An apocalyptic vision


From a report by Prezes

A tower block somewhere in Warsaw. A dozen of us gather round the table – representatives of the many foreign companies that have business relations with Poland, representatives of railway operating companies, representatives of the railway trade unions… . A truly diverse group, with one thing in common – a serious concern about the Polish Government’s policy – or lack of coherent policy – with respect to the Polish railway network. We agree to apply the Chatham House rule – it will be possible to report on the proceeds of the meeting, but not report on who was there and who said what.

An efficient transport infrastructure is a key factor for economic growth. As Poland’s neighbours start to charge higher prices for access to their road infrastructure, more long distance freight will travel across Europe by rail. As Poland’s city’s and large towns snarl up with commuter road traffic, modernised trams and fast light rail combined with ‘Park and Ride’ offer an effective alternative to urban road construction. But Poland’s neglected railways and commuter rail lines are unattractive to freight hauliers and passengers – Poland’s track access charges are one of the highest in Europe, while slow and dirty trains and trams offer little incentive to switch from road to rail.

Only 10% of Poland’s transport investment budget goes to railways. In neighbouring countries the proportion allocated to rail is around 40%. Public perception is that railways are ‘subsidized’ by the government. In fact most of the deficit is funded by debt – partly a debt due to Polish local authorities, the result of penal rates of local taxes, and partly a debt due to foreign financial institutions. The government’s intention has been to repay this debt from the sale and privatisation of Poland’s railway companies. In allowing ‘free competition’ between transport modes the government is not allowing for the extended costs of road transport: accidents, policing, pollution; nor for the fact that road and rail account differently for the cost of capital employed.

An apocalyptic vision of the future of Poland’s railways emerges – from a peak of around 32,000 km of route in the 1960s, Poland’s railway network declined to some 26,000 km by 1990 (mostly through closure of rural branch lines and narrow gauge railways), declining further to 23,000 km in 1998, then to 20,000 km in 2006. The current operational network is 19,000 km (12,000 km electrified). The Ministry of Infrastructure has only allocated funding to keep 7,000 km operational.

The Secretary of State responsible for rail in Poland’s Ministry of Infrastructure only observes the minimal legal formalities of the consultation process required by the EU. Listening is not one of his strengths. His ‘consultation meetings’ are unadvertised and largely attended by his team and professional advisers. Politicians who always expressed themselves in favour of rail, suddenly switch sides on reaching office.

Poland is already in breach of its commitments to the European Union with respect to taking sufficient measures to reduce CO2 emissions. Rail transport generates far less CO2 than road or air transport. Perhaps here there may be an argument to which Poland’s top decision-makers might be prepared to listen?

We only seriously disagree as to whether something can be done. Some argue that that any increase in the size of the ‘rail lobby’ would be welcome; others that all pro-rail lobbying initiatives have failed, the road lobby is so powerful, why should any new initiative fare any differently? A third view is argued vigorously, what is needed is a professional tightly focussed campaign, targeted in the short-term at decision-makers and also in the long-term at altering public perception. Soon our time is up – we all agree that we should meet again.

One Response to “An apocalyptic vision”

  1. Michael Says:

    A suggestion – could you perhaps do some investigation into the latest timetable changes? It seems that there has been a lot of new speed limits imposed.

    Just looking now, and the “osobowy” connection between Wroclaw and Poznan is now timetabled to take 3:13 – which is frankly ridiculous.

    But on the other hand, it’s not all doom and gloom – I notice that there’s now two connections a day from Poznan to Frankfurt (oder) on non-EC trains, and there’s now a 3 hour TLK connection from Poznan-Lodz.

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