The International Steam Pages

Too Many Zlotys – Poland 1987

Robert Hall continues his accounts of travel round Poland. You may want to look at the other accounts:

These tales relate entirely to 21st Century experiences:

You may also want to read his Polish Steam Primer or view maps of the route taken.

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

Continuing narrative of April 1987 tour: narrow-gauge working from Krośniewice deposited me at Krzewie Wąsk. Repaired to the standard-gauge station, and thence overnight to Poznań and Głogów, and reunion at the latter on schedule, with B. and the van. From then on, the bash was basically road-borne, punctuated with the occasional train ride behind steam. Route from Głogów was northward to the area of Gorzów Wielkopolski, suggested by the journals to offer good prospects for class Pt47 passenger 2-8-2s – calling in at possible hopeful venues en route. Such intermediate pickings turned out to be fairly slim. A little action on the complex of branch lines radiating from Międzyrzecz. By 1987, the 2-8-2Ts of class TKt48 were getting toward “rare” status; this net of branches was one of the remaining places where the class held out. We saw a couple of TKt48 passenger workings (one with a diesel pilot) on the east – west route through Międzyrzecz, and a TKt48 and one coach on one of the three-each-way-daily passengers on the branch from Międzyrzecz to the main-line junction of Toporów; and on the same line, a Ty2 on a freight, halted at an intermediate station. This branch has proved, at least in part, to be one of Poland’s “lines which refuse to die”. It has undergone an assortment of ups and downs, starting with passenger closure not long after our in-passing sightings on it, and including since then – among other things – a brief partial passenger renaissance. After a totally-closed spell, the western part of the line came back to freight life in early 2008, to haul out brown coal from reopened mines producing the stuff.

These “brief encounters” were all that I saw on this tour, of class TKt48; during our spell apart, B. had witnessed some activity by them around Kłodzko. He had been out of luck at that location regarding Pt47s: found the class to be finished there, barring dire emergencies, none of which happened during his visit. We still needed, thus, to see a Pt47 in action.

Everything on the jointly van-borne part of the tour was coloured somewhat by the prevailing “disappointment factor”, except for the ever-reliable Wolsztyn system (final port of call, in our plan). This general “feel” was increased by a troubled photographic situation. B. was the keen photographer; I am indifferent to this aspect of the hobby, and had attempted no picture-taking whatever in my above-recounted solo travels. At this stage of the 1980s, PKP granted photographic permits (on prior application) to individual enthusiasts, for specific dates and for a small handful of loco depots and their immediate environs. Among these were Kłodzko (already visited by B., as recounted), and Wolsztyn, for which we had arranged permission for the penultimate day of our tour. Otherwise, the official position was that railway photography was forbidden – a prohibition often zealously enforced. We carried out “permitless” photting, with extreme caution. Some success was achieved, but the whole thing was difficult, and wearing on the nerves; numerous promising shots had to be aborted, because of potentially nosy locals showing up at just the wrong moment. B. found this situation at times an almost unbearably frustrating one.

And even when the quarry could, probably safely, be captured on film, there were other obstacles to reckon with. Although Pt47 were witnessed in steam in quantity on the east-to-west secondary main line from Kostrzyn near the East German border, through Gorzów to Krzyż; in this connection, the thwart-the-gricers bogey proved to have a trick up its sleeve. A considerable number of the plentiful local passenger workings on this route, were found to be behind Pt47 plus class ST44 or SP45 diesel pilot – spoiling matters both photographically, and as regards the overall satisfaction of the thing. This phenomenon reckoned to have maybe had to do, in part, with one of the Polish steam scene’s sundry oddities. In the 1980s, PKP in its wisdom ordained diesel haulage of many local passenger workings, where possible; but this was often done by diesel classes designed for freight work, thus not equipped to heat passenger stock. In summer, this didn’t matter; in the colder part of the year, it did – hence a tendency in that chunk of the year, for more passenger trains in “marginal” areas to be steam. (The “downside” being – as mentioned earlier – if you like being able to see what you’re gricing, Polish winter daylight hours are miserably short.) Plus, it quite often happened that in the year’s colder phase, a diesel-hauled passenger train would have a steam loco coupled behind the diesel, just to act as a mobile steam-heating unit. One sees here, something of a failure to join up the dots; but that kind of thing was very common in the Communist world. This seemed to be happening a good deal, in our time around Gorzów – and only with Pt47s as victims – many locals on this route had as motive power Ol49 or Ty2 (or solo diesel loco): the Prairies and Decapods always seemed to do the business on their own, with no diesel pilot. We felt that we had some justification for the sentiment “someone up there hates us”. (To be fair, a more-than-tiny number of locals on the Kostrzyn – Gorzów – Krzyż line WERE in the charge of an unaided Pt47.)

