Track severed by A1 Motorway construction, 2011. Photo SGKW.
The Bytom narrow gauge railway is the longest surviving fragment of the Upper Silesian narrow gauge railway, an extensive 785mm gauge freight network that carried heavy coal traffic until as recently as May 2001. The tourist service dates back to 1993 when the railway was still operated by PKP.
Since PKP closed all of its surviving narrow gauge lines at the end of 2001, the railway has been owned by Bytom, Tarnowskie Gory and Miasteczko Slaskie councils. It has been operated under licence by Stowarzyszenie Górnosląskich Kolei Wąskotorowych (The Upper Silesian Narrow Gauge Railway).
The new operators survived a very tough first year or two, when track theft was a major unchecked problem in Upper Silesia. Vast swathes of the former network were lost to theft, including the lines to the southern tourist train terminus of Siemianowice Slaskie and to the repair workshops at Bytom Rozbark. Following this, the railway entered a period of relative stability, operating daily tourist trains in the summer over the core Bytom to Miasteczko Slaskie route. The line gave access to the popular recreational lake Chechlo-Naklo, and long trains were well loaded with tourists.
The recent problems started in 2010 when floods in the middle of May badly damaged the bridge over the river Stola at Tarnowskie Gory. Trains were unable to run over the northern section of the line for two months while repairs were carried out, resuming on 15 July. Then in 2011, construction of the A1 motorway severed the route for the whole of the summer operating season. Originally due to be complete in October 2011, the work overran considerably and the new viaduct is only now ready for track laying. At the time of writing, SGKW are expecting the new bridge to be ready for use by the end of April.
The new viaduct ready for track laying. Photo SGKW via Facebook.
But already a new problem is looming on the horizon. The two viaducts either side of Szombierki power station, which carry the narrow gauge line over first the Bytom to Gliwice line, and then the Bytom to Tarnowskie Gory line, are both in very poor condition and in urgent need of repair. Bytom council have received an EU grant to cover part of the cost of the repair, but the conditions of the building permit mean that work must start by July. So for the third year running SGKW are faced with a key part of their route being closed for the main tourist season. Trains will have to start from Bytom Karb instead of from the platform at the main Bytom Glowny station, and the society fear that far fewer passengers will travel on the trains as a result.
If all this were not enough, the railway is also suffering from mining subsidence from the Bobrek-Centrum coal mine in Bytom. A 1.5km section of the line is affected, at the centre of which the track level has fallen by 8 metres. The resulting gradients are so steep in places that they make operation of the trains difficult, as well as causing ongoing damage to rails and sleepers. The mine owners should be liable to repair the damage, but this may take time.
SGKW board members have shown considerable resourcefulness in trying to overcome the problems they face and have come up with several new ways to attract passengers to the railway. In 2008 they introduced power station tours which were a great success, involving a short train ride from Bytom to Szombierki power station, then a guided tour of the power station and train back. Unfortunately, the new Finnish owner of the power station is concerned about health and safety and these tours are unlikely to run again this year. Other recent new ventures include involvement in the annual Industriada event celebrating the industrial heritage of Upper Silesia, and “cinema trains”, evening events consisting of a train ride from Bytom to Bytom Karb for film showings in a converted railway carriage.
Due to the uncertainty concerning the viaducts at Szombierki the timetable for the 2012 season has not yet been finalised, but trains from Bytom Karb to Miasteczko are expected to run on summer weekends, and perhaps also on weekdays in the school summer holidays. The line has considerable scenic as well as railway interest, and is well worth a visit.