The International Steam Pages
The Narrow-Gauge Line That Wasn't, and, Former Borderlands
Robert Hall wallows in Polish nostalgia.. For earlier tales in this genre,
follow the links below.
This tale relates entirely to 21st Century experiences:
A map showing most of the places mentioned below is available at the end of the tale.
A visit in February / March 2018, in company with a friend, to assorted Eastern European railway venues, included several days at Wolsztyn. During that time, my friend participated in the Wolsztyn Experience, i.e. footplating and sharing the duties, on regular steam-worked turns from Wolsztyn locomotive depot. This not being personally “my scene”, it had been agreed that I would stay, together with friend, at the Wolsztyn Experience’s house in Wolsztyn town; but spend the days doing my own various stuff. (I did travel “on the cushions” one day, on the 1500 Wolsztyn – Leszno and 1624 return, hauled by 2-8-2 Pt47-65, on the footplate of which my friend was officiating together with the regular Polish crew.)
These few days in Poland – whose happening at all, was the result of an unexpected and unlooked-for fortunate circumstance – seemed to offer me an equally unexpected opportunity concerning one last item for my collection of Polish narrow gauge lines in genuine commercial service, travelled on. Said item located at Pleszew, some 130km east-south-east of Wolsztyn. Centre of a one-time smallish 750mm gauge system, whose longest-lasting portion has been the 3 km from Pleszew (Wąsk.) narrow-gauge station – close by Pleszew standard-gauge ditto, on the main line between Poznań and the Upper Silesia industrial area – to Pleszew (Miasto) = “Town”. Until 1986, there was also a 36km section from Pleszew (Wąsk.) south-westward to Krotoszyn; and there also ran briefly, around the World War II era, 11km northward from Pleszew (Miasto) to Broniszewice.
Since “way back” before the 3km Wąsk – Miasto’s becoming in 1986, the system’s final remnant: a third rail had been laid over this short section, allowing freight to run into and out of the “Town” station, without between-gauges complications. Passenger services on this stretch, continued to run on the 750mm gauge: in later Polish State Railways (PKP) days, worked by the Roumanian-built MBxd2 railcars which entered service in great strength on PKP’s narrow-gauge sections as from the mid-1980s. After PKP’s divesting itself of all its surviving narrow gauge in 2001, Pleszew (Wąsk) – (Miasto) was one of those lines taken over by the minor-railway-operating firm Stowarszenie Kolejowych Przewozów Lokalnych (henceforth referred to as SKPL) of Kalisz; who – as previously – worked the line’s freight on the standard gauge, and passenger on the narrow.
I’d long had some curiosity about, and fancy for, this rail oddity at Pleszew; but its extreme shortness, and the continuing relative abundance of “bigger game” on this scene in Poland, had put it low on my list of priorities – visits to the country during which I might have included Pleszew, did not pan out favourably for so doing. My visit to Poland in 2010 would have easily afforded me a call-in at Pleszew, then the last narrow-gauge venue in Poland with “real”, regular passenger services, as opposed to “tourist” doings; but SKPL’s passenger workings on the Pleszew line were then meagre both as regards number of runs daily, and dates on which they ran. The passenger service had come to cater primarily to school pupils, and to be closely tied to school terms: in latish July, when I was “in-country”, it was the school summer holiday period – no passenger workings at all.
Not very much later, SKPL completely withdrew its Pleszew passenger service, though the line remained open for freight on the standard gauge. Railway news from Poland has been harder to come by for me in the past few years, than previously: was pleasantly surprised to – a couple of years after the event – chance upon the information that the firm had in 2015, resumed the Pleszew (Wąsk) – (Miasto) passenger service, with schedule amplified vis-ŕ-vis those of earlier in the decade. Being in Wolsztyn, with my time my own, late in February 2018: seemed to offer an ideal opportunity to spend a day visiting Pleszew and sampling the hitherto elusive 3km 750mm gauge railcar ride.
Concerning finding-out of information about rail passenger services in Poland: that exercise seems to be made very hard nowadays, for anyone who does not have permanent access to the Internet in all ways-and-shapes. This would-be rail-user, experiences great nostalgia for the happy days three to four decades ago, when the entire country’s rail passenger “gen” was contained within the all-line timetable book (subject to one’s being able to get hold of that splendid tome!). For my day’s foray, I had the assistance of a kind Wolsztyn contact, who both worked out my itinerary (a “circular” job: out via Poznań, and back to Wolsztyn via Ostrów Wielkopolski and Leszno) and obtained for me, the necessary ticket to accomplish same.
