The International Steam Pages

“Big W” – Wolsztyn, 1980 to the present day

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 a map of the routes around Wolsztn.

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

In the very late 20th, and early 21st, centuries, Poland’s most celebrated location in railway-enthusiast circles has without a doubt been Wolsztyn. Late in the 1980s, some outside-the-box thinkers in the councils of the Polish State Railways (PKP) saw a possible ploy for attracting Western railway enthusiasts and general tourists. Several locations on the national rail system might be excluded from the general run-down of steam traction which was then going on; steam on lines from these venues – possibly including some preserved locos from classes no longer, as at that time, in regular use -- to be deliberately kept in service for a considerable time into the future. This idea was acted on, originally in respect of four locations in various parts of the country. Three of these never truly took off, and faded out before the year 2000; in a couple of cases, a good deal sooner. Wolsztyn has been the only real success story; and I feel it would be hard to deny that in all probability, that is only because keen Western enthusiasts with an entrepreneurial approach, and the resources necessary to get results, entered the picture there.

Without wishing to plunge into the realms of controversy: I admit to being less of a passionate devotee of the Wolsztyn-over-the-past-two-decades scene, than many. I especially feel that this undertaking is now (2011) likely in its death-throes; and am able perhaps to take that situation with more equanimity, than are enthusiasts with a bigger emotional investment in Wolsztyn as Europe’s, if not the world’s, last bastion of real everyday public-service steam (a perception which I do not share). Nonetheless, Wolsztyn has been a big presence, and household word, globally on the steam scene for most of the past quarter-century, visited and loved by huge numbers of enthusiasts. I have experienced this venue, if sometimes only glancingly, on all save one of my visits to Poland to date; and have at times greatly liked what it has had to offer. Feel that it deserves a piece all to itself.

This article will also cover two or three lines of some interest, geographically close to the Wolsztyn system but not part of it; my experience of which lines, would be difficult to fit into other “Travellers’ Tales” pieces.

People can incline towards associating “Wolsztyn steam” mostly with the lines fanning out in five directions, from Wolsztyn itself – to which there was a tendency over the years, for things progressively to contract. In fact, in Wolsztyn’s heyday, sundry other – in my opinion, often highly interesting -- lines connecting with “the five”, were worked by Wolsztyn locos: the attached map attempts to show the “at the max” picture. To my regret, my own first-hand experiences involved little beyond the basic five lines.

Doing a bit of “field-re-ploughing”: as mentioned in my TT piece “Keep distracting ‘em, Lech”, Wolsztyn featured on my first visit to Poland, in 1980. At that time, its future status was unknown; it was then just one of many locations in Poland, with a steam depot from which locos worked on various lines radiating from the depot point. I think that in 1980, Wolsztyn’s lines were effectively 100% steam for both passenger and freight: diesel infiltration began, for sure, not immensely long after. In ’80, Wolsztyn’s depot basically housed classes Ol49 (2-6-2, chiefly for passenger work); and Ty2 / Ty42 (World War II German 2-10-0 “Kriegsloks”, for all duties). The brief call-in at this venue for myself and companions, involved a return run along the Zbąszynek – Wolsztyn – Leszno line, trains Ol49-hauled in both directions – straight through, from Zbąszynek to Boszkowo (approximately half-way between Wolsztyn and Leszno, convenient point for boarding opposite-way working) and back again. My figuring was, that we would be less likely to get into trouble for our interest in the scene, including photographing it, if we kept to remote rural locations, rather than busy junctions. One of my companions subsequently expressed a wish that we had disembarked at Wolsztyn and “valued” the copious action there, rather than going off “into the sticks”. I was inclined to play in response, the “hindsight is 20/20” card: his objection might have had more force, if he had – as I had – done homework from the learned journals in advance of the bash, and had a counter-plan to present, before we reached Wolsztyn. Never mind – water under the bridge, these three decades gone...

Visit to Poland in 1983 was my only one in which Wolsztyn “gone nowhere near”. As recounted in my TT piece about that – organised -- tour, it seemed in my view to centre almost obsessively on the south-west of Poland, to the detriment of other to my mind potentially more interesting areas. The following year, my travels verged on the Wolsztyn “patch” only in observing from a main-line train at Zbąszynek, a train awaiting departure for Wolsztyn and Leszno headed not by a steam loco, but by a diesel. First sign seen by me, of things going downhill on this system. In subsequent years, the Zbąszynek – Wolsztyn – Leszno route seemed to dieselise on passenger more heavily, earlier, than anywhere else in Wolsztyn’s “manor”.

My next visit to Poland, in 1987, was my first which featured Wolsztyn anything like in-depth. By this stage of the ‘eighties, the place was achieving fame as the most railfan-friendly location in Poland, and possibilities were first being floated, re the plan for deliberate retention – with view money from the tourist-and-gricer market – of several steam centres, after the otherwise inevitably not very distant end of PKP steam. Wolsztyn was seen from the first, as the flagship of this projected flotilla. In the later 1980s, PKP opened the door a small crack to individual and independent railway photographers, by setting up a number of venues for which photographic permission (usually within decidedly narrow limits at the venue) could be arranged in advance. Some of these sites seemed to be “joke” ones, of questionable value to the photographer: others were worthwhile, and Wolsztyn was one of them. We had duly arranged “per” for Wolsztyn.

