Archive for March, 2015

Postcard from Guatemala by Piotr Kumelowski

Monday, 30 March 2015

At first sight, Guatemala and Poland have little in common, yet both both countries have travelled a difficult and painful path to achieve national sovereignty and democracy. In both, trains are associated in mind of the public with a period it would rather forget, and the the road lobby has made the most of this to deal a heavy blow to their railways. Sadly in the case of Guatamala, the damage seems to have been fatal. Piotr Kumelowski reports from his trip to Guatemala in February 2015. [Dyspozytor]

 

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The author posing by IRCA 204, 2-8-2 built as 74134 by Baldwin in 11/1948. Photo Piotr Kumelowski collection.

Despite its obvious advantages, rail has lost the battle with road in yet another country – Guatemala. Before we shrug our shoulders and dismiss this Central American country as a ‘typical banana republic’ – it is worth becoming acquainted with some interesting facts. The origins of the local railways date back to the last two decades of the nineteenth century. One of the companies served the extensive coffee plantations run by German settlers. At the beginning of the twentieth century, several independent concerns were consolidated as the state-owned Ferrocarriles de Guatemala, whose 3-foot (914 mm) gauge lines reached both oceans as well as the Mexican and Salvadoran borders, a network of some 800 km.

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The railways of Guatemala. Map Bill Metzger/RDC.

The zenith of the Guatemalan railways occurred in the period 1912 – 1954, when the lines found themselves in the hands of the United Fruit Company – a giant citrus producer. Under the name of ‘International Railways of Central America’ (IRCA) – the infrastructure, rolling stock, procedures and frequency of trains reached a North American standard. The railways transported tropical fruits for export, serviced virtually the all imports, ran regular passenger services (providing hotels and restaurants) and carried the mail. They were a real link with the outside world and a herald of technical progress.

In 1954, as a result of antitrust legislation in the United States, the United Fruit Company got rid of its railways which were acquired by government.  That date also marks the start of an extensive programme of road construction. In 1996, the whole railway – known as FEGUA – was definitively closed. But was not the end. Like the fairy godmother in Cinderella, the Railway Development Corporation, a USA ‘short line’ operator, appears on the scene and achieves a miracle. After negotiating a concession to operate the railway from  the government, the company overcame numerous technical difficulties to restore to life a devastated, but most commercially promising, 320 km segment of the network from the Atlantic to the capital of Puerto Barrios (4 million inhabitants).

Ferrocarriles de Guatemala (FEGUA y Ferrovias). Video Saúl Lima Díaz

Alarmed, the road haulage lobby used a whole series of dirty tricks to make life as difficult as possible for the ‘Yankees’ and to get rid of a competitor. By 2007, they had achieved their objectives, and the recently revived rail transport of steel, cement, paper, oil, bananas and containers died. Today, all that is left is a haunted rusting fleet of rolling stock and locomotives, while track and steel civil engineering structures are stolen more and more brazenly and the highways become ever more jammed with huge used trucks imported from the USA. Something of interest remains – the Museo del Ferrocarril in the capital. Ironically it was partially set up by the Americans.

Sin Nombre – mile post 177-78

Sin Nombre viaduct at mile post 177.78. Photo courtesy Jorge Senn/Railroad Heritage.

 

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Railway photography in Poland

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Old gentleman

The Railway Children’s ‘The Old Gentleman’. Frame grab courtesy Studio Canal.

Railway photographers lead dangerous lives. All too often they are arrested, their cameras taken away from them and their photos deleted. We asked Dyspozytor how he deals with jobsworth officials interfering with his railway photography in Poland. We have no hesitation in recommending either his regretful approach, ‘I’m awfully sorry. I’m from England. I didn’t know your railway was a strategic installation of military importance.’ or his more apologetic, ‘Thank you for pointing out that I was trespassing. I am very sorry. Now let that be the end of the matter’. However, the last technique he describes here seems to us to be downright dangerous and should not be attempted by anyone who does not at least possess a black belt in the martial arts.