All “modern / conventional” rail travel in this couple of (“weekday working”) days was by EMU on electric lines; or highly modern diesel multiple-units, tending to curving-out at the front and rear. Departure from Wolsztyn was on the 0942 to Poznań: a state-of-the-art two-car diesel set, well-patronised (and very comfortable; and beautifully warm, it being a bright but seriously cold day). An hour and thirty-eight minutes’ run, calling at all stations, to Poznań (Główny); a journey done by me in both directions, a good many times before: sometimes behind steam, more often diesel-hauled. Most of the old-style stations had – since I last passed this way – had their buildings retired from duty, replaced by mean little bus-stop-like affairs. An unavoidable hour and a half’s wait at Poznań (Główny); then along the main line south-eastward on a crowded most-stations EMU working (I was fortunate to be able to get a “bucket” seat, facing inward, at one car-end).
Out at Pleszew (standard-gauge) station after a little over an hour’s run. A small red railmotor was visible, taking on passengers, a couple of hundred yards distant: I hastened to reach it and get on board, in the rudimentary Pleszew (Wąsk) station. A little puzzlement followed – this vehicle seemed strangely wide and commodious for a 750mm gauge railcar / railbus. “Lightbulb moment” a little after it pulled out of the station as the 1406 to Pleszew (Miasto): it was observed that the track formation’s interior third rail was decidedly rusty. Our “motor” was clearly a standard-gauge one (later identified as a four-wheeled railbus); equally clearly, SKPL had – sensibly enough – at some stage switched the former narrow-gauge passenger service, to standard gauge. A not-small number of hours’ travel, in order to “score” an intriguing relict bit of narrow gauge – which turned out no longer to be such. Definitely a “you’ve got to laugh” situation…
Eleven-minute run to Pleszew (Miasto), and layover there until next departure, 1442, for “main-line country”. Miasto station and its sidings, contained a small miscellany of (standard-gauge) railmotors and modestly-sized-to-tiny diesel locos. (Our red railbus turned out to bear the – unofficial? – name “Tomek” – have that wretched vicar and his whimsies, penetrated even to these far-flung parts?) No trace observable at Miasto, of any freight action; but, one hopes, that might still happen at times… The only 750mm gauge element here, was an un-numbered Px48 0-8-0 and a bogie van, both painted bright green, on a short isolated piece of 750mm track.
This short line would seem to be playing a meaningful passenger-service role. Its current timetable, amply displayed in its territory, shows some 12 – 14 workings each way per day. In its 3km length, it has nowadays two intermediate halts. My two journeys between Wąsk. and Miasto each featured about a half-dozen passengers, including myself – this factoring-in, some passenger turnover at the halts. Arrival at Pleszew (main line) of my EMU working southward at about 1515, witnessed a healthy number of passengers alighting and heading toward the waiting railbus at the – now notionally – “Narrow Gauge” (Wąsk.) station. Long may this set-up continue, so long as it’s on rail – gauge immaterial.
Onward from Pleszew by abovementioned working, the 28km to the big junction of Ostrów Wielkopolski; about an hour’s layover there. Then westward on a modern two-car DMU as travelled on Wolsztyn – Poznań in the morning; this set being the 1639 Ostrów Wlkp. – Leszno, over secondary-main-line trackage completely new to me. This line is electrified – though that irrelevant for our DMU – over the 28km to Krotoszyn (once served by the narrow-gauge system), where the catenary stops. A run through standard unspectacular-but-pleasant Polish countryside, initially in the last of the short winter daylight. Branches used, at any rate, to join this line at various points – none now with passenger services, and the fading-to-gone light rendered it hard to make out whether track was still “down” at the several branch junctions. The five-way junction of Leszno was reached at 1820: the same unit then formed the 1837 departure for Wolsztyn, getting me back there an hour later.
Another interesting-lines journey (this one all indisputably standard-gauge), on another day, also involved “unfinished business” of a rather different kind. The sizeable town of Gorzów Wielkopolski lies about 100km north-east of Wolsztyn. In the perceivedly Eden-like era of the all-line timetable, thirty-plus years ago, Gorzów (as I shall henceforth call it) was the junction of a secondary main line, and several lines of less significance, all passenger-served: even in these miserable days for the train-travelling railfan, it is still a passenger junction – the main line meeting with a somewhat lesser route from Zbąszynek; on the Berlin – Warsaw main, and still a jumping-off point for Wolsztyn. The Zbąszynek – Gorzów line passes through the little town of Międzyrzecz (for long, one of Poland’s greater spelling / pronunciation bogeys for the Anglophone enthusiast): which was “back then” the focus of a network of highly rural branches, worked principally by Międzyrzecz shed’s stud of class TKt48 2-8-2Ts – latterly PKP’s only remaining tank-loco class, and by the late 1980’s become scarce and confined to a few strongholds, of which this was one.