Those in charge of the station and locoshed were pleasant and hospitable, and happy to show us round; but photography was still a no-no, except in the one small physical area of grudging tolerance for the vice – a little way south of the station. This allowed pic-taking of all comings and goings on three of the five stretches radiating from Wolsztyn: the Poznań, Leszno, and Nowa Sól lines. The other two, to Zbąszynek and Sulechów, running northward out of the station, were “off the menu”. The line to “Bent-your-neck”, mostly diesel on passenger, was no great loss. Virtually all Sulechów passenger was steam; frustrating, but it was Big Brother who made the rules, and you defied them at your peril.

In spring 1987, as in earlier years, the Wolsztyn steam action was performed by the shed’s fleet of Ol49 2-6-2, and Ty2 / Ty42 “Kriegslok” 2-10-0. Steam passenger was handled predominantly by class Ol49, with the Decapods performing on a minority of passenger turns. At our agreed grace-and-favour phot-spot south of the station, basically all passenger to and from Nowa Sól and Poznań, was steam. (Poznań – Wolsztyn – Sulechów was all one table, sometimes with a loco-change at Wolsztyn, I believe.) The large majority of passenger trains to / from Leszno (one-table through route Leszno – Wolsztyn – Zbąszynek) were diesel-hauled. Some six hours in the environs of Wolsztyn station on our “permitted” day, yielded five diesel and two steam passenger workings on this route. 

On our 1987 full Wolsztyn day, a Ty42 spent a fair few hours shunting around Wolsztyn, sometimes in the process coming past our phot-spot. In our time with the Wolsztyn lines – on the “dedicated day”, and other occasions – we observed two Ty42-hauled freights on the Poznań – Wolsztyn route; other line freight seen in the area, was diesel.

1987 around Wolsztyn got me for the first time for certain-sure, encounters with what I always think the “quasi-class” Ty42: basically, Kriegsloks identical with the more numerous Ty2 – the only difference, the latter’s having been built in World War II by Polish firms under German orders, whereas the former were German-built during the same era. Poles are passionate types, and “who did what?” and “good guys / bad guys”, was clearly important to PKP – but with it being for practical purposes all one class, I could never lose much sleep over bagging a Ty42, or not. At all events: the Wolsztyn area sported both “flavours”; several Ty42 recorded as seen in action, and April 23rd 1987 gave me my first for-definite ride behind a Ty42. Number 148 of the class, which did the honours on the 1704 all-stations Wolsztyn – Grodzisk Wlkp. – Opalenica local.

The 9km branch between Opalenica and Grodzisk (as I will henceforth, for brevity, call the place) was one of the delightful side-dishes to Wolsztyn’s “five ways from the junction” main meal, and is part of the very little of such, that I ever experienced. This slice of the continent having been until the end of World War I, in the German-ruled part of Poland, its rail network was set up by the Prussian State Railways, who had a charming fondness for setting up some minor branch lines in a roadside-tramway fashion. Opalenica – Grodzisk was one such: roadside virtually throughout, this reflected in the layout of its two tiny intermediate halts. By the late ‘80s, the branch had some through workings to / from Wolsztyn, such as the 1704 on which I travelled.

“In the good times”, Grodzisk was a four-way junction. There was a 31km branch south-east from there to Kościan, integrated in the PKP timetable with the Opalenica line as table 329. In 1981, both parts of table 329 boasted a meagre-but-not-hopeless passenger service. Over the ensuing decade, Grodzisk – Opalenica relatively throve; Grodzisk – Kościan did not – in its last passenger years (departed that scene at the end of the ‘80s) it had but one passenger working each way per day. I understand that for some while the line survived in part, the ending of its passenger service: the 12km Grodzisk – Plastowo stayed as a section of the regular freight diagrams worked by Wolsztyn steam locos. The section provided heavy traffic in the sugar-beet season. It is reckoned that this must now be no more: the Polish sugar-beet industry is extinct, and rural local wagonload freight is all but a thing of the past in Poland. At all events, Grodzisk – Plastowo lasted longer than the delightful roadside Opalenica branch, abandoned in late 1991.

“The system’s outer bits” – though our 1987 visit did not in the main feature them, that was about the last moment when all was, basically, still there. A to my mind splendid part of same, was the erstwhile PKP table 347, running supposedly from Świebodzin in the north, via Sulechów, Konotop, and Kolsko to Głogów in the south. A bit under half the frugal total of 347’s daily workings, actually ran to / from Głogów. The rest worked to / from Leszno, diverging at Lipinka Głogowska, and joining / leaving the main line at Wschowa. Anyone who actually wanted to get via table 347 and the rest, from Świebodzin to Głogów or Leszno – feeling had ... “try some alternative – donkey-carts not ruled out”. “347” promotes fantasies for me, re competitive timetable-craziness – PKP squares up to Mr. Bradshaw and Monsieur Chaix, and shouts, “You want a fight? -- make my day, Western punks ! “ (Copy of timetable as at 1981 appended, in case readers were to suspect leg-pulling.) This lunacy was too good to last – end-80s / start-90s, the axe was dropped on most of table 347-and-extension. Głogów -- Kolsko lasted for a little longer, but as panned out – mentioned in my piece “On Borrowed Time...”, not sampled by me. All this was passenger-wise; freight on parts, carried on for longer. 

