Short change for Poland’s railways

by

Prime Minister switches 4.8 billion PLN to build roads

Passenger boarding Warsaw train at Krakow Glowny on 3 January. Photo Michal Bis/TVP.

(Click image to see original on TVP.INFO web page and view video.)

2010 was not a good year. I wished all my friends that 2011 should be better than 2010 and they enthusiastically responded in kind. But, by the end of January, all my hopes were dashed.

The celebration of New Year in Poland involves much travelling around the country. As soon as Christmas is over, people start their journeys to see the New Year in with their friends. Many young people travel south to the mountains to combine New Year revelry with skiing. Trains are traditionally packed.

But this year something went seriously wrong. Tens of thousands waiting at stations such as Krakow and Zakopany found that their PKP InterCity trains, on which they hoped to return home, was not an extended rake of 12 or 16 carriages but had been reduced to a ludicrous 3 or 4 coaches. The papers were full of stories of passengers experiencing Third World conditions. One passenger arrested his train’s locomotive by holding onto its handrail and refusing to budge until the guard promised a place his own compartment. Not all would-be travellers were so enterprising; many were left behind swearing never to try to travel long-distance by rail ever again.

The appointment of deputy CMTK director, Andrzej Massel, as Undersecretary of State responsible for rail by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk seemed to augur well for the future. Massel immediately ordered the sacking of Andrzej Wach, the chairman of PKP SA, though it has been reported that the decision was not Massel’s but part of a done deal between Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, and Minister of Infrastructure, Cezary Grabarczyk.

Massel is a technocrat who understands how railways should work, but he lacks the political power and connections of his boss, Grabarczyk. When Wach was sacked, there were dissident voices that cuts were needed not just within the body of PKP, but also at the top of the Ministry of infrastructure. The SLD political party tried, but failed, to pass a resolution in the Sejm, the lower chamber of the Polish parliament, demanding the immediate resignation of Grabarczyk.

The month passed quickly. Andrzej Massel, in a number of TV and radio interviews tried hard to dampen down expectations that all would be well shortly. He announced a new timetable to be implemented from 1 March. There would be even less trains, but at least those that remained would be run according to the published timetable. It seems to me that by this logic seriously ill AIDS patients should have their hands and legs amputated because there would then be less HIV cells in their bodies.

A number of enterprising Polish railway video bloggers started to search for the missing carriages that had failed to run. They soon found hundreds of brand-new carriages, or carriages that had been recently upgraded to ‘as new’ condition, mouldering in carriage sidings up and down the country. There is no mystery any more. As the calendar page and turned over from 2010 to 2011, these carriages fell out of the “period of grace” that they had been given by railway inspectors allowing them to run temporarily after the expiry of their due dates for inspection and overhaul.

Why had many hundreds of carriages not been subject to their scheduled maintenance programme? The answer seems to lie in today’s news that PKP IC’s interim end of year results are not significantly worse than the 150 million PLN loss posted at the end of Q2 2010. I suspect that, when the dreadful mid-year results were known, Grabarczyk/Englehardt ordered the chairman of PKP IC to cut his losses at whatever cost, because a spiralling deficit spoiled the chances of generating significant revenue for the government from an eventual PKP IC privatisation.

If I’m right in my analysis, then the Polish government does not understand basic economics. One reason for PKP IC’s’s vanishing passengers and revenue is its high prices. Indeed for years, PKP IC has been steadily losing passengers while railway companies in neighbouring countries actually reported an increase in traffic. PKP IC’s inflated ticket prices are partly, but not wholly, caused by the astronomical PKP PLK track access charges. In fact PKP PLK competse fiercely with Network Rail’s for the title of having ‘the most expensive track track access charges in Europe’. Until the government recognises that it is consistently subsidizing the road infrastructure unfairly relative to its treatment of rail, matters will not improve.

To add insult to injury on Tuesday, Tusk announced that 4.8 billion PLN (1 billion GBP) which had been allocated for expenditure on Polish rail was being diverted to the road budget.

There was widespread consternation. Even the traditionally staid British-Polish Chamber of Commerce which much prefers to make its representations away from the glaze of publicity issued a stern press release rebuking the government for its decision.

The Chamber’s members have a big stake in the future of Poland – they have contributed some 20-25% of all inward investment into the country’s economy – and look forward to its continued growth and development”, said BPCC CEO, Martin Oxley. “A viable rail network is essential in any country that wants to keep on attracting foreign direct investment. The chaos that took place on Poland’s railways over the Christmas/New Year period was a serious own goal that not only damaged the image of Poland’s railways, but also hurt the reputation of the whole country. With Euro 2012 less than 500 days away, it should be a top government priority to make the railways fit for purpose. The government should be looking for new sources of funding for Polish railways such as PPP and not withdrawing funds already earmarked for rail investment,” he said

For those of us who use Polish railways it does not look likely that 2011 will be a good year

Dyspozytor

Modern PKP IC carriages stored out-of-use at Warszawa Grochow. Video KolejTakPkpNie.

More of the same in Gdansk. Video TransPORTele.

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5 Responses to “Short change for Poland’s railways”

  1. Ed Beale Says:

    I am very sad for Poland and it’s railways on hearing this news. The trains were crowded enough even with the normal level of stock in service. It is really shocking to see so many of the newest carriages sitting unused in sidings for want of basic scheduled maintenance and exams.

  2. John Says:

    Of course my contribution will not break the Polish economy, but I have been discouraged from visiting that country through more recent experiences of the railways. I used to go once or twice a year (train from UK) as a tourist but now not at all. Restricted destinations, lower frequency, crowding. Is Poland going to use its Army to drive down international oil prices? Who is to build car parks – basing travel wholly on road is reckless.

  3. Gavin Whitelaw Says:

    It isn’t getting ANY better over there. They just don’t get it at all. We made the same sort of mistakes YEARS ago and have realised that Rail is a much more economic form of transport…..but politicians don’t make money from rail transport.

    That 4.8 Billion PLN is a very nice backhander to the road lobby!!!!!!!!

  4. Podroznik Says:

    Having lived in Poland for 12 years, and having travelled here for over 20, it saddens me to see the decline of the railway here.

    Poles seems to have this love of all things American, and the car culture of “Happy Motoring” is in full bloom here. The number of cars on the streets has mushroomed since entering the EU, and now the first thing a young person does upon reaching age 18 is get a driving license. And obviously, if want to drive, they want good roads, and the government and the road builders are happy to please.

    They wanted America here, and soon they’ll have it. The current goings-on at PKP InterCity remind me of the dark days of the Penn Central in the USA.

    Somehow, the neighbouring countries have escaped this. Visit the Czech Republic or Slovakia and you’ll find good passenger services and none of these problems.

  5. odrzut Says:

    The fact is PKP and all of its descendant companies (PKP Intercity, Przewozy Regionalne, TLK) are losers, are utterly ineffective in dealing with EU money, are constantly having problems with even managing to print their damn timetable correctly. The more money they are given, the more dismal is the situation. I wish somebody just go and burn this wasteful company structure and start from scratch.

    And situation in road construction, while not perfect, seems much better – we are finally building roads, that are badly needed. So why waste EU moneys on projects that PKP and its daughter companies will not finish anyway?

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