Memories of a visit to Poland – December 1990
Transcribing this diary a decade after the events it describes brings home just how dramatic have been the changes that have taken place in Poland over the last ten years. Far from the booming economy of today, Poland at Christmas 1990 was a country on the verge of huge changes.
Lech Walesa was re-elected President at this time, but the country still had a lot to do to catch up with its western neighbours. Inflation was not yet under control: the pound sterling, which had bought 15,600 Zloties in July 1990, now bought around 18,600 Zloties. Currency exchange remained a national obsession. The running themes in this diary of a daily search for food and beer reflect just how harsh and basic conditions still were in much of Poland.
The Polish railway system was on the verge of a huge rationalisation progamme, which continued throughout the 1990s as car ownership soared. Most of the branch lines visited on this trip have now closed – a programme which began only a couple of years after this visit with the branches to Wegorzewo and Glomno and has continued ever since.
Steam clung on at depots like Korsze and Elk for little more than another year and, with the exception of Wolsztyn, had finished by early 1992. But in December 1990 it was still possible to spend a week travelling the country for a total fare of less than £10, and to clock up a total of 1680 miles, of which 355 miles was behind steam. In that week it was possible to see a total of around 85 locomotives, the majority of which were still working. All told, it was an unforgettable week!
|Saturday, 8 December 1990|
Plane to Berlin Tegel is on time. Managed to find bus to Zoo station, where I have a long wait for the Poznan train. Find beer and sausage and buy supply of Mars bars. Journey to Poznan is uneventful – see steam on shed at Zbaszynek, which is even more impressive than on previous occasions due to the dark and freezing conditions.
Arrive at Poznan slightly late at 19.30 (due 19.15). Buy 1st class ticket to Korsze, leave bag and go for dinner at the Hotel Merkury. Wish I was staying there instead of roughing it overnight on the train. Menu remains just as indecipherable as before, but have a good dinner of mushroom soup and roast turkey. Only disappointment is that the bar won’t sell alcohol because of the presidential election on Sunday!!
Return to station and await the 22.20 train, far from sure that there is an Elk portion that will take me directly to Korsze. Luckily there is, and I am able to find a comfortable and empty first class compartment. Depart for Korsze on time.
|Saturday, 8 December 1990|
Have dozed a bit overnight, so I don’t feel too bad by the time we reach Korsze at 04.47. Signs of steam revive my enthusiasm, but it is very cold, with a light covering of snow on the ground, and I would prefer to be in bed! Am feeling fairly hungry, but the buffet does not open till 6.00 am, so I sit in the waiting room and resume reading “The good terrorist” after several months.
Eventually board the 06.50 to Wegorzewo, hauled by Ty42-69. Nice to be in a warm carriage again – steam heating is a marvellous invention. We leave on time and pass lots of dumped locomotives some distance away in the dark and pass Ty2-262 at Ketzryn. Arrive on time at Wegorzewo and try a couple of shots, despite the gloom.
Return to Ketzryn and take pics of the two locomotives alongside each other. Wait till 10.58 for train to Elk, where there seems a disappointing lack of steam activity. Leave my bag and walk to the locomotive shed, where, unfortunately, most locomotives are in the shed. Take picture of Ol49-18 on turntable.
Decide that the Orzyz train does not run on Sundays, so take taxi to hotel at Nowa Wies Elk. It is in the middle of nowhere – a Zl 45,000 taxi ride – is not very warm and the light in my room is not good enough to read by. There is not hot water either – what am I doing here?
Sort my belongings out and attempt to book phone call to England. Discover that there is only hot water between 9.00 pm and 10.00 pm. Decide I am too tired for that tonight, but manage to buy a beer and realise that all I have had to eat today is a Mars bar. Beer tastes good, but I must eat tonight and I wish it was possible to speak to someone! Still, I should manage some steam mileage tomorrow, even if the lack of daylight means I can’t get any decent pictures.
|Monday, 10 December 1990|
Woken up by my alarm at 6.00 am. Still have a headache, but otherwise feel much better for a long sleep. Go downstairs at 6.50 am and taxi driver is waiting for me. He is friendly and speaks some English. Have heard on the World Service 5.00am news that Lech Walesa won the presidential election, so perhaps that will make the people here more friendly!
Reach station and buy ticket to Ruciane Nida. Wait on platform for 07.59 train, which is hauled by Ol49-80. Journey is uneventful and train not too full. Female guard lets me off at Pisz to take photograph of the train. Light is still not very good here, or on arrival at Ruciane, where I try a couple more shots.