I did in the summers of 1990 and 1991, a couple of intensive days in each, on the Wolsztyn system. All pleasant – ’90 a bit more so than the following year, not only because of PKP steam’s being, by the latter, in sharp decline elsewhere. By the start of the ‘nineties, Wolsztyn’s role as a “preserved but real” steam centre, was getting well into gear, with preserved locos of various otherwise-extinct classes quartered at Wolsztyn depot and sharing duties with the prevailing Ol49s / Ty2s / Ty42s. In May 1990, Prussian P8 4-6-0 Ok1-359 (which had hauled me on a Wrocław – Kłodzko special seven years previously) was busily working from Wolsztyn shed. May ‘90 situation passenger-wise was (re parts of the system then reached by me): Wolsztyn – Poznań though trains were diesel-hauled – a change from three years previously. Wolsztyn – Sulechów was steam – for through trains to / from Poznań, change of power at Wolsztyn. Locals between Wolsztyn and Grodzisk, some continuing to / from Opalenica; and workings purely over the Grodzisk – Opalenica branch; were steam. Wolsztyn – Nowa Sól, steam. The Zbąszynek – Wolsztyn – Leszno route mostly diesel-hauled, but a couple of trains in the day were “made steam”.

I enjoyed what was there to enjoy – best 1990 memories, the 1415 Opalenica – Grodzisk – Wolsztyn behind Ty42-59: and the 1945 Leszno – Zbąszynek behind Ol49-14, through the twilight in the quietly pleasant Polish countryside, finally reaching Zbąszynek in pitch darkness. This run was on a public holiday, with diagrams different from those for working days: under the “holiday” dispensation, the 1945 and its earlier balancing working from Zbąszynek, which I boarded at Wolsztyn, were Ol49 where they would normally have been diesel. During turn-round time at Leszno, Ol49-14 was joined by a sister engine, Ol49-77 of Jarocin depot, bringing into the station the 1714 from her home town.

I never travelled on this secondary route, Table 323 between Leszno and Jarocin (in summer 2010 according to the timetable, still passenger-active on rail, using diesel railmotors, between Leszno and Gostyń; further east was bus). A thing which it would have been good to do; but on my Polish expeditions, time was always in chokingly short supply. Jarocin was reportedly the final depot on PKP to use steam for totally “normal” workings with no kind of artificial support; with the very last steam runs, in April 1992, being Ol49 on the Leszno line. I did experience action on another of Jarocin’s branches, as will shortly be recounted.

July 1991’s couple of Wolsztyn days presented detail differences on the system, from a bit more than a year previously. Steam / diesel split on passenger workings was approximately the same as in ’90, except that everything on the Zbąszynek – Wolsztyn – Leszno route was now diesel. More passenger turns seemed to be Ol49 instead of 2-10-0, than in the previous year. For travel done together on the Wolsztyn lines in July ’91 by my several companions and myself, if I recall correctly all journeys were Ol49-hauled, though we did witness some passenger workings by the shed’s “regular” 2-10-0s. Ty2 / Ty42 were also seen on some freight / piloting duties. 

In 1991, several museum locos of more “exotic” classes, kept in working order and shedded at Wolsztyn, were handling the odd passenger turn. There featured thus: express 2-8-2 Pt47-65 (still in action at the time of writing), 2-10-0 Ty45-379, and 2-10-0 Ty3-2. The last-named was a “heavy Kriegslok” (Deutsche Reichsbahn class 42) from WW II. The same business as “Ty2 versus Ty42” – German-built, versus built under German duress in occupied Poland – came convolutedly into play, concerning this machine. Without wishing to seem slighting as regards Poland’s great sufferings in World War II – I find it hard to avoid the feeling that this apparent obsession on the part of PKP’s classifiers, was in the realms of “nitpicking run mad”. As with the “ordinary Kriegies” -- all the same class, no physical differences, but Ty3 were German-built, Ty43 Polish-built at German behest. The Ty43 variety stayed in use on PKP, north and east of Poznań, until 1990 or so; the last Ty3’s, though, had been withdrawn a fair few years before. There was doubt (regarding why, I really don’t want to know) as to whether “No. 2” was rightfully a Ty3 or a Ty43. She came to Wolsztyn in 1990 as Ty43-126; but earlier in her career, had been Ty3-2. As a Wolsztyn museum loco, it was decided that the Ty3 identity was a bit rarer and “sexier”, than the Ty43 ditto: so hey presto, she became Ty3-2 once again. A certain desire emerges, to say “guys, get a life,” and to cite stuff about the studying of quantities of angels dancing on pinheads...

In the 1990s, Wolsztyn also had a solitary class TKt48 2-8-2T, no. 143 of the class, which was often busy on station-pilot duties, and assorted filling-in on line working. With the sections to Leszno and Zbąszynek steamless in ’91, we focused a good deal of attention on Wolsztyn – Sulechów: a pleasant 39km rural amble over track in indifferent-at-best condition, including seven intermediate stations, all passenger steam, except for the daily return semi-fast between Poznań and Żagań via Zielona Góra. The name of one intermediate station, Żodyń, prompted me to an attempted witticism to the effect that if one lived there, and went for one’s summer holiday to the Baltic coast resort of Hel; the wording on one’s ticket between the two would make, approximately, a medium-profane English expletive. My companions recommended my hanging on to my day job...

Our small group did a temporary splitting-up at the end of approximately two days. One member headed south-eastward, to cover the small but busy Kępno system, worked by TKt48 2-8-2Ts, which I had done the previous year. We arranged to rendezvous a couple of days thence, at Ełk in the far north-east. Our friend began his journey on the 1200 Wolsztyn – Nowa Sól and beyond, behind “museum” Ty45-379. I had travelled on that same train the previous year – my only ride ever, over the western end of the Nowa Sól line – with more-quotidian Ol49 power.