Diesels-piloting-Pt47s-syndrome: it occurred to us once or twice, to wonder whether this might indeed indicate divine disapproval. We were around Gorzów over Easter itself; were we perhaps receiving a gentle hint that our minds ought to be on matters more spiritual, than gricing? The business of Easter had occasioned earlier, a twinge or two of apprehension (our work-related situations had meant that we could go to Poland for the Easter fortnight, or not at all). The situation of a very strongly Catholic country under the enforced sway of an anti-religious Communist regime, contributed to making life in Poland uncomfortable for very many of its citizens. We had had thoughts concerning the four days of Easter itself perhaps resulting in scenarios of much of PKP’s workforce “bunking off” during that period, to attend to their religious duties – causing problems in the matter of maintaining advertised services. Imagination going perhaps a little into overdrive, chaos at locosheds was scenario-ised: harassed shedmasters desperately trying to do what they could, relying on those of their staff who were diehard atheistic Communists, or slapdash non-devout Catholics, or Jewish (if any), and having a bad time of it – trains having to be cancelled, everyone badly stressed-out. We took this to the length of planning the tour so as not to request visits to any of the few permitted venues, over the Easter four days: mental image of our showing up, and shedmaster erupting: “I’m up against it, and I haven’t time to indulge your nonsense – and I don’t care how many ******* pieces of paper from Warsaw you’ve got ! Will you please kindly go forth and multiply…”

This proved indeed to be fantasy-land, and passenger services ran completely as normal throughout. The “Easter bug” did however turn out to plague us, in a way not anticipated. In Communist times, tourist visits to Poland involved a money-making scam by which, in order to get a Polish tourist visa, you had to pay out a certain amount in Western currency, per day of planned stay in Poland – in return for which you got a voucher which on entering Poland, you exchanged for złotys. Almost everything in Poland was so inexpensive in Western terms, that this landed you with far more local money than you actually needed – it could be a problem (if this was important to you) to find things on which to spend it all. And in 1987 anyway, this was the deal, “no ifs or buts” – if you didn’t spend the lot, legally you had to surrender the remainder on leaving the country; and if you smuggled it out, it was questionably useful in the West, and – etc., etc.

B. and I, differed on this issue. I just felt that it was an element of the whole rather entertainingly mad (if you didn’t have to live under it permanently) Communist scene, and part of the literal and metaphorical price to pay, for going there. B. was something of “a close chap with a shilling”, and found intolerable, the prospect of having to pay out good money to be permitted to visit a country, and to have to forfeit any of such that you’d been obliged against your will to pay over, in order to do so. Normally, one’s “złoty mountain” could be reduced by deliberately living high on the hog – eating out more lavishly (allowing for local context) than one would usually do back home, was a good route to take. We found though, over the four days of Easter, that although rail services were unaffected, much other stuff, was – in particular, almost all public “eateries” (from the most lavish, to the corner chippy) seemed closed for the duration. Station buffets remained open, and proved physically life-saving; but being dirt-cheap, they helped very little on the money-diminishing scene.

“It takes all sorts”, none of them necessarily better or worse than others, only different. For B., this was serious stuff – to him, forfeiting already “hard-farewelled” money, was right up there with cruel and unusual punishments – possibly, he’d have preferred to sacrifice a body part or two. I suggested repairing at the end of our time in Poland, to a church, and sticking our surplus złotys in the offering box – let them go to the opposition, not the nasty governing regime. That wouldn’t do for B. – he’d have felt violated by any kind of “forfeiting”. In the end, we managed – just – to consume our złoty mountain in buying things which we could conceivably use; but to quote the Duke of Wellington, it was “a near-run thing”.

Pt47-piloting frustration aside, the Gorzów area was a good steam scene, on passenger at any rate – effectively all freight was diesel. It included a potential “trundlebahn”, the branch from Gorzów to Myślibórz, with two Ty2-hauled passenger trains each way per day; such a working witnessed at the Gorzów end, but time did not permit exploration. There were other fish of the steam kind to fry; so after a “day or three”, we set out eastwards, to the general Gniezno – Piła tract, in which class Ty43, the “heavy” version of the Kriegslok, still performed. This was the type needed to complete for B., the Polish 1980s seven-or-eight-class standard-gauge “set”; while he was in the south-west, he’d bagged Ty51 and Ty45 on the Kotlarnia Sand Railway (non-PKP line, separate photo-permission arranged in advance).

