Virtual reality

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The 07:38, or possibly the 07:54 or 07:58, Warsaw train at W-wa Jeziorki. From a photo by Michael Dembinski.

(Click on the image above to read the original post on the W-wa Jeziorki blog.)

Just as I thought I had flogged the new timetable story to death, Michael Dembinski on the W-wa Jeziorki blog drew attention to a unique Polish phenomenon that had so far been ignored by BTWT – the virtual timetable. Coming from Britain one expects the timetable to be the basic foundation of railway operations. Though on this world trains may run late, trains may run early, trains may be cancelled, there is nevertheless the timetable – a perfect entity, worthy of a place in Plato’s World of Forms – of which our earthly train services are but a mere shadow.

The Polish railway timetable plays no part in Plato’s world, in fact it seems to by the product of the world of Mephistopheles. The virtual timetable – one of its essential ingredients – is one of these peculiarly Polish things for which there is no adequate word, nor adequate explanation, in the English language. Nevertheless I will make an attempt to elucidate.  Let us start by looking at what the virtual timetable is not.

I was once making my way across Poland by rail when I had to change trains at Czestochowa. I checked on the on-line timetable and there was a good 25 minute gap before my connecting train to Krakow was due in. My train arrived 10 minutes late, so I re-checked my connection on the printed timetable displayed at the station. Bother! My train had left 30 minutes ago! Now it was very important for me to get to Krakow on time, so I rushed across the footbridge in something of a state and explained my predicament to the lady behind the information counter. She smiled sweetly and told me not to worry, I still had 10 minutes before my train was due! As the the on-line timetable carried the amended times and the station staff clearly knew at what times the trains were supposed to run, this is not a true virtual timetable.

Another time, I had to travel regularly between Warsaw and Lodz during the EU-funded refurbishment of the track between Lodz Widzew and Skierniewice. As the key milestone date for the introduction of the speeded up services approached, new timetables were displayed at the principal stations showing the new 90 minute train services. The refurbishment delivery slipped, trains were cancelled, journey times extended. The new timetables were officially introduced, the project milestone achieved, EU funding signed off. The actual train services still took 2½ hours, their actual schedules displayed on little scraps of paper at ticket offices and on the Internet. Here we have a case of two official timetables – showing different train times – both which have a formal status. One is for ordinary travellers the other exists in a parallel universe inhabited by EU officials and Ministers of Infrastructure. So a high degree of virtuality here, although reality breaks through as no seasoned commuter between Lodz and Warsaw would dream of planning their journey to work according to the train times in shown on the official timetables displayed at the stations.

However, a real virtual railway timetable should be not only completely different to the one advertised, but also should not appear in any official railway publication. Having unexpectedly found  himself at Warszawa Wschodnia rather than Warszawa Srodmiescie at the end of his commuting run, Michael writes with feeling about his train services to Warsaw.

The introduction of the new timetable is usually entirely virtual, since trains keep running (on my line anyway) to the old timetable for weeks regardless.

I checked PKP’s on-line timetable which showed trains running on Michael’s line according to the new timetable. Trains oblivious of anything published anywhere by PKP –  that really is railway operation according to a 100% virtual timetable.

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