The “and beyond” was a part of the Wolsztyn system’s fascinating peripheral reaches, never experienced by me. Branches continued south-west from the main-line junction of Nowa Sól: to Kożuchów junction, splitting there for Nowe Miasteczko and Niegosławice, and for Żagań. The Żagań line’s sparse workings involved medium-distance passenger trains, thought all-diesel; Wolsztyn steam locos handled the more generous service of locals on the other fork, including a daily return through working between Wolsztyn and Nowe Miasteczko. Even in the very early ‘90s, the action on this branch could reportedly get quite absorbing at times. I would have loved to explore this perceived remote branch-line steam Eden; but as so often, “time lacked”. 

The rest of our “fellowship” began to head north-eastward, but by devious ways. A target en route to Poznań (whence we would set out for “the other end of the country”), was the rural branch route between Jarocin and Czempiń. In the early ‘90s, the remaining duties for Jarocin shed’s steam allocation were passenger on this branch, and the Leszno line. Some years earlier, standard practice had been TKt48 2-8-2Ts on Czempiń line trains, and Ol49 2-6-2s on Leszno ones. We hoped to sample haulage by the now rare TKt48 class (which I had enjoyed over this line seven years previously). We got to Czempiń from Wolsztyn, I now forget precisely how.

This line was operated largely in two parts, with passenger workings originating / terminating at Śrem, the biggest town en route (a minority of trains ran right through). The train we needed to catch to achieve our planned itinerary, was the 1259 Czempiń – Śrem, which in due course became the 1414 Śrem – Jarocin. Power proved not to be a TKt48, but once more an Ol49. To the best of my memory, my every standard-gauge steam run throughout this 1991 tour was Ol49-hauled. My favourite PKP steam class – nonetheless, by ’91 more seemingly ubiquitous, than might have been wished. At least our Prairie here was an old friend: Ol49-77, observed at Leszno the previous year. The hospitable crew let us travel on the footplate, in the spell which the consist (loco plus two or three single-deck coaches) spent as the 1414 ex Śrem. This route was another one characterised by the agreeable Prussian practice of instituting certain branch-line stretches, effectively as roadside tramways. Czempiń – Śrem was nearly all roadside, whilst east of Śrem was normal line on own right of way. (In my TT piece about my travels in Poland in 1984, I originally mistakenly wrote that this line was roadside east of Śrem. A brain-glitch there; “west”, was meant.)

In the nearly four hours spent travelling the 54km. length of this pleasant branch, two passenger workings in the opposite direction were crossed, both TKt48-powered; also a diesel- hauled freight. The two TKt48 witnessed were plainly in, respectively, poor and dreadful, mechanical condition; Jarocin’s Mikado tanks were obviously on their last legs, and our train’s getting a member of the “other sort”, hardly surprising. These westbound trains were my last ever in-steam sightings of this engaging class. Trains on the branch originated and terminated at Jarocin, running the 7km along the electrified main line to and from the junction at Mieszków. We disembarked at the junction, to catch a local EMU north-westward to Środa Wlkp., objective travelling on the 750mm gauge steam line there, pre-Poznań and heading for the north-east overnight.

Steam finished on the route from Jarocin to Czempiń a few months later, a little before its end on that to Leszno. Passenger continued to run on the Czempiń line, diesel-hauled, until some time in the mid-1990s; freight carried on after that. Czempiń – Śrem is in fact still active for freight at the time of writing, with working nowadays contracted-out by PKP, to the rail-operating firm SKPL of Kalisz. Track thought still in situ, but disused, from Śrem to Mieszków.

A big change came about on May 23rd 1993 – in some enthusiasts’ eyes, this date marking the watershed after which the Wolsztyn steam scene ceased to be properly “real”. As at immediately prior to that date, there remained in passenger-service terms, only the five routes out of Wolsztyn itself. Any passenger action that had remained on the peripheral sections, was by summer 1992, no more. Basically though, in early May ’93 the Wolsztyn steam picture was much as described above re 1991. In the early ‘90s, pessimistic rumours (often supposedly from high-level and knowledgeable sources) abounded, concerning a likely end to steam at Wolsztyn in the not-distant future. Somehow, the worst didn’t happen; but with effect from commencement on 23 / 5 / 93 of the new summer timetable – though steam continued in fair strength, the situation changed radically and for ever.

As from the new timetable, PKP ceased to run passenger services on the Wolsztyn – Sulechów and Wolsztyn – Nowa Sól sections. (They continued to be involved in freight on those routes.) Passenger diagrams were rejigged so that a decent-sized handful of workings on the remaining lines (Wolsztyn – Poznań, and Zbąszynek – Wolsztyn – Leszno) were regularly steam, overwhelmingly Ol49, seven days a week – requiring, in an oddly unbalanced way, three locomotives in steam daily -- running intermingled with the diesel-hauled majority of passenger trains. Steam workings were identified in information available at Wolsztyn station. Regular local freight continued behind steam (usually the 2-10-0s, two locos needed in steam per day) between Wolsztyn and Grodzisk; Wolsztyn and the east-west trunk line at Zbąszyn; and on the Wolsztyn-end portions of the Sulechów and “Nowa Sól-plus” (see onward) lines. Some of these freight workings regularly included a passenger coach, in which one could travel on payment of a fee. Possibly freight ran “as required”, on further reaches than vouchsafed in information made available to the public – something which I’ll likely never know for sure.

