Plans derailed in Poland

By bne IntelliNews September 20, 2010

Jan Cienski in Warsaw -

The announcement crackled over the tinny speakers of the train compartment: "We apologise, but the Warsaw to Krakow train will be delayed by an hour because only a slower locomotive was available." A disheartened passenger quickly grabbed his mobile phone and began to explain why he would be late for his meeting. "I knew I should have driven," he said as he concluded his call.

The story is nothing unusual on Poland's increasingly strained railway system. Much of the infrastructure news out of Poland focuses on the country's inadequate road system, and the government's inability to speedily build new highways and expressways (the government now admits that ambitious plans to build hundreds of kilometres of new highways before the 2012 European football championships will fall short). But the situation with railways is just as dramatic.

Poland's consumer rights watchdog recently issued a report that spelled out the dire state of the railways, which used to be the country's main method of transportation prior to the end of communism in 1989, but have since fallen on hard times as Poles have switched to cars and transport to trucks.

In the 1980s, Polish rail served a billion passengers a year - now it transports only a third of that number - the last new rail line was opened in 1987, and the number of usable lines in Poland has dropped from 24,000 kilometres to 19,000 km. "Railways in Poland function badly," admitted Juliusz Engelhardt, the deputy minister of infrastructure, during a recent debate on the subject.

And their situation is worsening.

Not on track

Over the last decade, the government split the rail operator, PKP PLK, from train operators, which in turn were split into cargo and passenger, and then the passenger companies were again split into competing companies. The increased competition, which became visible about two years ago, may have slashed ticket prices, but it also created havoc on the rails, as competing companies ran trains to the same destinations just minutes apart. Even worse, many of the new companies did not earn enough to pay PKP PLK for use of the rails, prompting the rail operator to prevent some of the companies from running trains until their debts were paid, causing even more confusion for long-suffering passengers. Currently, most train companies are operating at a loss, and are propped up by more than PLN1bn (€250m) in annual subsidies from the government.

Slow train

The scale of the problem is daunting. It would cost about PLN47bn to return all the railways in the country to their original parameters. Over the last decade, about 85% of the government's transport financing has gone for roads, and PKP PLK estimates that it will be forced to take 4,000 km of line out service by 2015 because of their poor state. "With the current level of spending and the size of the network, there is too little money," says Zbigniew Szafranski, CEO of the rail operator.

He adds that on about 1500 km of Poland's network, trains can travel at only about 30 kph. "That's the speed of a decent cyclist," he sighs.

The mammoth task of bringing Poland's existing railways up to scratch does not include an ambitious programme to create high-speed rail lines linking main cities that is to be completed by 2020 at a cost of PLN26bn. If those lines ever get built, the travel time from Warsaw to the central Polish city of Lodz would drop to 35 minutes from the current 90 minutes, while the trip north from the capital to Gdansk, which now takes 6 hours to cover the 350 km, would fall to just over two hours.

As with highways, the government introduced a railway modernisation programme to improve some of the lines and the more egregiously dilapidated stations before the 2012 championships. However, Szafranski says that only three projects will be completed before European fans start to arrive: links between airports in Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw and their respective downtowns. Other ambitious plans, such as a modernised line to the border with Ukraine, north from Warsaw to Gdansk, and between Wroclaw and Krakow will only be partially completed. "When we came up with the modernisation plans, we slightly overestimated our capabilities," says Szafraniec. "We will not succeed in completing the modernisation of any of the long segments."

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