Wander along snow covered street near station and find some marvellous cakes in a small shop – breakfast at last! Obviously it is a tourist area, but it is very quiet in mid December. Get back on 11.41 train – resume reading my book, which I still cannot figure out. Reach Elk at 14.00 and decide on another shed visit. Find three engines not seen yesterday, but it is too dark for any decent photography.
Return to station and buy ticket to Orzyz. The train is once again hauled by Ol49-80, but it is too dark for photographs. Orzyz seems a rather uninviting station, with no sign of the bar indicated in the timetable. Return on virtually empty train and taxi driver meets me at 6.00, as arranged.
Takes payment of $10 on arrival at hotel and changes $100 for me at better rate than Orbis is offering. Go to room for change of clothes – the hot water is on and I am able to hear to 6.00 (7.00 in Poland) news on R4 – marvellous. Suddenly things seem a lot better.
Go to bar where I am told that there is no beer, but then am offered a giant 1 litre tin of Danish beer for the outrageous price of Zl 32,500 (£1.70). Locals look on in amazement as I buy it! What the hell- I have spent all day travelling behind steam for a total cost of 75p, so what!? – I deserve it! Try ordering dinner by showing last night’s receipt: this time the steak burger comes with bread and carrots in a kind of sauce, but without potatoes.
Never mind, I had a good lunch in the Elk station buffet, which only cost Zl7,900. Wish I could get through on the phone though – have now waited an hour and no sign of any action. Order chocolate and brandy while I am waiting – the perfect combination. Total cost of dinner, including the brandy, is just Zl 35,000 (£1.90).
|Tuesday, 11 December 1990|
Alarm goes at 6.30. Have not slept terribly well, but no head-ache today. Manage to listen to the financial news on the World Service and the 6.00 am (7.00am in Poland) news on R4, with excellent reception. Taxi arrives, as arranged, at 7.30. Get to station and get cold and wet feet watching departure of the 07.59 train to Ruciane Nida.
Buy 1st class ticket to Korsze and catch 08.35 train. Pass Ty2-hauled freight en route – my first sighting of a steam-hauled freight train. Take hopeful pic at Ketzryn. See masses of locos at Korsze shed. Have brisk 20 minute walk from the station to the shed, where a helpful manager gets one of his staff to show me round. Take pics on turntable and of stored locos.
Return to shedmaster’s office, where they offer me tea and I ask if I can have a foot-plate ride on the 14.00 train to Skandanawa. They fix it for me and give me a new pair of engine driver’s gloves. I give them two packets of Marlboros – only four packets left now! Climb aboard Ty42-69 and, after some delay, we take our one coach train into the platform.
Joined on the footplate by a Swede, who speaks English and knows how to drive. Depart Korsze promptly and tender first, and the Swede takes over the driving. Asks me if I would like to have a turn – great fun! – paid driver and fireman $3 each as they enjoy watching amateurs at work! Reach Skandanawa – only eight miles from the Russian border. A long train of agricultural machinery is awaiting movement across the border at this otherwise deserted station.
Take a couple of pictures of the train before getting back on the footplate. Enjoy another brilliant stint of driving – cannot quite get the hang of stopping, but manage with some assistance! Reach Korsze on time at 15.00 and buy ticket for train to Bartoszyce. Same train as I have just got off, but staggered to find five PKP officials on a one coach train – ridiculous!
Reach Bartoszyce at 15.55. Decide I have not eaten anything except some chocolate all day. Buffet has some interesting rissole things – buy two and a boiled egg for the equivalent of 30p – enjoy them on my return journey to Korsze. I won’t starve, but it would be wonderful to find a beer somewhere during the day!
Buy 1st class ticket to Elk at Korsze. Train arrives on time at 17.00 and I find an empty compartment. Read some more of the weird book – nearly finished now and looking forward to that first beer. Pass Ty2 on freight at Wydminy (18.37) and reach Elk on time at 19.30. Taxi driver is waiting for me – decide I will give him some of my coffee tomorrow, as it is so nice to see a friendly face at the end of a long day.
Reach hotel at around 8.00 pm and try yet again to arrange a phone call to England. Have marvellous hot shower then go to bar, where everyone seems to be drunk except me! Ordinary beer is now on again, at Zl 5,100 a bottle (28p). It is excellent. A brilliant day – maybe it will be third time lucky with the phone.