“There was more” – what seemed then, and seems yet more now in retrospect, a surreally strange episode; but in these early years after the fall of Communism, little appeared to be outright inconceivable, and some very odd projects were floated. An undertaking titled (English translation) “Lubusz Regional Railways” (its Polish abbreviation, henceforth used to identify it, LKR) had come into being. Its avowed purpose was to take over, in and adjacent to this Lubusz Province of Poland, the running of passenger services over certain local lines on which PKP were about to, or already had, withdrawn such services. To this end, LKR bought second-hand from the Danish State Railways, several recently-redundant “Lyntog” [ “Lightning Train”] express-diesel-multiple-unit sets. 

LKR’s passenger services commenced, from 23 / 5 / 1993 – taking over directly from PKP on the Wolsztyn – Sulechów and Wolsztyn – Nowa Sól lines. They also moved in to assume passenger working for four other branches: two outside of the Wolsztyn area, two Wolsztyn “peripherals” on which PKP passenger services had ceased some while back: Nowa Sól – Kożuchów – Niegosławice, and the most northerly 14km., to Sława Śląska, of the Kolsko – Głogów line. LKR’s diagrams, involving “Lyntogs” working from the undertaking’s headquarters at Czerwieńsk, were astonishingly intensive: the units made lengthy runs (in which they did public-passenger business) over still-PKP-passenger-served routes, to get to, and traverse, the various “now-LKR” branches. LKR gave these an average two or three workings in each direction daily – seemingly taking no account at all of the times at which people might wish to travel, everything totally geared to the operator’s diagrams. All seemed very strange indeed; especially with hindsight, there is the impulse to smell a large whiskered rat.

I spent a couple of days around Wolsztyn in the second week of these – as in the old Chinese curse – “interesting times”. This was part of a road-borne venture, travelling by camper-van: a “quart into pint pot” week’s holiday, the first half of which had been spent on the Harz metre gauge in Germany. Participants were myself; my friend and companion on many grices, B. , mentioned in various of these “Tales”; and a third guy whom I will call C. – a non-gricer, irked by some of our strange antics; but it’s not as though we had forced him at gunpoint, to come with us. In the actual theatre of operations, B., a photting-junkie, mostly chased and photographed trains using the van -- the other two of us spent more time train-riding. We covered the Wolsztyn – Poznań route intensively by train; Zbąszynek – Wolsztyn – Leszno, not so. Steam passenger turns on the north-west / south-east route were minimal; they featured mostly on the Poznań line.

Advantage was taken of the provision of a passenger coach on certain freight workings; in which, fee paid, gricers (and presumably, local inhabitants wishing to get from A to B, if they were mad enough to set about it this way) might travel. A pick-up freight thus equipped, plied along the line toward Nowa Sól on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. We made the acquaintance of this train on Friday June 4th. C. and I travelled in the attached coach; B’s plan was to do the chasing-by-road routine. Wolsztyn depot considerately provided leaflets in Polish and German, setting out the freight, and passenger, steam diagrams. According to the leaflet, the Nowa Sól line freight was scheduled to leave Wolsztyn at 0825. It supposedly first served the Nowa Sól line “plain and simple”, running as far as Lubięcin some three-fifths of the way to N.S. Returning from there to Kolsko junction, it turned south-east thence on to the former Głogów line, and proceeded to Sława Śląska. “If and as required” (as cautioned in the leaflet), the train went on another 11km. to Krzepielów. Return up the branch to Kolsko, thence once more to Wolsztyn, notional arrival time 1618.

On the 4th my friend from ’87, Ty42-148, took the freight with its sixteen wagons plus one green single-deck bogie coach out of Wolsztyn about 0930 – a little over an hour after “the advertised”. More than one additional surprise was to come. Boring predictability is, for very sure, not a Polish vice. It was decided on this day, to reverse the freight’s itinerary: to go down the branch toward Sława Śląska first, and do the relative-main-line leg afterward. B., when met with back at base, complained of a long spell of baffled waiting out west of Kolsko, wondering what had become of the train. The sixteen wagons were progressively shed between Wolsztyn and Sława. Disappointingly, a run to Krepiełów was not required on this particular day. Two wagons were collected at Sława, and return up the branch to Kolsko was accomplished. Thence 4km. to the former junction of Konotop, which proved to be the limit of the day’s travels. Presumably, both June 4th was devoid of freight traffic for or from Lubięcin; and the crew had no draconically-enforced instructions to make a 12-km. round trip for no purpose other than to keep a couple of weird foreigners in the passenger coach, happy. Five open wagons of wood chippings and one covered van, were collected at Konotop; after which it was fifty minutes’ non-stop journey back to Wolsztyn, a. 1320.

It had been a pleasant and interesting few hours’ wander around the gentle countryside behind the sometimes chimney-first, sometimes tender-first Kriegslok, “valuing” the plentiful wildlife, and the shunting operations at those stations where there was business to transact; plus new track for me Kolsko – Sława. Nonetheless, it was hard not to feel that the earnest leaflet handed out to the “punters”, partook of the sardonic description applied to some countries’ public passenger timetables: “this impressive anonymous work of fiction”.

