Posts Tagged ‘Euro 2012’

Transport of Delight, or own goal? (Finale)

Monday, 2 July 2012

On its way out? The old station building. Photo BTWT.

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One of my favourite parables is the one about the frog sitting in a cooking pot. It applies to many of the challenges that face the human race. A slow fire is lit under the pot and the frog never realises what is happening until it is too late and it can no longer jump out. Poor frog! The waitress starts fiddling with the temperature control on the cold drinks fridge and I realise it has become uncomfortably hot. Is the air conditioning not powerful enough to cope with a really hot day, I query. No, the building was opened in a rush by the politicians before all the systems were finished, she replies. Like a dark cloud on the distant horizon being a harbinger of a storm to come, this is the first warning.

The 15:55 leaves from platform 2. The stairs going down to the platform are clearly marked. Unfortunately, there is only an upward escalator and I do not want to take my suitcase down the steep and narrow steps. I look for a lift. There is a lift which looks as if it might connect to platform 2, but there are no signs to advise where it might go to. However, I notice that there is a lift on the opposite side of the concourse to each set of platform stairs, so I deduce that the one opposite the platform 2 stairs is probably the one I want.

Outside it is really hot and humid. Second class TLK stock is not fitted with air conditioning so I begin to worry about the journey to Lodz. The Sukiennice from Szczecin arrives punctually at 15:45 crammed full of Ireland supporters. I choose an open carriage to give me a better view. It is the last coach of the train and is destined to become the first as the train reverses here. I wait patiently as the fans pour out onto the platform till the flood becomes a trickle. Meanwhile passengers are already boarding the coach at the other end and desirable seats are going fast.

The coach resembles an open compartment coaches from BR days with a table and a window between each pair of seats. I rather fancy a window seat on the left of the carriage which will become the shady side once we reach the suburbs of Poznan and swing round towards the East.

As it happens some Ireland supporters have left one of the tables covered in beer cans and fast food containers. Other passengers have avoided its seats as if they were contaminated with polonium. I thank St Patrick and make a beeline for the mess, yank open the window and sink gratefully into my chosen seat.

Regio 71136, the 17:22 from Wrzesnia to Kutno.

Photo BTWT.

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The train accelerates out of Poznan Glowny like a bat out of hell. I am impressed, I have never left Poznan in such style. For years trains have dawdled along the approach tracks out of the city, only picking up speed once they were running in open country. I become mildly alarmed. The carriage is bumping and shaking with a motion not dissimilar to HSTs along sections of the Great Western mainline, but with a greater amplitude and noise. (The ride on the GWR has deteriorated somewhat since the days of BR.)

I calculate, that we are travelling at a little over 100 miles an hour. As I am to learn a little later, we are not, it is just that PKP have not mastered the art of accurately welding track and the bumps over the welded joins create the illusion of travelling faster than we really are. The high speed run does not last. After some 15 minutes, the brakes are applied, and we veer off the mainline tracks and stop by the platform at a new station. What station? What are we doing at some small wayside station?

After a ten-minute wait, we set off at high speed only to have the brakes applied just before the next station and another five-minute wait. Finally we reach Wrzesnia which is about 40 km to the east of Poznan. Here we stop and it seems we are destined to stay here for some time.

‘Should I have changed trains?’ Photo BTWT.

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The grumbling of my fellow passengers reaches a crescendo. It seems there is a Regio all stations osobowy to Kutno following us which might provide some of them with a faster way home. I debate with myself should I catch the Regio and then organise a lift from Kutno or should I sit tight and brave it out to see what happens? I decide to sit tight. I bury myself in the biography of Trevithick. This remarkable man pioneered the use of ‘strong’ (high pressure) steam, invented the railway locomotive, the steam dredger and several other world changing inventions and yet died a pauper.

Half an hour passes. It must be the hottest time of the day. Trevithick is now working on a project to build a tunnel under the Thames. The Regio arrives on the opposite platform and the majority of passengers decant themselves to catch it. I start to romance a survival film scenario: the majority set out to trek across the jungle to seek assistance, but we know in our hearts that will never make it. The chosen few stay put, improvise a shelter and go foraging for provisions.