“Heavy Kriegies” were found, and on several occasions were phottable, in their patch of Poland’s “mid-west”, though spread more thinly than had been the case in past years. The 75 km secondary line from Gniezno to the splendidly alliterative Nakło nad Notecią, always pretty much the best bet for the class, seemed still to have Ty43 solidly in charge of its passenger workings. The loop-line branch route west of Gniezno, rejoining the Nakło line some way to the north and formerly another Ty43 bastion, appeared to have Ol49s now sharing the passenger service with the 2-10-0s.

Always a place to conjure with in Polish gricing for me, was Bzowo Goraj: a junction in the middle of nowhere, meeting-point of the most-of-200-km west-to-east secondary route between Krzyż and Inowrocław, and the branch northward from B.G. 7 km to Czarnków, and on a further 37 km in the same direction, to Piła. The Czarnków – Piła section was a classic “bottom-of-the-heap” PKP branch with two workings each way per day – a suspected Ty43 preserve. Czarnków to Bzowo Goraj, in contrast, was a short stub with a positively metropolitan frequency of six workings in each direction daily, with the Piła trains built-in therewith; some of the other workings ran to and from Krzyż. For whatever reason, few seemed to share my “fetish” for this location, at least not to the extent of going there and reporting their findings. In 1987, we witnessed a couple of diesel-hauled workings between Czarnków – where originated / terminated -- and B.G. (one, a “mixed” with one passenger coach). It seems unknown, for how long these turns had been regularly diesel; certainly, one such had been noted diesel-worked in 1984. Our brief sojourn at Bzowo Goraj yielded the sight of a stationary Ty43 in steam, coupled to a van; and, sadly, a diesel-hauled passenger on the east-west route, which had hitherto been reckoned virtually a dead cert for passenger steam. Another perceived nail in the coffin…

The tour’s beyond-fair ill-luck ration continued to dog us, in respect of the 750 mm gauge line at Gniezno – then mostly steam-worked by class Px48, eked out by a diesel loco or two. (At the time of writing, this line survives for a fair distance at its Gniezno end, under the management of the local municipality; now for “tourist” and specially-chartered passenger workings only, thought all diesel-loco-hauled. As things have worked out, never visited by me since 1987.) This was one of the venues for which PKP issued permits to individual bashers, and we had duly arranged one for the date concerned. Info from timetable plus erudite sources, told of two passenger workings in each direction daily, the 28 km to Powidz (the line ran further east for freight, in fact ultimately linking up with the Krośniewice system). The 1000 departure from Gniezno and return, were said to run reliably; the p.m. pair, less so. Our plan had been that I would travel on the passenger to Powidz and back, while B. would probably accompany the working in our van, photting where possible. However, on our “permit day” the 1000 was a non-event. There was unfortunately a total language and communication barrier between us and the staff on Gniezno’s narrow-gauge side of the house -- it proved completely impossible to learn whether the afternoon train might run; and / or whether the lack of passenger action was just temporary – for that day, or longer, or whether the passenger service had been withdrawn for good. (We learned much-subsequently, that it was not the last-named – though passenger services did not last much longer; however, we had simply been unlucky on the day of our visit.) 

In the exchange yard, two Px48 were shunting standard-gauge wagons on transporter trucks, while a Ty43 performed on the yard’s standard-gauge lines – which action was duly photographed, with the day’s permission to do so. We thought that the staff were telling us that a narrow-gauge freight train was due out, about noon; but decided after reflection, to give that a miss. We might not be understanding correctly; and in any case, being quite near the end of our tour, with still much “unsatisfied and unfinished business”, more urgent things on the standard gauge beckoned. B. was not a big narrow-gauge fan; I had had a decent ration of Px48 action elsewhere in the country, in previous years; so we cut our losses here, and – in no very happy frame of mind -- moved on.

Mild desperation was perhaps setting in, and starting to suggest to us moves not totally rational – an element, it could be, of opting to go right “outside the box”, with subconscious mental currents of trying to change our luck by so doing. (Or maybe Eastern European werewolves and vampires or other spooky things – or the secret police, by means which only they knew about -- were messing with our heads.) With the Pt47 scene around Gorzów having been “indifferent” at best, our thoughts turned to a venue not hitherto contemplated for this grice: the Żagań area, not hugely far west of our Głogów rendezvous point. Recent reports told of this as a centre with plentiful steam action on a dense net of lines – action mostly of a low-level kind, but possibly a little of it on long-distance trains, involving the nearby passenger border crossing to Forst in East Germany. And reputedly, Żagań still had some Pt47 in service: we hoped we might have better fortune with this class there, than had come our way around Gorzów.