This corner of Poland long had (at the time of writing, technically still just has) over and above its intricate s/g secondary-routes net, a narrow-gauge line of its very own. (If things had gone a little more fortunately, the “of its very own” situation might – see below – have been intensified.) For some three-quarters of a century, this route ran for about fifty kilometres south-east to north-west, featuring two junctions with the standard gauge: Stare Bojanowo near the line’s headquarters at Śmigiel, and at its north-western extremity, Rakoniewice between Wolsztyn and Grodzisk. The railway originated in 1900 as a German metre-gauge private line; fell, with the area it served, into Polish hands at the end of WWI; was like all private railways, taken into PKP after the next global conflict, and was converted shortly afterward, to PKP’s “sub-standard” gauge of 750mm, as were many sections of “other” narrow gauges in Poland.

Things so fell out around the turn of the 20th / 21st centuries, that this narrow-gauge line became one of Poland’s most-renowned among “gricerdom” –largely because of its ending up as one of the country’s very last narrow-gauge lines in genuine commercial service (plus its proximity to Wolsztyn). It was, however, obscure on that scene until late in the day. Though a delightful bit of narrow gauge – and more obviously “light-railway-ish” than some lines of its gauge on PKP – it long had little positively to distinguish it. It was one among a very considerable number of much-alike PKP 750mm gauge lines the length and breadth of the country; plus, it was one of PKP’s earliest narrow-gauge lines (mid-1970s) to go all-diesel – which development rendered it of no interest, for a long while, to all but a microscopic number of Western railway enthusiasts.

Something which seems a sad “happenstance” with this line, is the loss in 1973, of its direct link to the Wolsztyn system. In that year, the 8km from Wielichowo to Rakoniewice, was abandoned, and dismantled shortly after. One gathers that this step made excellent sense at the time. It is generally understood that this westernmost reach of the line had never carried a heavy traffic; and under modern conditions, where narrow-gauge railways are used for freight haulage, it is generally reckoned to make best economic and logistical sense, to concentrate that activity on as few break-of-gauge points as possible. However; in view of the Wolsztyn system’s future rise as the country’s premier “museum-yet-real” steam venue – the sentimentalist has trouble resisting the thought of how wonderful it would have been, for that 8km to have survived. Steam could easily enough have been brought back to the n/g line – what marvellous icing on the cake it might have been, to have a direct offshoot of the standard-gauge Wolsztyn system, on the 750mm gauge, working closely in with the standard-gauge lines – wonderful “bait” for the hobby’s many narrow-gauge devotees, for some of whom interest in anything 1435mm apart is distant and abstracted, at best: it would bring them in to the Wolsztyn network, where they would likely enough (being there anyway) give at least a bit of attention and approval to s/g stuff. The thought of travelling up from Śmigiel behind a Px48, and changing at Rakoniewice onto an Ol49-hauled train for Wolsztyn or Poznań; or vice versa... 

Everything on this scene in recent times, standard gauge and narrow, appears to have fallen on evil days, to be a shadow of what it once was, and unlikely to be around for much longer. It would seem very unrealistic to imagine that a brought-back-to-steam Śmigiel n/g line, making direct connection with Wolsztyn – Poznań s/g steam trains, would have things now looking in 2011, a great deal brighter than in fact is the case. But if it had happened, it could have offered a wondrous scene for a fair few years. (The Wolsztyn Experience undertaking has in fact run steam on a number of occasions on this line in recent years, with an “imported” Px48 – but oh for a situation of a physical link at Rakoniewice, and regular scheduled steam !)

From “alternative history / fantasy”, to what we actually did in 1993. A little time was taken out of our steam-chasing, to have a brief look at the 750mm gauge line based on Śmigiel. I forget at this distance in time, how this was decided. Would imagine that I must have begged and pleaded with B., for a few hours’ indulgence of my narrow-gauge fetish. He disliked and despised the narrow gauge, even with steam – greatly more so, a 100% diesel n/g line. And C.’s knowledge of and interest in railways was minimal; in this week’s voyagings, he found himself as it were in some insane Gulliver’s-Travels-type land, at the mercy of the inhabitants’ super-weird customs – he didn’t have a clue.

However it came about, we drove into Śmigiel on the morning of Saturday June 5th, just in time to catch the 0850 departure for the 5km run to Stare Bojanowo junction on the Leszno – Poznań main line. The 0850 was formed by what was very much, the item most frequently found on any PKP narrow-gauge passenger working in 1993: a 1980s Roumanian-built MBxd2 railcar. C. and I hastily piled out of the van and into the MBxd2 – getting tickets from the guard in due course. B. drove the van in parallel, to the junction – he would sooner have had root-canal surgery, than voluntarily travel in a 750mm gauge diesel railcar. Our little vehicle (with some 15 – 20 “real” passengers on board, as well as ourselves) trundled off happily enough. Our interest was soon engaged by of one of the railcar’s windows having plainly received a blow which had caused it to “craze” all over. As we travelled along, the window was noticeably wobbling and shedding fragments of glass at intervals, inside and outside the vehicle. With a payload not sufficient for anyone actually to have to occupy the seats by the window, nobody – neither the local passengers, nor the guard – displayed the slightest bit of concern or interest. After a fourteen-minute run, calling at the two intermediate halts, we reached Stare Bojanowo narrow-gauge station, hard by standard-gauge ditto, and everyone disembarked. While folk were quitting the n/g station, the driver was observed knocking the remaining glass out of the window – so someone was sort-of au fait with the situation. In a way, a refreshing change from British health-and-safety hysteria and obsession...

