The International Steam Pages

A Polish Corridor Tale, Poland/Ukraine 1984

Robert Hall writes of his experiences in Poland. Further tales are linked below:

These tales relate entirely to 21st Century experiences:

You may also want to read his Polish Steam Primer.

For those who would like to see the kind of steam locomotive described here, Robert recommends the following galleries of Polish steam:

A fascinating experience available to railway enthusiasts touring Poland using scheduled passenger trains, in the days when PKP steam was relatively abundant, involved passenger timetable 128, Przemyśl to Zagórz, in the very south-east of the country. So far south-east in fact, that it included forty-odd kilometres not in Poland, but through a corner of the neighbouring (then) Soviet Ukraine. (In parenthesis here – for Ukrainian place-names, am employing the “transliteration for Anglophones” standard in the 1980s – it’s what I’m used to, and I don’t know the present-day rules for these things.)

Table 128 had relatively frequent local services at both its Polish ends; but the only “corridor” workings passing through the Ukraine, were the “Solina” express, between Warsaw and Zagórz, running only on a restricted number of days throughout the year; and the daily local train each way between Przemyśl and Zagórz, departing the former late in the afternoon, and the latter early in the morning. In the first half of the 1980s, the “Solina” was often steam-hauled south of Przemyśl, but the express’s traction was something of a lottery. The local, however, was dependably steam-worked, usually by a Ty2 “Kriegslok” 2-10-0 (German type 52).

Thus it was on my journey on this working, the 0632 from Zagórz on June 3rd 1984. Started off with Ty2-403 hauling three bogie coaches. 45 km and 1 hour 26 min. later, Krościenko, the last station in Poland, was reached. The schedule allowed a wait of 35 minutes there – part of which was used to attach to the rear of the train, ten assorted freight wagons for transit through the USSR. It was a few kilometres from Krościenko to the border – a point in between stations -- where the train halted for about a quarter of an hour, to be searched for anything suspicious, and to be boarded by a small squad of Soviet frontier guards, including one with an Alsatian dog. Most of the guards posted themselves in the front compartment of the first coach, and rear ditto of the third – no doubt one or two travelled on the loco’s footplate, to make sure of “no funny business”. A chap in “civvies”, wearing a good-quality long overcoat, embarked in the coach in which I was travelling – reckoned him a dead cert for the KGB’s representative in this situation.

As well as the “human factor”, the frontier paraphernalia here – and likewise re-crossing the border 40-ish km further on – featured the full fearsome array of watch-towers, barbed-wire fencing, broad strip of raked sand, and all the rest – and this between two supposedly allied nations. One had to feel, “something here, isn’t right”. Within the sad and ludicrous context, it seemed however, a relaxed-enough scene. “Mr. Overcoat” chatted, apparently quite amicably, with the Polish passengers; and a lot of the frontier guards looked to me seemingly about twelve years old, and not the slightest bit menacing. Found myself hoping that they all played nicely, and strictly took it in turns for who got to ride on the loco… No doubt there was resentment about the whole matter; but people get used to things, especially over decades – and presumably, even zealous patriots “switch off” now and again, and just get on with living ordinary life…

My general experience “gricing east of the Curtain” was that while producing a camera was – unless you were lucky – an invitation for mayhem immediately to break out, other railway-enthusiast-type activities, such as map-consulting and note-taking, seldom upset anyone in authority. This didn’t seem to make a lot of sense – but “then and there”, things making sense was, often, not conspicuously part of the deal. In this situation I decided to keep my camera well hidden, but otherwise carry on business as usual, and if challenged, to do the “clueless tourist” number. It worked well: map, timetable, notebook – nobody batted an eyelid. “Him in the overcoat” seemed to take no notice of me, or interest in me, whatever. We rolled happily along behind our Ty2, through the West Ukraine. There was one stop of several minutes for signals at Starzhava, the first station within the Soviet Union – otherwise the run between border-points was non-stop. (All signalling observed in the USSR was colour-light, whereas everything at both Polish ends of the route was semaphore.) The line (once a double-track main line in the days when all this area belonged to the Austrian Empire, long since singled) ran through very pleasant mountain-foothills scenery. As on the Polish side of the border, many white storks were to be seen, doing their storky thing – for me, always a subsidiary joy of visits to Poland in the spring or early summer. A minor oddity noted, was road signs saying “STOP”: the English word -- in Roman, not Cyrillic, lettering.

From Starzhava onwards, the line was mixed-gauge: European 1435mm and Russian 1524mm. Excitement mounted as we approached Chyrov, the main town on the “corridor” section -- a junction with a route running eastwards., and possessed of a locoshed. For Western gricers, the Soviet Union presented a most frustrating poser; because unlike with virtually all Communist nations further west in Europe, foreign visitors to the USSR were not allowed beyond the restricted conventional-tourism “beat”. The overall steam position on Soviet Railways was consequently – to echo Churchill’s words concerning the country – “a mystery wrapped in a riddle wrapped in an enigma”, as regards “what, and where, and how much”; save that by the mid-1980s, it was discerned that re the last, it was (on line working, at all events) “not very much”. Any opportunity for a look at an obscure venue in the Soviet Union, was treasured: and as the corridor trains passed through Chyrov, quick glimpses were possible of steam inhabitants of its depot – often noted actually in steam, though whether in the eighties they performed any line working, or merely shunted, remained unknown. Type featuring most prominently here, was class TЭ (2-10-0 Kriegslok, German class 52); on occasion, 0-10-0s of class Э were also noted. On the morning of my journey, this scene proved disappointing: at Chyrov station, a Soviet diesel loco on a rake of wagons; one TЭ fully in view, apparently in good condition but not in steam; and at least one more steam loco, unidentifiable, inside the tightly-closed shed building. June 3rd was a Sunday – possibly bad news to some extent for rail action, though it would seem uncertain how much weight this factor would carry in an officially atheist state…

The line east towards Sambor was mixed-gauge, at least as far as the eye could see; and mixed-gauge continued on the corridor route as far as Nizhankovichi station, immediately before re-entry into Poland. Another quarter-hour’s pause here for the search, and for the “goon squad” to disembark, and to wait to cross a freight double-headed by PKP diesels – maybe a “transit” job, maybe to link up with the Soviet broad-gauge system. Then it was “through the wall” and back into Poland, and the run to Przemyśl (Główny) station. Four hours and a couple of minutes, for the 102-km run (our train’s counterpart in the other direction, took four and a half) – though some of this time taken, accounted for by the international messing-around.

Part of this journey can still be made today, though the steam element is long gone. Nowadays PKP timetable 133 offers an international run twice each way daily, on most days, between Sanok (near Zagórz) and Chyrov. Traversal of this 71 km route takes approximately three and a half hours westbound, and five eastbound (one suspects a difference between Polish, and Ukrainian, time). However, foolery-with-the-clock or not – the old system of government and its attendant nonsenses being out of the window; and modern traction; do not seem appreciably to have speeded up rail passenger transport in this part of the globe. And the Chyrov – Przemyśl section has been without passenger services for a good many years now. No doubt both Polish and Ukrainian have a saying to the general effect of, “the more it changes, the more it’s the same old thing”… 

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Rob Dickinson