue its journey westwards. At each turn the driver had to change the points by hand. Usually this happens so smartly so as to be almost invisible to passengers – the tram stops just short of the junction, passengers disembark, others get on board, the driver hops off, flicks over the point blade with a steel lever and the whole process is over before anyone is the wiser. This time was different — the steel lever had to be used to scrape the snow from the gap between the point blade and the stock rail. As the night wore on and temperatures dropped, it took the driver longer and longer to get the point blades flush against their respective stock rails, but he persevered and eventually succeeded in switching each point.

Now we were running past crumbling Victorian mansions and nearing the town centre. Here I had a dilemma — should I get off at the main north-south thoroughfare, then grab a tram heading northwards. This would bring me two kilometres short of my home. Here normally I’d grab another tram which would get me home, but this line is being relayed and no trams will be operating until 2012. There is a replacement bus service, but I wasn’t sure of its route or frequency. Alternatively, I could stay on my tram until it intersected with the next north-south route — this also passes my home — but could I be sure that trams would be still operating on a line which has a relatively low service frequency? As I dithered, the driver’s radio burst into life, “Routes eight, nine and ten are still suspended, remaining routes operational.” Great, I could complete my journey by tram.

I decided to swap trams quite close to the town centre. The roads were narrower here and there would be less chill factor from the wind. Unfortunately I got off one stop too early. What would have been a pleasant walk during the day was a quite nasty treck in the freezing night. I reached the tram stop for my new route, and after a 10 minute wait, which seemed like half an hour a tram, my tram drew into view. This tram was even colder and my feet were freezing, but at last I was on the last leg home.

I arrived home just two hours after I had left my dentist. ‘Not bad’, I congratulated myself. The evening news reported trains were running up to 7 hours late. It seems that PKP Energetyka and PKP Linie Kolejowe have not yet resolved their dispute regarding the charge for keeping point heaters connected. While PKP Energetyka receives prizes for being the most profitable PKP subsidiary, passengers suffer and the dreadful public image of Polish railways continues to spiral ever downwards.

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