Rule 1. Remain calm and collected at all times.

Let the ‘Old Gentleman’, so brilliantly portrayed by William Mervyn in the 1970 film adaptation of The Railway Children, be your role model.

My first brush against Polish officialdom occurred in 1965, or was it perhaps a year or two earlier? I was a schoolboy and had gone to Stepnica, a tiny port on the Szczecin Lagoon served by a couple of sidings on a branch of the then massive metre gauge railway network centred on Gryfice. I took a couple of shots of an engine at the head of a train at the station.

There are few signs that the port and town of Stepnica were once served by a railway. Satellite photo courtesy of Google Maps.

The station master caught me and delivered a lecture that the railway was a strategic instillation of military significance and that he should call the police. I countered that in the UK we did not regard narrow gauge railways as having any significance at all other than as tourist attractions and apologised profusely.

I was allowed to keep my camera and my film. I used a similar tactic and obtained the same outcome when challenged after photographing a tram depot near Warszawa Wschodnia station in the 1970s.

Sanok Station-2010

Sanok station July 2010. Dyspozytor had strayed off the platform on the left. Photo (GRAD). Licence CC BY-SA 3.0.

But that was then – when Poland was in thrall to the Soviet empire, and paranoia reigned on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Today Polish law has changed. You are allowed to take photographs of trains and railways, but not trespass on railway property.

In 1990, I was with Michael Dembinski (author of W-wa Jeziorki blog) waiting at a level crossing to photograph a Tkt48 pulling a train consisting of a couple of double decker coaches. The level crossing attendant ranted at us that photography of railway lines was prohibited. Michael retorted in his best Jeremy Clarkson manner that the days of communism were over. Which leads me neatly to:

Rule 2. Be firm and stick to your guns.

A few years ago, I was wandering around taking photographs of Sanok station, which was – and still is – served by only a handful of trains a day. I stepped off the platform to get the whole of the station in the frame, shot a set of photographs and found myself facing a member of the Straź Ochrony Kolei (Railway Police).

He told me that I was breaking the law, that he would call the police and would face all sorts of unspecified punishments. I told him that there was no law against taking photographs of the railway. He told me that I was trespassing on railway land and that he would call the police and that I would face… . I thanked him for pointing this out and for having told me off, and told him that I accepted his rebuke and told him that that should be the end of the matter.

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Warszawa 06:25 on December 14 2014 . Shortly after taking this photo in available light (no flash) Dyspoztytor was challenged by a uniformed member of the SOK (Railway Police). Photo BTWT.

We repeated this scene some three or four times. I then pointed out that he had done his job and I needed to get going. I suspect that he had hoped for a bribe. With none forthcoming, he left. The next time I was challenged by a member of the Straz Kolejowy, I did not let him off so lightly, which brings me round to my last rule:

Rule No. 3. The best form of defence is attack!

On the morning of December 14 2014, shortly before travelling on the first ever public Pendolino service from Warsaw to Krakow, I was accosted by a member of the SOK and asked whether I had a permit to take photographs. All around me TV crews were setting up, people were snapping away as if there was no tomorrow, yet this SOKista had the nerve to pick on an old gentleman barely supporting himself on a walking stick – me!

Henryk_Pobozny

Henry the Pious before his defeat and beheading at the Battle of Legnica in 1241. From a painting by Jan Matejko.

I saw red. My blood pressure rose past all safe limits. I was trying to change the course of history and fighting the Battle of Legnica all over again, defending civilisation against the hordes from the East. What! I spluttered. Today, everybody in Poland should be rejoicing that at last Polish Railways have taken a cautious step forward into the future, and YOU are behaving as if we were still living under communism!

I had reached the most dangerous moment, the man’s temper was rising. The list of remedies available to members of SOK reads like something out of Fifty Shades of Grey: physical force, weighted baton, handcuffs, tear gas grenade, police dog, Walther P99 and Taser. It was time to go in for the kill, Tell me Sir, when did you last go to confession?