A lady with blonde hair takes charge of the handful of passengers that are left. It appears that our locomotive has broken down and that a replacement logo has been summoned. She walks up and down the carriage opening windows and tries jamming a piece of paper under the doors at each end to encourage a draught. The gap under the doors is too big and no matter how many times she folds a piece of paper the doors snap open.

It is a matter of considerable satisfaction me that I once came top in the mechanical engineering exam at one of Britain’s leading industrial universities. We had a drop forge just across from the sports stadium. I crush the Irish beer cans to make neat little wedges. Proudly, I hand her my metal work. She fits my wedges under each of the doors and they stay open. A cool draught starts to blow along the open carriage.

Brief encounters, Dawid, Sonia and the team leader.

Photo BTWT.

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Our leader reports that she has interrogated the guard, the driver and a relief driver. All had given her different time estimates as to when help will arrive. The guard says that we could spend the rest of the day here and seems relieved most of the passengers have deserted his train. The relief driver thinks we may be delayed by about two hours, while the driver expects to have more information in about half an hour.

The prognosis is encouraging, but my water supply – I bought a small bottle at Poznan – is getting dangerously low. Apparently there is a spozywczy store close to the station. Sonia, a student at the Lodz Film School, offers to go and get some beer. This is getting better and better! We place our orders and assure her that we will not let the train go without her.

Soon she returns with our drinks. I put Richard Trevithick aside and we discuss our plight. We are all agreed that it is absolutely unacceptable that at no stage we been provided with any official information. What we do know, we have had to find out for ourselves.

Our team leader reports that she has complained strongly to the guard about the way he has kept us in the dark. I reflect that he will probably be the last to be kept informed and that in any case there is no effective feedback mechanism in PKP. The company treats its staff strictly according to the ‘mushroom management methodology’. (*See below.)

We are briefly joined by the driver and another driver travelling ‘on the cushions’. The driver reports that a relief engine has been sent out. Our own engine, EP09-02 has overheated. It is 70°C in the resistor compartment, he tells us. I ask him whether he went over 160 k/h (100 mph) coming out of Poznan, I only touched 155, he answers defensively. He does not think much of the EP09s. Not as reliable as the EU07s, he tells us.

The EP09s were designed in the 1980s to be thyristor controlled, but as Poland was in the middle of a hard currency crisis at the time, the thyristors were replaced by resistors. This radical redesign made the locomotives much less energy efficient. The wasted energy becomes converted into heat. All it needs is a hot humid day and a faulty fan and the EP09 is crippled.

Failed EP09-002, piloted by unknown EU-07 hauling TLK 83106 at Lodz Zabieniec on 18 June 2012.

Photo BTWT.

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Footnote

*Mushroom management methodology: keep them in the dark and from time to time throw in a load of sh*t.

TO BE CONTINUED

Transport of delight, or own goal? (Prelude and fugue)

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Dyspozytor lands in Poznan on the eve of the Ireland v. Italy game. He is pleasantly surprised by the welcome awaiting the Irish fans.

Recently returned after a rail journey from Moscow to Beijing, Andrew preferred the plane to the train for his trip out from Poznan to Moscow. Photo BTWT.

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18 June

Monday begins badly. I am not an early bird and I was not happy when, two days before my departure from the UK, I received an e-mail from Wizzair telling me to turn up at Luton Airport three hours before the my scheduled departure time. I crawl out of bed at 04:00, shower and eat a one sandwich breakfast. At 05:10, I leave St Albans for what should be a 20 minute car journey to the airport.

Millions have been spent on making the airport approach road a dual carriageway. Just after it was completed, the airport (run by TBI plc) abolished the its drop-off point conveniently close to the terminal building and routed all incoming cars through a car park and a single ticket barrier. It is not yet 06:00, and already the queue of cars slowly crawling forward is tailing two miles back. Has anyone calculated the social cost of the decision to impose a minimum £1 charge on all cars entering the airport?