Rejoining B. and the van at Stare Bojanowo, our exploration of the n/g line continued. Its reaches east of S.B. – once ending at Krzywin – had been abandoned basically over the decade of the 1980s. What remained active in ’93, was the busily-passenger-served 5km from the junction to Śmigiel; and the much-less-busily-passenger-served 18km from Śmigiel north-west to Wielichowo. (Freight ran also, throughout the length of the line.) On this particular day, there was no passenger working due for many hours ahead, between Śmigiel and Wielichowo. Logistics, time factor, personal dynamics, “whatever” – I forget the details, but “treaty signed” in the end, was that we would drive back through Śmigiel and along the route of the partly roadside line, to Wielichowo; then forsake the “toy railway” and get back to standard-gauge real life.

Said road journey, duly taken. The roadside stretch was basically the line’s then westernmost 10km or so. Even in 1993, track on the roadside section was often amazingly overgrown – hard to believe anything still traversed it, let alone daily passenger services. However: standard-gauge wagons on transporter trucks observed intermediately, and at Wielichowo terminus. “Seeing’s believing”..

This n/g railway survived lengthily; but – “long story short” – I have had little luck with it – never travelled by rail to Wielichowo. After PKP’s relinquishing of its remaining narrow-gauge properties in 2001, the Śmigiel 750mm was taken over by local-government authority, with its operation entrusted to the light-railway-working firm SKPL of Kalisz (mentioned above). This proved a marriage very much not made in heaven, with SKPL ongoingly starved by the local authorities, of funds which would permit it effectively to do its job . As this is written, assorted scenarios might be possible: but services on the line were suspended from Jan. 1st 2011, with SKPL announcing its intention of pretty well immediately pulling out from their operating contract; the picture is, in very great likelihood, “this is the end”. The Śmigiel n /g line’s prospects had for some years already, seemed very poor: north-west of Śmigiel, has basically been out of action since 2008 (track condemned by local authorities as in almost suicidally-dangerous disrepair). Re the whole thing, “municipal corruption” is suspected, as often in Eastern Europe – altogether, not a hope-inspiring scene.

The career of the “Lubusz Regional Railways” (LKR) proved to be of mayfly-like brevity. By early February 1994, the undertaking had gone bankrupt, and all its passenger services had been withdrawn. It is difficult to regard the whole episode, as anything other than bizarre to the point of lunacy. The most credible explanation for it that I have heard, is the cynical one that the whole thing was a large-scale scam. It is speculated that LKR was a “shell company”, created for easy acquisition – on the pretext of offering a transport service to the public -- of former railway property ; there are indications that the stations and other associated buildings along the lines, were given free to the LKR, by PKP. A brief spell of “nonsense” passenger operation; then – whether “falling” or “being pushed”, collapse of the whole enterprise, and plenty of ex-railway real estate available for the perpetrators to sell off for development. Any amount of ingeniously corrupt doings have flourished in Eastern Europe in the free-for-all conditions which largely followed on from the end of Communism: the above scenario would strike me as not very hard to believe. The only such episode (whether honest but unwise, or crooked) involving railway branch lines, on such a scale, which I have heard of in Poland or nearby countries post-“the fall of the Wall”: if it were truly a matter of chicanery, one could be inclined to feel a bit of sneaking admiration toward the guilty parties for their sheer audacity.

Whatever the LKR were in fact all about: in view of the extreme short-lived-ness of their operations, I have to feel glad that I chanced to be on the spot during the blink-of-an-eye spell when the thing was happening. In our time around Wolsztyn, three sightings were had of LKR “Lyntogs” – rather impressive several-vehicle units, in a silver-grey livery – going about their occasions. I could wish with hindsight, to have taken the opportunity for a ride on one; but time available to us was desperately short, the operator’s schedules were meagre and eccentric, and steam was our very high priority. And at the time -- for all we knew, the LKR venture might have made more sense, than it outwardly seemed to; it could (we thought) still be in action in future years, to be sampled at more leisure then.

I visited Poland in September 1994 – not, for the first time, a steam-centred trip, but to travel what I could of the remaining passenger narrow gauge. However, the “bash” started and finished in Poznań, and some spare hours on its first day allowed observation of, and a ride on, trains on the Wolsztyn – Poznań line. All was going meticulously as indicated by the “erudite journals” and the timetable – workings expected steam, and diesel, were “as scheduled”. Wolsztyn’s Ol49-32 / 59 were seen performing, and a brief-ish return trip westward to a station in between Poznań and Grodzisk – outward behind diesel – allowed of a return to Poznań in a four-coach double-deck set hauled by the latter.

The Wolsztyn scene has carried on, among many vicissitudes and in this author’s opinion, essentially on a declining-and-becoming-less-fun curve, from 1994 to the time of writing – though in the latter part of the 1990s, what had been the incessant “imminent-end” worries re the earlier half of the decade, seemed to ease off for a while. Personal opinion, with no omniscience claimed: medium-term salvation was achieved by the British-based undertaking “The Wolsztyn Experience” becoming involved, officially kicking off in September 1997 – running holidays for railway enthusiasts basically from “the West”, by which, for a financially “reasonable” outlay, they can come and stay at Wolsztyn and – under the tutelage of experienced local locomotive crews – drive and fire steam locos on regular turns on the surviving lines from Wolsztyn – “most and most largely”, passenger on the Poznań route.