My travels over this delectable mini-system in steam days, had been very meagre: only, in fact, a 1980 run involving TKt48 haulage from Zbąszynek along the Gorzów line, to Międzyrzecz and on to Skwierzyna; changing there to the ramshackle branch to Krzyż with its twice-daily working in charge of a “Kriegslok” Ty2 2-10-0. The 25km Skwierzyna – Gorzów remained untravelled by me.
While in the main, the tale of Polish rural minor-line passenger services over the past quarter-century has been one of disaster – there have been odd, often temporary-to-ephemeral, bright spots of retention or resuscitation, contingent on local-governmental-authority support. At the time of a Polish holiday taken by me in summer 2010, the long branch line from Międzyrzecz to Rzepin on the east – west main line near the German border (this branch a star of the Międzyrzecz TKt48 show in the 1980s) which had lost its passenger workings in the early ‘90s; had under local-government aegis, a restored meagre daily passenger service (since then, once again withdrawn).
I took the opportunity then, to travel in a highly-modern light railbus from Rzepin to Międzyrzecz: a most pleasant run through quietly lovely, sparsely-settled countryside. Miedzyrzecz was then back for a while in its role as a junction of passenger services; except that at the time of my journey there appeared to be a prolonged “engineering work” situation over the Zbąszynek – Międzyrzecz – Gorzów route, which looked to have caused the complete and prolonged suspension of its rail passenger services. My next hoped-for port of call, was Gorzów. In twenty-first-century Poland, getting information about rail services would seem to have become miserable-going-on-impossible for anyone not 100% plugged into modern information technology (with no guarantees, even for those progressive souls): Międzyrzecz was reached, with seemingly no passenger-on-rail on the “main line”, but no obvious way, especially for a foreigner, to discover greater detail. With ambitious plans for further travel that day: a Gorzów-bound bus opportunely showing up in the station forecourt, had been the obvious thing to get; but it left me with Skwierzyna – Gorzów, still untravelled by rail.
Possible to remedy, I found – plus revisiting of interesting scenes en route – seven and a half years later. As at March 2018, the Wolsztyn – Zbąszynek stretch of the route was traversed by only three passenger workings each way daily. It proved possible – thanks to a kind and patient lady booking clerk at Wolsztyn, without whose assistance I would have been thoroughly in the dark (my contact re Pleszew trip, not available for this one) – to get details of the Zbąszynek – Gorzów line’s schedule: a quite respectable half-dozen return workings each day. Combining the two lines, I was able to leave Wolsztyn at 0628, and return thereto at 1327.
The 0628 Wolsztyn – Zbąszynek was formed by a standard modern two-car DMU; giving me my first journey over this section, for a quarter-century or so. Comfortable twenty-minute connection at Zbąszynek with the working to Gorzów, coming in from further west. Another modern two-car DMU; not of Koleje Wielkopolskie which runs the passenger services around Wolsztyn, but in the livery, and territory, of a different train-operating company – PolRegio Przewozy Regionalne. On a bitterly cold day, this unit proved not quite as toasty-warm as those of Wielkopolskie’s fleet. Nonetheless, a fascinating – and with “memory lane” properties – 74km and roughly an hour and a quarter’s run to Gorzów, calling at a dozen-plus stations on the way. The majority of the route runs, as recalled from 1980, through thick woods; almost all composed of tall conifers. Międzyrzecz’s large, spacious and once well-appointed station, now no longer a passenger junction in any way or shape, seemed a sad ghost of itself as in the joyous days of 1980 when “everything was running”, and almost all with steam. Intriguingly, though, track was in place, and seemingly in fair shape, on all three of the now passenger-less branch routes which set out in various directions from Międzyrzecz. This can be hoped for as evidence of freight activity – now not very common or widespread on the Polish branch-line scene. I was informed at Wolsztyn that the line leading out of Międzyrzecz in a north-easterly direction, serves on its route an oil-storage installation of some magnitude.
This north-east-running line linked (hopefully, still links) Międzyrzecz with 31km- distant Międzychód. One of this system’s many charming features in its heyday, was this twin-like pair of small-town junctions with similar names, each with lines heading off from it in sundry directions – most passenger system-wide, handled by Międzyrzecz’s tireless 2-8-2T fleet. Onward through conifer-land, the 19km to Skwierzyna – itself once a four-way junction, and at which nearly forty years before, I had changed trains onto the Krzyż branch of happy memory: now with track lifted, though the formation remains visible. In 1980, shortly after the junction this line – to paraphrase Bryan Morgan – “vanished into a jungle of yard-high pasture from which the tracks hardly reappeared till Stare Bielice junction a little short of Krzyz, 51km away”. Amazingly, in 2018 the other branch diverging at Skwierzyna – eastward towards Międzychód, passenger service withdrawn long ago – still had track down, in apparently good condition.