Defeated by an old gentleman with a walking stick, the SOKista beat a hasty retreat.

Prussian P8-5228

Tp3-3, former Prussian Railways G8 class, built Hanomag 2013, active PKP service 1945-1970, displayed as a ‘technical monument’ at Zbąszynek from 1988. Note pile of coal in foreground and shadow cast by the sun. Photo BTWT.

My last run in with the SOK occurred just 5 days ago on 17 March at Zbąszynek. I was with a friend, we were returning from Wolsztyn, where we had been guests at a lunch given by the Mayor of Wolsztyn in honour of the British Ambassador on the occasion of his visit to the Steam Locomotive Depot.

We were both smartly dressed and talking – quite loudly I suspect – in English. It was 15:15, the sun was shining brightly from the South West and we both walked off the end of the platform to get a good view of the Ex Prussian Railway G8 0-8-0 plinthed just off the neighbouring platform.

After I had taken my photographs, we were approached by a couple of SOKisci. It appeared one of them objected that we were wandering too close to a pile of coal. The last part of our conversation went something like this.

Me Zbąszynek should be celebrating its railway heritage not harassing tourists!

SOKista Why are you raising your voice?

Me Because I object to being told off for taking a photograph of a unique Prussian Railways locomotive.

SOKista You can take your photo from the other platform. I am just telling you that you should not be wandering around in the vicinity of the heap of coal.

Me So you you think that I am planning to take the coal away in my jacket pocket? I cannot take a photograph against the sun. I object most strongly to you lecturing me.

SOKista I am not lecturing you… 

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SOKisci are human too! Taking photos of the first ever public Pendolino working to Krakow in 14 December 2014. Photo BTWT.

[Here comes the critical moment, the SOKista has as good as admitted defeat, and has delivered his last two lines with a broad grin on his face. Time to let him off the hook, and to show that I understand that he has to work in a wider environment with regulations and bosses.]

Me That as maybe. But I am lecturing YOU. Please tell your boss that, if Zabąszynek is to be a proper custodian of a unique locomotive of world-class importance, photographers should be welcomed not harassed.

And that was the end of the matter. When it became clear that our EIC train from Berlin to Warsaw was lost somewhere in Germany, and that it would be prudent to take the next KW stopping train to Poznan, the SOKisci, seeing my walking stick, guided us politely over the barrow crossing to the platform where the stopping train was waiting. Perhaps things are getting better on PKP after all?

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British Ambassador drives Ol49-69!

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Wol RB-5196

Left to right: British Ambassador, Robin Barnett; Shed Manager, Mariusz Kokornaczyk; and Mayor of Wolsztyn, Wojtek Lis. Photo BTWT.

The mood is sombre in Wolsztyn these days: the regular pair of scheduled steam passenger workings has been suspended for a whole year; only one locomotive, Ol49-69, is in ticket; Leszno depot is due to close and its engineering facilities will be lost; idle drivers sit around grumbling, and contemplate early retirement.

The negotiations between the main decision-makers seem to have ground to a halt. While a breath of optimism was injected into the negotiations when it was announced that the plan to form a commercial company to run the depot was being superseded by a project to set up a cultural institute (BTWT 8 May 2014) instead, the reality is that the various local authorities just do not have the financial resources to pay the annual subsidies that the PKP Cargo business plan envisages.

An ugly game of  one-upmanship seems to be being played out. The original suspension of steam services last March took place when the Chief Executive of Wielkopolska provincial government felt that PKP Cargo were dragging out the negotiations, since then a majority of PKP Cargo shares has been sold and Cargo is effectively a private company. Responsibility for maintaining Poland’s steam heritage sits uncomfortably alongside the company’s commercial aspirations.

Now it is PKP Cargo that is keen to speed up negotiations – a fortnight ago the Mayor’s office was informed that unless the local authorities signed up to the business plan there would be no Parada Parowozow (Wolsztyn’s annual parade of steam locomotives) this year.

