Reflections on Polish train travel

The only journey I make on Polish trains with any kind of frequency is the trip from Krakow to Warsaw. Despite their rarity I’ve come to dread these expeditions. Number one on my hate list is the compartment carriage. Some people seem to like those six-seat cubicles, chiefly because you get to say “Dzień dobry” to the other occupants when you sit down. I agree, there is something pleasingly sophisticated about this, but it’s a short-lived thrill: the other two hours and fifty nine minutes are largely taken up with unpleasant knee contact and finding an infinity of excuses to gaze out of the window rather than directly into the face of the complete stranger sitting an arm’s reach in front of you.


Even assuming you know these people, how comfortable can this be?

Maybe there was a time when fellow travellers blithely chatted away the 97 hours it takes to get anywhere on Polish rail, but that time is gone. I’m not prepared to start a conversation with random Jacek opposite until I’m absolutely confident of my ability to bail out of there in the next 10 minutes. Especially without access to beer. No matter how rigid your stare discipline you inevitably make eye contact with your fellow sufferers every ten minutes or so. I have no idea how to react. Social behaviour patterns born from twenty years of city living tell me this chance sucker should be gone and out of sight in a fraction of a second, but he’s still there three hours later; it’s the ultimate slow-motion nightmare.

The perils of talking to fellow passengers:

There are a few potential escape strategies:

No part of catching a Polish train fits with my natural sleep pattern, especially since my natural sleep pattern includes keeping my eyes closed for as long as humanly possible after sunrise. If you want to be in Warsaw in time to do anything other than drink, you have to get up at an ungodly hour. Admittedly, my definition of ‘ungodly hour’ differs from anybody who has children or an office job. Fortunately I gave up believing in early-riser propaganda long ago: you may think that getting up at 6 am everyday is a remarkable and healthy achievement but, as far as I’m concerned, organising your life so that you don’t have to get up at 6 am is a considerably greater and healthier one.

The long and the short of it is that I’m always bleary from sleep deprivation when I get on the train to Warsaw. Theoretically this is a good thing, because it means I can snooze rather than play gaze-avoidance with chummy opposite. In practice it means I get to snore, drool and flop around in an embarrassing way in a tiny room full of other people. I wouldn’t mind so much, but sometimes they take pictures.

Window gazing
This is the obvious and most promising sanity preserver, unfortunately there is very little to look at, unless you have a thing about coniferous trees. Travelling from Krakow to Warsaw makes you realise just how empty Poland is. There isn’t a single big town, let alone a city, along the entire 300-km route. In the UK you can’t travel 30 km without coming across an urban centre. Weirdly, the closer to Warsaw you get, the wilder and more empty the country becomes. Leave Krakow and there are occasional villages and train stations for 45 minutes or so, before you go through the only tunnel on the line and enter the Jurassic Era. There’s nothing out there but forests. Very occasionally you see a field with a building near it and a guy scratching his head in a skeptical manner.


I hope you like trees…

I made the trip a few weeks ago and a lot of the countryside was on fire. Spring bonfires are one of the things that still confuse me in Poland. Where I come from, you burn the leaves and the dead bracken in autumn; bonfire smoke is very definitely an autumn thing. In Poland the fallen leaves are almost immediately covered by nine feet of snow, making them tricky to burn. The incineration of last-year’s foliage takes place in spring, which is all very natural and sensible but gives me severe season dizziness.

Standing in the corridor
The one advantage of compartment carriages is that they have corridors where you can stretch your legs and peer out at the identical emptiness on the other side of the train. I’m a huge proponent of hanging around in Polish train corridors and leaning out of the window; there’s something satisfyingly timeless about it: I imagine myself a Wehrmacht conscript on my way to the Eastern Front, a partisan flitting between the trees, and a Solidarność activist with a forged travel pass in my pocket all at the same time. The only problem with these romantic imaginings accompanied by the rushing wind is that you never hear the wide-load babcie looming behind you with the sharp umbrella.