The region of Żagań (incidentally, this town was the site of the camp from which, in real life, World War II’s “Great Escape” was made – the area was in Germany until the territorial adjustments of 1945) was, sure enough, an interesting and quite steamy one. It did not, however, turn out a worthwhile goal from the point of view re which we had, in hope, headed there. As best we could ascertain, it turned out to have just one remaining active Pt47; no. 6 of the class, operational on all-stations branch trains. We saw her at work on these duties, but the possibly-too-interested-bystander menace, thwarted photography. On the western side of Żagań in particular, there was a marvellously intricate web of branches, some offering assorted ways of getting from A to B. Connection between Żagań and Lubsko (a 33 km approximate beeline) could be achieved either “hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle”, or by a variety of longer-way-round permutations. We chased – but as it fell out, dared not phot – Pt47-6 on the 1300 Żagań – Lubsko via a convoluted route. We found a little consolation in parking the van at Lubsko and taking a late-afternoon ride to Żagań and back behind the 2-8-2 – along the direct line, both ways. After this, Pt47-6 left Lubsko again at 1842, on a tortuously-routed working most of the way back to “Big Ż”. 

Lubsko was one of those elaborate country junctions – with a melancholy come-down-in-the-world, under-used-in-comparison-with-past-times, “feel” -- which Poland used to specialise in. At this time it had passenger lines radiating in four directions, a couple very sparsely served. Prior to our departure for Żagań behind Pt47-6, a Ty2 was in steam at Lubsko, possibly with view to freight haulage. This was, incidentally, a location with a history: on the original and rather circuitous main line, opened in the 1840s, from Berlin to Breslau (now Wrocław) and the Upper Silesia industrial region – all then in Germany. Nowadays, there are no passenger trains to Lubsko; as at spring 2005 anyway, the place still saw freight workings.

Apart from its seemingly solitary 2-8-2, Żagań offered plentiful activity by what now seemed the widespread steam “staples”, Ol49 and Ty2 – and much, also, performed by diesel locos. If it HAD turned out a Pt47 hotspot, our impetuous gamble might have proved marginally worthwhile; but would still have limited us to the single day in the area, which in fact fell to us: our Wolsztyn permit was for the following day. Unless – had things proved wonderful where we were – we had gone totally wild, and abandoned our (with guaranteed photographic “immunity”) Wolsztyn visit… In retrospect, and involving information which was obscure when planning the tour, we regretted not going to the south-eastern parts of the country, involving places such as Sandomierz, for Pt47. There – though such operations were nearing their last gasp – the class was still at work on long-distance, sometimes express, passenger. This, however, would have required laying out the tour in a wholly different shape; and Poland is quite a big country. When plans were being made, Gorzów truly looked the best bet for those wretched Mikados. As is well known – to thoroughly mix clichés, hindsight butters no parsnips…

We left Lubsko mid-evening, en route for Wolsztyn for the morrow. It was now well after Easter, but most places offering meals to the public, still seemed stubbornly closed (anxiety increased, concerning our złoty mountain and its spending). Hunger caused us to drive around the big town of Zielona Góra, attempting to get to the station, where the buffet would be dependably open; but the place’s street layout in relation to its rail station, defeated us – we just could not seem to find how to get at that which we sought. After about our third circuit of central Z.G., we gave up and drove onwards. On the main road some way north-to-east of town, we happened on a motel (then a rare innovation in Poland). This establishment, the “Black Cat”, mercifully had a functioning restaurant – which no doubt was considerably better for złoty-disposal, than a PKP station buffet would have been.

Our Wolsztyn day yielded steam (Ol49 / Ty2 / Ty42) in plenty, and the photting of it -- inside a strictly circumscribed area – without let or hindrance. Having notions of a future piece for “Travellers’ Tales” combining all my experiences of Wolsztyn from sundry visits, I will refrain from a detailed narrative here. With this area being in striking-distance of Poznań – that community, Poland’s third-ranking city, offered bright lights and things worth buying, sufficient to break the złoty mountain’s back. The effort was helped along by a lavish meal, possibly two, in the city; the last few złotys were triumphantly got rid of in a village grocery shop some way west of Poznań, on our last evening in Poland.

This bash partook of some feeling of being rather ill-starred; and there were a number of definite strokes of bad luck. Largely, though, probably just a function of changing times: on my preceding visit to Poland, three years previously, there had been steam in wondrous abundance, over wide areas. Not so any more – it was visibly in retreat in most parts of the country. Paradigm shift required, and eventually made. Both B. and I enjoyably revisited Poland (separately) a couple of times in the short window of opportunity which obtained between 1989 and late 1991 / early 1992 – when Communism and its attendant spy-mania vis-ŕ-vis railway photography, were no more; and when PKP still had most of its system running, and steam – in the shape of a final few “bog-standard” classes – could be relished in fair plenty if you went to the right places. An “uncovenanted mercy” of sadly brief duration; on the other hand, reckonably a miracle that it happened at all.

Rob Dickinson