At a few minutes past 10:00 on Tuesday 17 March, Robin Barnett, CMG, Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Poland, swept into this forbidding environment like a breath of fresh air. His enthusiasm was infectious and provided a much-needed morale boost to all those who accompanied him around the shed. The British Ambassador came to Wolsztyn at the invitation of Wojtek Lis, the Mayor of Wolsztyn, and a passionate enthusiast of steam locomotives since his student days.

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Robin Barnett says a few words for the benefit of the press.
Photo BTWT.

Though the Ambassador spoke in Polish, thanks to the help of the British Embassy, we managed to obtain a copy of his speech in English.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would just like to say a few words to thank those people who worked so hard to make my visit to Wolsztyn and its historic locomotive depot possible. I have always been a fan of steam trains. When I was in Poland under communism one of my hobbies was to travel to the south of Poland to ride on PKP steam trains and taking illegal photos. I even took the train that passed through the USSR without requiring
a visa. So I would like to say a special thank you to the Mayor of Wolsztyn, Mr Wojtek Lis for inviting me to Wolsztyn and letting me revisit the sights and smells of my first time in Poland.

I would also like to thank Mr Mariusz Kokornaczyk, the shed master for putting one of his historic locomotives in steam and answering all my questions. I need to learn more specialised vocabulary po polsku!

I would also like to congratulate the PKP group and more specifically, PKP Cargo, the custodians of Wolsztyn locomotive depot, for recognising the unique heritage value of the depot and its locomotives and for preserving the complex as a going concern for the benefit of future generations.

I have been told that talks are in progress between PKP Cargo, the Marszałek’s office, the Starosta and your Burmistrz regarding setting up a new entity to secure the long-term future of the shed. I very much hope that these negotiations will soon reach a successful conclusion. The Wolsztyn depot, its engines and its trains, are not only a wonderful Polish asset with huge potential to attract tourists – they are also important in the European context.

Finally, while today is all about railway heritage, I would like to say a few words about the future of railways. The future is all about integrated transport systems. Roads will always play a vital role but they are increasingly full in many places and have environmental implications. So rail is an essential ingredient of any successful transport strategy. Freight trains, commuter trains, light rail and PKPs impressive new Pendolino will all be crucial for Poland’s future economic growth.

Today Britain’s railways transport more passengers than at any time since the Second World War. We are well on the way to completing Crossrail – Europe’s biggest urban infrastructure project, a 15 billion pound project to improve commuter services by constructing a new railway under London. We are also about to embark on HS2, a 43 billion pound project to build a new high-speed railway from the London to the north.

Helped by almost 8 billion of EU funding between now and 2020, I am certain that Poland’s railways will also experience a great renaissance, which will give me great pleasure. I have to admit though that, much though I have enjoyed using Pendolino, for me, my heart will always be with steam.

Wol RB-5209

Robin Barnett about to have his driving lesson. Photo BTWT.

The highlight of the Ambassador’s visit to the locomotive depot was when, armed with a PKP Cargo footplate pass, he mounted the footplate of Ol49-69 and, after having had the controls explained to him by Howard Jones of the Wolsztyn Experience, he then – under the eagle eye of one of the Ol49’s regular drivers – gradually opened the regulator and took the loco for a spin down the loco yard.

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With Robin Barnett at the controls Ol49-69 accelerates down the depot yard. Photo BTWT.

Polish TV’s TeleExpress crew were there to record every detail of the trip and a splendid piece went out that day on Poland’s main TV channel giving the shed – and everybody’s hopes for the return of daily steam workings – a terrific plug. Even PKP Cargo got into the mood and their Press spokesman, Mirosław Kuk, announced that the twenty-second annual Steam Locomotive Parade in Wolsztyn WILL take place this year on May 2!

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 Ambassador triumphant! Photo BTWT.

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