The train corridor is the place to be

Tagged , , ,

37 thoughts on “Reflections on Polish train travel

  1. 4 OJ 4,6 says:

    I once took a train trip out of Krakow towards Tarnow and travelled through a town with a smokestack that was spewing an enormous amount of ash. The ink on the pages of my book kept whitening out. And I’m not exagerating. Must have worked wonders for my lungs, too.

  2. Brad Zimmerman says:

    I did the KrakowTarnow trip a half-dozen times or so just after I moved here. It’s not so bad because it doesn’t take very long.

    The KrakowBelchatow train was something else. That IS ungodly long though the one time I took it it was interesting because it was new. Since it has been five years since I’ve taken it I suppose I should eventually refresh my memory… but it just seems so pointless when we have a rock-solid reliable car which, if you ignore the car payments and servicing costs and just focus on the costs of the fuel, is cheaper for two people to travel by when compared to the train.

    Lastly but most importantly: as someone who is ~190 cm with a goodly portion of that being leg …no compartment where others are going to be sitting across from me is going to be big enough. Unless it is one of those classic Polish babcias that appear to be shrinking before your eyes, our knees are going touch and then I’m going to try to sit up as straight as possible and that’s going to be a very lonnnng journey.

  3. >Travelling from Krakow to Warsaw makes you realise just how empty Poland is.

    Not to the end (Nie do końca). The bulk of the InterCity route from Warsaw to Kraks goes along the Centralna Magistrala Kolejowa (central trunk railway line). Built in the 1970s, it was designed to avoid urban centres so it could link the capital to Silesia quickly. A branch spurs off towards the southern end, joining the older Warsaw-Kielce-Kraków line near the legendary Tunel station.

    With the exception of Włoszczowa Północna, there are no station stops between Grodzisk Maz and Zawiercie.

    Having cycling from Warsaw halfway to Kraks I can tell you that there is no shortage of small towns and villages along the way.

    Relevant posts:

    CMK bypasses towns

    A town called Tunel

    Inconsistency of PKP InterCity services

    Which brand of train shall we catch?

  4. buraklol says:

    “I imagine myself a Wehrmacht conscript”

    wow, just great. maybe you should imagine yourself an SS officer who just killed a jewish family? THAT WOULD BE A THRILL – wouldn’t it?

  5. Jacek Wesołowski says:

    I find books very helpful when trying to survive a trip by train. I also find the sightseeing sedative, at least until gargamel houses begin to pop up.

    (gargamel, or “fairy tale style” is what passes for style and class in the country; it’s how Neuschwanstein Castle would look like if Ludwig II of Bavaria was on a budget).

  6. iceteajunkie says:

    For maximum enjoyment, you should be buying 2nd class tickets 8)

  7. John says:

    Krakow – Warsaw is nothing – Try Krakow – Sopot for a real train journey…

    Last summer I decided to make this 9 hour journey by train, and I got mocked for weeks by my Polish friends. They could not understand why anybody who owns a car would take a train… In my head this was a very romantic idea, and I was imagining myself as James Bond is my couchette surrounded by Russian agents. Of course I did not pay for a couchette, and I traveled the 9 hours during the day, so I ended up in the same 6 person compartment as mentioned above. This took quite a bit of fun out of the experience, as you can’t choose the people you sit with…

    As a Dutchman who complained for hours when my train was 3 minutes late in the Netherlands, and being used to most trains going 4 times an hour, Polish trains take a bit of getting used to:
    – They are not as frequent
    – Delays are very common, and I am not talking about 3 minutes delays
    – Trains do not have air conditioning (which is quite unpleasant on a 9 hour journey in August when you share 4m2 with 6 people)
    – Trains can stand in the middle of nowhere for half an hour without any announcements and then just start going again

    This sounds very negative, but it still was a nice experience. In contrast to a stressful journey on Polish roads by car, my holiday started the moment I got on the train:
    – After you accept the delays, and the standing in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason, you realize that you have absolutely no control over your schedule, which becomes quite relaxing
    – I’ve had a lot of time to read some books I haven’t had time for (the people in my compartment were not that interesting
    – Standing in the corridor, your head out of the window (not on those rare moments the train was actually moving at some speed), daydreaming whilst looking at the empty land is very relaxing

    All in all, it was a fun experience for a holiday, but I can’t recommend taking a train when you have a tight schedule (once took the Krakow – Warsaw Express for an appointment, which added quite some unnecessary stress).