Luton airport has become my own personal bête noire as far as making passengers walk unnecessary miles. The new drop-off point is now at least 100 yards away from the terminal entrance. It is raining. My suitcase handle is a good 4 inches too short to be comfortable, and my back is already sore after a restless night on a soft bed. It is 06:05. Halfway through the terminal there is a security cordon where boarding cards are checked. I am told to proceed to security zone six – another 50 yards walk back in the direction that I have just come from.

Security zone six turns out to be a fast track security check for passengers like myself who turn up at Luton with less than the advised 3 hours before departure. The queue is short and moves quickly. My baggage clears X-ray without a hitch, but I manage to ring the warning buzzer in the magnetic scanning machine and I am treated to a pat down.

Another 100 yard walk and I reach a small lounge fitted with departure monitors and chairs. What should I do? Do I wait here, reasonably close to Gates 1 through to 19, or do I walk some distance to the main departure lounge which is conveniently close for Gates 20 to 26? I check the monitor, it is 06:20, my flight is not yet shown. I see that various Wizzair flights are due to depart from both clusters of gates, so I decide to stay where I am. I eat my other sandwich and settle down to read my book, a biography of Richard Trevithic. The book is destined to help me combat boredom during many long hours this day, but as yet I am oblivious of what lies ahead.

The new above-the-tracks concourse at Poznan Glowny. A further segment of the concourse is under construction beyond the screen on the east side. The concourse currently provides access to the new platforms 1, 2 and 3. Will the extension provide access to a further platform 4? Photo BTWT.

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Shortly after 07:00 my flight, the 08:05 to Poznan, is posted. Check in is at Gate 25, which turns out to be a 500 yard walk from my lounge. By the time I have limped to the gate, there are already about 100 passengers in the queue ahead of me. I ask a couple of football fans to save my place and gratefully sink in to one of the chairs. The queue moves again, I regain my place. Another corridor, a long flight of steps… someone helps me with my suitcase up the steps to the aircraft, I collapse gratefully into a free seat in the last row.

I reflect wryly on the difference between the way that Victorian railway companies looked after their passengers and the operators at Luton. Whenever possible through coaches were detached from main line trains and attached to branch line services, to reduce the number of changes. This enlightened practice continued on BR till the 1960s. When it was not possible to provide through coaches, the railway companies tried to arrange same platform connections.

Patriotic colours. Plenty of places for a coffee and a quick snack, but not much else. PKP have not yet understood the retail potential of their main stations. Photo BTWT.

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I am not impressed by the flight attendants who spend most of the flight chatting up a senior colleague and ignoring passengers. The absence of any customer service ethos still seems to linger as a characteristic of many large ‘Eastern block’ companies.

We land in Poznan just before 11:00. I walk cautiously down the steps and am delighted to see a bus waiting at the bottom. This drops me a few yards from passport control. Wonderful! The border authorities have opened more booths to deal with the influx of football fans, but not all have been fitted up with computer terminals. The border official writes down my passport number on a sheet of paper and and waves me through. It only takes a minute. I walk the short distance across the baggage reclaim area and I am in the arrivals hall… another 20 yards and I reach at the bus stop for route ‘L’, the Poznan Glowny shuttle. I award Poznan airport the BTWT award for the most user-friendly airport access that I’ve come across.

More surprises on the bus. There is a ticket machine, but it has run out of small change and can only issue tickets for the exact money. The driver is also selling tickets, but by the time I reach him, all the right tickets have gone. The last time this happened to me here, I was overcharged by three times the going rate! This time, the bus driver smiles, rattles about in his till and changes my 5 zloty coin for the right change to put in the machine. Goodness! What has happened to the legendary rudeness of Polish bus drivers? Am I dreaming? I enter into the spirit of things and answer lots of questions from Ireland supporters. I advise them to travel all the way to the railway station where there will be an information desk and possibly maps showing the way to the football stadium.