Steak is off tonight, so I order a mystery dinner. The waitress smiles at me – I am beginning to really enjoy Poland again! Dinner looks like bits of chicken with mashed potato and gherkins. Total bill for everything is Zl 71,000 (£3.90).
|Wednesday, 12 December 1990|
Alarm goes off at 6.30. Listen to World Service then R4 6.00 (7.00 in Poland) news and start of Today programme at 6.30 (7.30). Taxi man arrives as arranged and gets me to Elk station at 8.15. I give him $5 and the coffee, and he seems very grateful. Buy breakfast of cheese roll, dreadful coffee and other cheesy thing for Zl 7,870. See freight leave in steam at 08.45 – will try to follow it tomorrow.
Catch diesel hauled Suwalki train. See and photograph Ol49-102 on Olecko train at Goldap. Suwalki seems all diesel. Take taxi to comfortable hotel in town centre. Sort out my belongings then go out at 12.30 and visit locomotive shed, where I am told that there is no more steam, so go in search of beer and food.
Buy block of marmalade in error, then walk miles to town centre where I find a gloomy restaurant that has beer. Have two with lunch comprising some kind of cutlet, mashed potato and beetroot, all for Zl 30,000 (£1.60). Walk back to station and catch 15.35 train to Trakiski – five coaches but hardly any passengers. Return on 16.35 train – take taxi back from station to hotel. Shower and change – wonderful! Will try yet again to phone – no sign of any English speakers, though.
|Thursday, 13 December 1990|
Alarm goes off at 4.30. Get up at 4.50 and walk to Suwalki station. Catch diesel-hauled 5.40 train to Elk. Arrive on time at 7.35 and try to discover if a steam-hauled freight is running today. Buy bread and schnitzel (Zl 7,000) and catch 07.59 Ruciane Nida service, hauled by Ol49-15. Decide to alight at Drygaly at 08.58 in hope of picking up the freight train there.
Unfortunately the station master indicates that it won’t be running, so am forced to wait in the waiting room until the next train at 12.36. Time passes fairly quickly – finish “The Good Terrorist” – What was it all about? There is something strange about reading a book on left wing politics in such a barren place.
Finally catch the 12.36 train to Olsztyn and arrive there at 16.11. Buy doughnut and take taxi to the Novotel – it seems miles from the town centre, but costs only Zl 20,000 (£1.11). Have bath in very comfortable room, listening to Prime Minister’s Question Time on Sky News! Have drink at bar and dinner – Mushroom soup followed by Zander (perch) and chips for a cost of Zl 70,000 (£3.80) including the two beers.
Try to arrange phone call – will it be fifth time lucky, who knows? I hope so. Plan major photography session tomorrow. Retire early. The phone rings – at last!!
|Friday, 14 December 1990|
Alarm goes at 6.00 and I drag myself up. Have excellent breakfast of bacon and eggs at 7.00 and taxi arrives at 7.30 to take me to the station, where I go to the shed and eventually get a driver to show me round. Two Ty42s are all that remains of steam working here, but there are a further 12 locos dumped, including Pt47-100. Give the driver who has shown me round $2 and a packet of Marlboro – he is very pleased!
Catch 09.04 to Korsze, which arrives on time at 10.25. Discover that the 11.00 train to Bartoszyce has inexplicably been cancelled, so have to wait for the 12.38 Glomno train. Walk up the main street and buy three cassette tapes for Zl 13,000 each (72p) and some apples. Return for an awful coffee in the buffet for Zl 1,000 (6p).
Take picture of Ty2-335 standing in the station then pictures of Ty42-33 on my train. Ask driver if I can ride in the cab and he allows me in. Train leaves on time and take pictures at Bartoszyce and at Glomno, a deserted spot served by this one train each day. Lose my lens cap in the snow.
Only four passengers on board as we leave Glomno, but at Bartoszyce the one coach train is packed full of schoolchildren. We reach Korsze on time at 14.46 and I try a pic of Ty42-4 on 15.21 Lidzbark Warminski train in deep gloom at ½ second – don’t suppose it will come out. Wait for 15.18 Olsztyn train, which arrives on time. Read “Secret Cult” on journey back to Olsztyn, which we reach on time at 16.46. Take taxi to hotel then bath – great!
|Saturday, 15 December 1990|
Alarm goes at 6.00. Put television on – find I am getting used to breakfast TV! Pity it is all repeats of the previous evening. Egg and bacon at 7.00 then take taxi at 7.30 to station. Buy ticket and chocolate, then take 8.40 train to Elblag and on to Malbork, arriving at 11.50. Disappointed to see no sign of steam, but buy map and dictionary (Zl 53,000 – £2.90). Leave on 13.20 to Tzcew and reach there at 13.43.