  8. expateek says:

    You forgot to mention the loos, my dear. They’re the main reason that anti-bacterial hand solution was invented.

    O, the horror! The horror!

  9. guest says:

    Polish trains are cheap. And that’s the most important thing.

    It is better to travel one hour longer on a Polish train than to work one hour longer for a Dutch or German ICE train ticket. The same goes for trams and busses. In Germany I have to pay 20zl for a “Tagesticket” (24h bus ticket in a small part of a city)

  10. guest says:

    ps:25zl and not 20…

  11. Jerzy Stachowiak says:

    The interior presented in the first picture belongs probably to a Czech rail car. I see here the seats made of this ugly leatherette that occurs in some unmodernized Polish EN57 electric units, but never in the Polish compartment cars. Although it often occurs in many Czech cars and is really unpleasant, especially in the summer when you can easily chafe your butt on such a seat.

  12. John says:

    mm, not sure if Polish trains are that cheap:
    Intercity Krakow – Warsaw return: 220 pln
    Intercity Maastricht – Den Helder (similar distance in the Netherlands: 295 km) return: 44,60 euro = 175 pln
    Both full price without any discounts

  13. Pistefka says:

    Compartments are great when there are only two or three of you in there, or better still when you are alone. Much more “kamaralny” than those open plan carriages.
    You haven’t described some of the truly slow pociag osobowy routes – those are much more distinctive than the Warsaw-Krakow express.
    The train from Bielsko-Biala to Cieszyn is a classic example. The bus takes 45 minutes, the train almost two hours. Its great for watchin g wildlife along the way, as the train never goes fast enough to disturb the deer.

  14. Stefan says:

    The problem is simply present day young people, including Jamie ;) They simply don’t have a clue how to behave. Our ancestors were trained to keep their conversations going and well-mannered people had no problems starting a nice chat with a stranger. The English used to be great champions of this type of entertainment. As Marion Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility) remarked, a good topic is the weather and the state of roads (railroads… why not?).

    Another solution would be sinking into a book or a magazine. But who of those young people read anything today… ;) :D

    Jamie, don’t be afraid of fellow-passengers. Sometimes they can be nice folks ;)

  15. Stefan says:

    Of course Marianne Dashwood, not Marion…

  16. guest says:

    island, next time try this

    ha ha

  17. Jerzy Stachowiak says:

    The ability to keep the conversation is the one thing, shyness in another. The compartments are a nightmare for shy people. I travel a lot by train and I must face the problem every time. I always try to choose a train with a non-compartment car (recently more often one or two cars of this type are included in the train make-up). If no such possibility exist and I can’t find any compartment with less than 3-4 people inside, I stand in the corridor through the entire journey. When I come into the compartment, sometimes I’m so stressed that a set of inarticulate sounds comes from my throat when I try to say “Dzień dobry”. When I’m finally inside, I read something. If I’m too tired to read, I pretend to read or sleep, or pretend to sleep to avoid any contact with the other passangers.

  18. scatts says:

    Also not sure. Just paid 500 zlots for return trip to Krakow and that’s a “family special” price for two adults and one kid. Seems quite a lot to me.

  19. Kocianna says:

    If you don’t like a comfortable IC, how about a standard TLK for MUCH MORE than 2 hrs, say, with a 2-year-old apart form other 7 people in the compartment?
    Shame on you!

  20. island1 says:

    I remember reading about the Centralna Magistrala Kolejowa on your blog, so I was aware that the line was built to be as direct as possible. It still amazes me that this is possible through 300 km of the center of the country though—there’s a lot of space out there.

  21. island1 says:

    This is exactly why I’ve only been to the Polish coast once, and that was when I was living in Warsaw and it was ‘only’ six hours away.

  22. newsaddict says:

    As a Brit I have to say that I like compartment trains. They disappeared in the UK in the early 80s. