Chichowo Minature Railway closes

by

New mayor demands his pound of flesh

10¼ inch gauge Atlantic, probably built by Basset Lowke in 1937. Photo by Koscian.net.

A row between Jacek Nowak, the new chief executive of the Krzywin municipality, and Roman Witkowski, the chairman of the Stowarzyszenie Hobbystow Kolejowych (SHK – Society of Railway Hobbyists) has lead to the closure of the miniature railway in Chichowo. For five years the miniature railway was the biggest tourist attraction in the village (pop. 94) and a key element in the tourist economy of the Krzywin municipality (pop. 9,892).

The father of the miniature railway in Chichowo was Roman Witkowski who was involved in the restoration of a British-built 10¼ inch gauge Atlantic of the sort that Basset Lowke used to build for private railways in the grounds of country houses. (Most of the larger British miniature railways were 15 inch gauge.)

The locomotive, whose pedigree is yet to be researched, was found hidden away in a barn and its restoration was a team effort between Roman Witkowski, who provided the funds, and Tadeusz Popiel who provided the engineering expertise. Once the engine was restored, the only problem that remained was to find a suitable site to run the engine.

There were plans to build a miniature railway in Rudy Wielkie, and a park surrounding a country house in Rokosow was also investigated. But the best offer of all came from the then chief executive of Krzywin municipality who suggested a joint venture between the municipality and the Society. The municipality provided the land and the services of a full-time employee who combined the functions of security guard, track gang and train crew. The society provided the railway hardware and an army of volunteers.

What, in fact, was to happen in Chickowo was the start a classic public-private-partnership. But with Polish law and legal ‘custom and practice’ yet to catch up with Poland’s post-communist economy, the agreement, struck in 2004, was verbal based on a handshake and a glass of vodka. In 2005, the construction of the railway started in earnest, using track materials bought up by Witkowski from various saw mills and brickworks, and the labour of the municipality’s one-man track gang augmented by volunteers from all over Poland.

By 2007, the railway was ready for its first summer season. Soon up to 3,000 passengers were using the line each year. The majority coming specially to the small village to travel on the line and see its Atlantic – the only British steam locomotive still working in Poland. So pleased was the former chief executive with the functioning of the railway and the contribution of SHK members that he made the life guard’s hut (the line runs near a large lake) available to provide accommodation for volunteers.

The Chief Executive’s office of Wielkopolska Province made a grant towards the cost of resurfacing the platforms and repairing the overall roof at the main station, while the Wielkopolska Tourist Organisation featured the line in its glossy brochure about the province’s railway attractions.

Then disaster struck, in December 2010 Jacek Nowak took over as chief executive of Krzwin province and summoned Witkowski to his office demanding that the Society pay rent for the land upon which the railway runs and announcing that the termination of the funding of a council employee – by now semi-retired and working only half-time – and the arrangement whereby society members could stay in the life guard’s hut.

In vain did Witkowski try to explain that neither the SHK nor the Chichowo railway was a commercial enterprise. In fact the railway ran at a considerable loss, but was enabled to run by the interest-free cash that Witkowski had invested at the start and the work carried out by volunteers without any remuneration. The contribution of the council – the land that the railway ran on and the wages of a part time member of staff – was returned to the local economy many times over by the visitors who came to see and ride on the ‘Lilliput’ line.

The chief executive would not budge and demanded that the relations between the SHK and the municipal council be put on a strictly commercial footing. Witkowski countered by removing all his rolling stock and by starting to plan to relocate the railway elsewhere. Now the chief executive is claiming that the railway belongs to the municipality and is threatening legal action against Witkowsiki.

With both sides seeing no alternative than a costly legal process to solve the ownership question, the story of the Chichowo miniature railway draws to its sad end. What is so tragic is that the short-sighted view of the chief executive is not unique to Krzywin, but has poisoned the well of so many Polish volunteer-assisted railway preservation schemes.

Perhaps someone should point out to Jacek Nowak how lucky Chichowo was to have had such a tourist attraction. The story of the remarkable rebirth of the Ruislip Lido Railway – whose operating society are not charged by the local authority that owns their railway land – would make a good start.

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6 Responses to “Chichowo Minature Railway closes”

  1. Gavin Whitelaw Says:

    Once again Polish officialdom cannot see beyond the end of their noses and cannot grasp, because of their own limited municipal munificence the fact that sometimes people do things because they want to and not for financial gain.

    They will lose all the income for the village and area that this brings in and will do sod all with the land when the railway goes!

    If indeed there is nothing in writing then I fail to see how the municipality can claim ownership of the infrastructure, and if it does gain ownership legally, then they are trying to charge themselves for the use of their own infrastructure.

    You couldn’t make it up if you tried!

  2. Gavin Whitelaw Says:

    Can you keep us informed of what happens to the railway/loco please. I visited a couple of years ago, but it was late in the year and the loco wasn’t in steam.

  3. nanstallon Says:

    Yet another sad story of Polish local government having no time for railways, as per Smigiel, and too many others.

    • Dyspozytor Says:

      There are two problems: local government being ignorant of the tourist railway multiplier effect on the local economy; and not understanding why anyone should want to volunteer to work on such a line ‘unless there was money in it’.

  4. Michael Says:

    Ah, yet another wonderful example of narrow minded local politicians ruining good things for the local area.

    I’ve always thought that it was a strange Polish habit to destroy things that one wasn’t responsible for – almost like a continuation of the old “it’s public, so it belongs to everyone and therefore no-one and certainly not me, so I can destroy it” attitude.

    I suppose there will be plenty other little gminas out there who will quite happily take such an attraction.

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