Leave bag and find three scrap Ty2/42s, but no other signs of action. Man at depot indicates that there is no steam working on tables 429/33, so decide to head straight for Poznan. Catch 14.25 for Bydgoscz – have brief stop there and see Ty42 in steam, despite reports that there was no more steam here. Take train to Inowroclaw and change into 16.53 stopping train to Poznan, formed of one of the fairly uncomfortable electric multiple units.
At Gniezno (17.45) see at least three locos in steam – so much for what the depot manager told me in Oct 1989 about the shed closing to steam! Decide I should come back on Sunday evening to check what is left there. Reach Poznan at 18.40 and go straight to the Hotel Merkury. Change a further $30 with man in raincoat introduced to me by the doorman. Get rate of Zl9,450/$1, which is alright.
Ring Clare in Bristol – only 15 minute wait! Take bath then dinner – soup and turkey for Zl85,000 (£4.60). Decide to be extravagant and buy two cans of beer (Zl 24,000) to take with me tomorrow. Early start, but should be a good day. Retire at 10.00 pm, and watch CNN news – too American for me.
|Sunday, 16 December 1990|
Wake early in anticipation of another adventurous day. Alarm goes at 05.00 and catch 06.30 train to Szamoutly, then the 07.45 to Miedychod, a two coach train hauled by an immaculate Tkt48-36. Arrive at 09.22 to find a very attractive station lay-out, with Tkt48-28 in steam on shed. Take numerous pictures of both, including a sequence of Tkt48-28 approaching the unique signal gantry spanning the three lines running in from the east, as it hauls the 10.25 to Szamoutly.
Catch the 10.50 to Miedzcrycz, where I find Ty2-6 and Tkt48-84/109 in steam on shed. Take pictures then, at 12.00, decide I cannot waste nearly two hours of precious daylight waiting for the next train to Zbaszynek (13.39 – 14.24), so decide to take a taxi. Driver wants $20, which is my upper limit, but I reckon it is worth it. See a bit of Polish scenery and cross a country road, which he indicates is the main Berlin – Warsaw trunk road!
Get to Zbaszynek and, after a little hassle, take numerous scenes on shed, where there are a total of ten engines. Return to station and manage to buy ticket to Berlin. Is this the last place in Europe selling printed Edmonson card tickets for international journeys? A good quiz question! Decide I am starving, having only had a bar of chocolate today, so find buffet and buy two rissole-type things and a bread roll. Hardly Sunday lunch, but perfectly OK.
Buy ticket to Wolsztyn and catch diesel hauled service at 14.30, arriving at 15.09. Light still seems OK, so get picture of Ty3-2 and Ty45-379, which I have not seen before. Ask for cab ride in Ty42-59 on 15.50 train to Opalenica and driver agrees unenthusiastically. One final hour of steam brings my total of steam haulage for the week to 568 kms – a record unlikely ever to be beaten!
Catch 17.17 electric train from Opalenica and reach Poznan at 18.00. Return to Merkury for a much needed bath and rest. Looking forward to getting home tomorrow. It has been a great way to have a pre-Christmas break!
|Monday, 17 December 1990|
Get up at 7.30 and listen to news on Radio 4. Have breakfast in hotel then walk to station to catch the Beroliner. Note Px48 in steam at Opalenica and Ty2s en route. Take picture of steam action at Rzepin and of the River Oder as we cross it into Germany. Take final picture in the gloom of remains of the Berlin wall. Reach Tegel Airport at around 16.15 for flight back to London.
Steam locomotives seen (*=in service/steam)
Korsze (total 30)
Elk (total 14)
Suwalki (total: 2)
Olsztyn (total 14)
Tczew (total: 3)
Miedzychod (total 2)
Miedzyrzecz (total 3)
Zbaszynek (total 11)
Wolzstyn (total 6)
|Journeys, distances & fares|
|10/12||Elk-Ruciane-Nida (rtn)||144||ZL 9,200|
|Elk-Orzyz (rtn)||70||ZL 4,480|
|11/12||Elk-Korsze (rtn)||198||ZL 16,980*|
|Korsze-Bartoszyce (rtn)||46||ZL 3,680|
|Suwalki-Trakiski (rtn)||52||ZL 3,640|
|15/12||Olsztyn-Korsze (rtn)||136||ZL 8,000|
|Korsze-Glomno (rtn)||66||ZL 1,840|
|Totals:||2,686||ZL 172,120 (£9.73)|
(Total fare including Germany = £23.20)
(Total = 1,680 miles; total steam = 568 kms or 355 miles)