New track at last for me, from Skwierzyna to Gorzów – a mixture of open pastoral country, and more woodland; and a fair handful of stations, including a few Gorzów “suburban” ones, named accordingly. Just before Gorzów main-line station, the big river Warta, running east-to-west to join the Oder some 50km downstream, was crossed – first a “false alarm” parallel lesser stream or maybe canal; then, immediately before we joined the main line, the unmistakeable genuine article: in the East European winter, bedecked with small ice-floes.
A feeling was got – in the area of my sojourn, at all events – that those now running Poland’s railways have little concern for the convenience or comfort of passengers, at stations. An hour at Gorzów before the next working southward, was partly spent over a coffee in this big station’s only refreshments facility – a rather pitiful little snacks-and-coffee bar, with only a short counter at which people could sit with their coffees, wide-open to the unheated station concourse on this glacial day. It was something of a relief to board the 0935 two-car DMU for Zbąszynek and “points west”; a connecting DMU, eastbound on the main line, pulled in a few minutes previously. Back to Zbąszynek, with a bit of delay, largely occasioned by a wait to cross an opposite-direction working – another two-car set – at Lutol Suchy south of Międzyrzecz; Zbąszynek reached at 1101, twelve minutes late.
An unavoidable two hours’ wait there for the 1255 to Wolsztyn (continuing to Leszno). This important junction had been rendered utterly “basic” from passengers’ point of view – nothing open or accessible beyond a cramped booking area with a couple of ticket windows; a waiting room of grudgingly small dimensions; and toilets. Poignantly, on the signs over the inter-platforms subways, the wine-glass icon signifying a refreshment room bore a “cancelled / withdrawn” diagonal red cross. Message received, of utter contempt for passengers on the part of whichever section of Poland’s present-day railway bureaucracy, handles this particular side of things. In this day’s bitter cold, I was driven to quit the station and essay walking into town, in the hope of finding a hot drink somewhere: half a kilometre or so’s walking brought me to a modest-sized supermarket where hot coffee could be got, and consumed “in-store” – no seats, but “desperate measures”, etc. – I lingered at length in the warm there, and bought more assorted wares from the outfit, than had been planned. Back to the station, at a time calculated nicely to catch the 1255.
As with Międzyrzecz – wistful comparison unavoidable, between bleak, “unstaffed”-feeling Zbąszynek station in 2018; and same in 1980, when it was a hive of activity – locomotive (mostly steam), and human: including friendly staff who were happy to trade with us “illegality for illegality”, in the shape of ad hoc sterling / złotys exchanging, and a free hand with photography.
And so on the 1255, through the beloved sequence of Zbąszyń (physical junction, Wolsztyn line peeling off to the right), Zbaszyń Przedmieście, Stefanowo, Belęcin Wlkp., and Tuchorza; arriving Wolsztyn at 1327 – comfortably timed re 1500, departure-time of the return steam run to Leszno, on which I travelled “conventionally”, in support of my friend who was on the loco footplate, handling much of the driving.
An interesting aspect – for those whom such things interest – to this part of the world, is that between the World Wars, it was frontier country. Until Poland’s re-emergence as an independent nation at the end of World War I – all this area, way out eastward to beyond Poznań, had been German territory. The post-1918 German / Polish frontier actually ran in between Zbąszynek (German border post – Jerry called it Neubentschen); and Zbąszyń (Polish border post), one station to the east, physical junction for lesser lines running north and south, just within Poland: Wolsztyn, on the southerly one of these, was in Poland by only a dozen kilometres. There were uncomfortable different-communities / minorities issues (drastically resolved in 1945).
Out of this grew the oddity of one of Europe’s shortest-lived, least useful, and most wondrously-named light railways. The Zbąszynek – Gorzów line was entirely in Germany: its abovementioned station Lutol Suchy (German Dürrlettel), 14km out of Zbąszynek. Located some nine kilometres east of Lutol Suchy: the town – bisected by the border – called Trzciel in Polish, Tirschtiegel in German. Said town served by the Zbąszyń – Międzychód branch line, all of that line amply on the Polish side. The Germans wanted their own rail access to their side of town; whence – belatedly, it would seem – the opening in 1929, of the Kleinbahn Dürrlettel – Tirschtiegel: a standard-gauge light railway – notionally independent, under the aegis of various bodies, but operated by the German State Railways: running from Lutol Suchy (Dürrlettel) to the German side of the border in Trzciel (Tirschtiegel). Road competition was then coming on apace: it triumphed in 1932, in which year the Kleinbahn’s passenger service was withdrawn. (Full marks to any line-basher who got it in the bag in the minuscule time-window involved.) Freight service ended in May 1941, by which time Germany had overrun Poland, pretty much putting an end to any point or usefulness which the line might have had. Thereafter, “same but in spades” – from 1945, Germany ended at the Oder / Neisse line.
Unsurprisingly –no visible trace nowadays at Lutol Suchy, of the erstwhile Kleinbahn.