Not every steam enthusiast’s most-desired cup of tea... among “observers” of this phenomenon as distinct from on-footplate participants in it, tempers have got heated at times, between extreme proponents who feel “Wolsztyn as thus” to be a priceless treasure in which the atmosphere of Polish steam in the wonderful days of the early 1980s and before, miraculously lives on; and equally extreme non-devotees whose feeling is: if what’s at Wolsztyn is now “as real as it gets” anywhere, vis-ŕ-vis regular working steam, then Heaven help the steam scene globally. Nonetheless – whatever one’s view here (my own is a good way toward the second pole mentioned above), kudos is reckoned due to the Wolsztyn Experience folks, without whose involvement the Wolsztyn steam scene (local bodies who could support and foster it, have often appeared as lukewarm at best, about doing so) would very probably have by now, gone under for good.

The general “temper of the times” where railways are concerned, has inevitably meant a good deal of dwindling and decline at Wolsztyn over the past decade-and-a-half. An instance of this, has been the end of entertainment-value re the freight section of the venue’s business. A combination of boiler certificates’ expiring, and the difficulty of finding money for overhauls; and an ongoing lessening of the amount of local freight traffic, to handle; meant an end in autumn 2002, of Wolsztyn 2-10-0 activity – both “surviving-genuine”, and “preserved”, Decapods. Local freight continued on a modest scale; for a year or so sometimes diesel-hauled, but more often worked by Wolsztyn’s supposedly “passenger” steam locos. It is thought that from relatively early in 2004, local freight became diesel-only. Any freight activity that there may be on the Wolsztyn lines nowadays – in the light of trends in recent years, doubtful that any purely local such, remains – is diesel for certain.

From about the mid-2000s, steam working was banned save for rare special occasions, from the east-west trunk line between Poznań and the German border, with steam passenger between Wolsztyn and Zbąszynek thus ceasing to be possible on a regular basis (the layout at Zbąszyn, the physical junction point, does not allow of its use as a terminus for such workings). Regular steam between Wolsztyn and Leszno was still feasible, and for a few years, usually one working in each direction daily between the two, was “made steam”; in the most-recent times, however, steam would seem to have been restricted to 2 / 3 workings per day between Wolsztyn and Poznań. The Wolsztyn Experience has made ingenious attempts to offset for its customers, the diminishing number of available footplate turns from Wolsztyn itself. When Px48s are available, days’ driving / firing may be offered on the 750mm gauge lines at Gniezno or Śmigiel (re the latter – see above – “don’t henceforth hold your breath”). At certain times, the W.E. has been able to provide the same, on a special steam service set up “under the wires” on a medium-length electrified branch from Wrocław, with a preserved TKt48 seconded from another “heritage” venue (not TKt48-143, which seems at some point to have departed for steam Valhalla).

Per impressions got by the author, a fair number of Wolsztyn Experience customers – while duly appreciative of the undertaking trying their best in difficult circumstances – find the narrow-gauge, and Wrocław TKt48, doings, uninspiring and unexciting. For many W.E.-ers, there’s just nothing to equal the “big show” on the 81km mini-main-line between Wolsztyn and Poznań, which offers assorted interesting and challenging features for footplate crew. Wolsztyn to Leszno, I gather, is found in comparison, flat and dull, and not much fun. Hearing such complaints, I get tempted to utter the Americanism, “what do you want – eggs in your beer?”; but I’m not a would-be driver or fireman...

Some comings-and-goings over the past fifteen years or so, of museum locos at Wolsztyn; the active tenure of many such, has been short-lived. One which has arrived and stayed active, has been 4-6-2 Pm36-2: a very “rare bird”, one of a couple of pre-WWII experimental Pacifics. Poland has never been a “Pacific” country in its own right, favouring for express passenger, the 2-8-2 and 4-8-2 wheel arrangements. Pm36-2 has lasted at Wolsztyn – sharing the passenger duties over the recent-ish years with Pt47-65, and Wolsztyn’s small and enduring band of Ol49s.

In relatively earlier times, that for me Polish delight on local lines, double-deck coaching stock (usually in two-vehicle or four-vehicle articulated lots) was very prominent on the workings from Wolsztyn – eked out in various permutations, by single-deck bogie coaches. Over the years, double-deck stock hereabouts has dwindled to extinction-point: Wolsztyn steam passenger workings are now almost invariably formed of two or three single-deckers – most often, two. Until the mid-2000s, non-steam passenger workings from Wolsztyn were diesel loco plus coaches. Subsequently – as on the great majority of Polish non-electric secondary lines nowadays to retain passenger services – anything passenger and not steam, between Wolsztyn and Zbąszynek, Leszno, or Poznań , has come to be worked by highly modern diesel railmotors. The contrast found here, appears to me grotesque, and inescapably branding steam as an anachronism. Long live the anachronism; it would just not seem to me -- as it does to some -- that what can now be seen, brings the 1980s totally back to life.

The whole scene now strikes me as a diminished sad shadow and caricature of its former self – however (among other things, not wishing to become the subject of the gricing equivalent of a fatwa), will say, that is just my own subjective feeling – others’ mileages will vary. Assorted factors --financial tightening of screws everywhere; ageing steam locos needing to be kept safe to operate, but achieving that, costing increasing amounts of scarce money; anything on the “railway heritage” scene lowish at best, on the agenda of most if not all Polish decision-makers; and quarrels between assorted authorities / undertakings involved (long gone are the blessedly simple days of a unitary PKP in charge of “everything railways” in Poland) -- make the outlook for Wolsztyn steam appear dark, and its being able to carry on for much longer, seem improbable. While I do not plan to emulate, context Wolsztyn, the British steam enthusiast who on August 3rd 1968 betook himself to a spot within sight of Ribblehead Viaduct, and there committed suicide – on the above-speculated, I’d enjoy being proved wrong...




Rob Dickinson