Polish railways

Does the architect of the new Poznan railway station ever travel by train? Seating for passengers does not seem to have a high priority. Photo BTWT.

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Will the bus stop next to the new station building? No, The bus stops where it always has, just short of the old railway station. I am determined to try out the new building. There does not seem to be a grand entrance. Perhaps it has been built yet? But there do seem to be stairs going up into the building from the platform level. Hurrah, there are escalators. It is going to be a good today after all!

The concourse area is quite stunning. It is light and airy and deliciously cool. It was uncomfortably hot outside. A number of Ireland supporters are milling about inside. I decide that the first thing to do is to get my ticket for the journey to Lodz. As always, when buying a ticket in Poland is important to have planned your journey first. I am tired and I do not fancy jumping off and on to trains or dragging my suitcase up-and-down subways. There are only two direct trains the 12:45 Regio osobowy (all stations stopping train) which takes 4 hours 38 minutes and the 15:55 TLK which takes 3 hours 29 minutes. Reluctantly I decided that a journey involving a change of trains – the 14:25 Galczynski, and the 16:52 Doker from Kutno – total journey time 3 hours 59 minutes – is probably my best bet.
Polish railways

‘st. Martin’s Croissants’ – oh dear! Luckily the Ireland fans seem to have eyes for things other than the bad spelling. Photo BTWT.

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There is no queue at the ticket counters. The old station is still in commission and I suspect is still used by most of the regular rail travellers. I choose a PR counter because the lady ticket clerk looks efficient, and ask for a ticket for a journey on the 14:25 TLK to Kutno and then by the 16:52 TLK from Kutno to Lodz Kaliska. I am told that all seats on this train have to be reserved and that this entails a small extra charge. No worries, at least this guarantees me a seat. Reservation on certain TLK train was introduced a month ago by Transport Minister Novak to ensure that scenes of people squashing on to packed trains via open windows do not occur during Euro 2012.

The lady looks puzzled, Booking for this train is blocked, I can’t seem to be able to sell you a ticket. Odd! Ireland is playing Italy in Poznan this evening, so why should an afternoon train running from Poznan to Warsaw be sold out? Since long before the championships, I have kept hearing rumours that tickets for certain trains were unavailable for direct purchase from PKP, but had been reserved for the handful of agencies operating the Poland Ticket scheme. I begin to wonder if any PKP directors are financially involved in any of the Poland Ticket agencies… I decide to take the later through train and buy a ticket for the 15:55 Sukiennice which will take me direct to Lodz Kaliska.

Two coffee shops and a couple of snack stands – still room for improvement before catching up with the gastronomic standard of the  Gare de Lyon. Photo BTWT.

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I have some three hours before my train departs to Lodz. I have arranged to meet up with my good friend Andrew, who has just returned from an epic  train journey from Moscow to Beijing. I want to hear all about his travels and beg him to write an account of his adventures for BTWT. Much to my delight he agrees. Andrew minds my luggage while I climb painfully to the third floor press office to collect my Euro 2012 press pack. I am hoping to get lots of hard facts about the various improvements that have been carried out to ready Poland’s railways for the influx of football supporters, but the pack turns not to contain the information I am looking for.

For some reason my iPhone has not automatically reset itself to CET and suddenly I find myself with less than 30 minutes to go before my train departs. We say a quick farewell and I collect my things for my journey to Lodz. Little do I know that my adventures are about to begin!

Continued:

The parable of Kudowa Zdroj

Friday, 15 June 2012

EU-assisted cobbles. From a photo on rezerwacjahotelu.pl

(Click on image to see the original photo in its original context.)

I have escaped to the UK to avoid the worst of Euro 2012, so please forgive the rather intermittent postings of late.

Nearly 8 years ago, I spent a week with some acquaintances in Kudowa Zdroj. While my friends went off for their daily hike across the magnificent hills that surround this old spa town, I set off to get some much needed therapy for my bad back and sciatica.

The treatment centre was located in the town park next to the historic spa buildings. All had recently been refurbished thanks to an EU-funded restoration project. Paths, which a year earlier had consisted of broken and cracked tarmac, had been beautifully relaid with cobble stones. They looked magnificent. Unfortunately they had been finished with a sharp unpolished surface. They were bad enough to walk on and would have been all but impossible to negotiate with a wheelchair.

The centre itself was bright with new white paint a fresh sky blue signage. How thoughtful! The most prominent of the brand new EU-funded signs was mounted above the lift door, Winda nieczynna (Lift out of order). So the facilities for disabled visitors were all on the ground floor, excellent!

I approached the reception desk, I’d like to book some therapy sessions. I feel like lying in a bath with lots of healing bubbles and possibly some massage with a beautiful nurse. The receptionist looked at me oddly and informed me that I would have to see a doctor who would prescribe the appropriate treatment. Just tell me where, I said. On the first floor, but he’s not there now. It’s a Saturday.

If  the doctor was not in duty at the centre on Saturdays, he was even less likely to work Sundays, so I turned up on Monday to be told, No doctor today, it’s a bank holiday. I went on Tuesday, No doctor, he only sees people between 9 and 10 am. I arrived at 9:45am on Wednesday, No doctor, he’s just left. I rush breakfast on Thursday, climb the stairs to the first floor, Ah Mr Doctor…

I manage to get bookings for two two bubble bath sessions. Both took place on the first floor! It gradually dawned on me that the raison d’être of the whole system is not to compete with other spas who treat private patients who are genuinely ill, but to provide a state-funded holiday to patients who are well, and know the ropes how to get favours from their GP.

I am never coming back to Kudow Zdroj. Until Poland’s spas learn the meaning of customer service, they will be never be competitive with those in other countries, nor attract the foreign business which their expensive EU-assisted projects were supposed to help them gain.

Wschodnia looking smarter than it has ever been. Photo BTWT.

And so on to Euro 2012.

On the plus side, Poland has gained an impressive list of infrastructure improvements which would have taken years to construct had it not been for Poland being co-host of the championships. Just look at these before and after photographs on Sfora.pl. In the last few days before the tournament, Transport Minister Slawomir Nowak was racing around the country opening, nearly complete, newly restored railways stations, including Warszawa Centralana, Warszawa Wschodnia, Warszawa Zachodnia, and amazingly, Wroclaw Glowny. Even Prime Minister Donald Tusk decided that it was safe to be photographed travelling by train.

Poland’s railway companies pulled out all the stops. Railway infrastructure company PKP PLK suspended track works for the duration; journey times were reduced; special trains were run. SKM in Gdansk/Gdynia/Sopot carried 40,000 fans to and from the Spain Italy match without any incident.

Clean subway, but the drain covers are not in place. Photo BTWT.

So why am I not jumping up and down in glee? Let’s look at the other side of the balance sheet.

Rushed work is botched work as anybody who has seen Warszawa Centralna on a rainy day will know. (The completion of this communist-era flagship project was rushed so that it would be ready for Leonid Brezhnev’s 1975 visit to Warsaw.) There have been many complaints of the new train indicator boards not working properly and only time will tell how the major investments at Wroclaw Glowny and Poznan Glowny will turn out in practice.

Publication of the temporarily improved timetables was delayed for far too long. For months before the championships, travel discussion forums were besieged by fans desperate for train travel information. The advice from Poland veterans was, Take a bus, take a plane, take anything, but don’t travel by train.

The train data was also not available to PKP ICs ticketing systems, so advance tickets were not available. I’m now receiving reports that many PKP IC long distance football specials ran three quarters empty! Mysteriously the same problem seems not to have affected Przewozy Regionalne which operates its own ticketing system.

Until the people responsible for Poland’s railways begin to understand the meaning of customer service, they will never stop the desertion of their customers to other carriers, nor carry the foreign tourists which their expensive EU-assisted projects were supposed to attract.

A more positive take on the Euro 2012 construction projects: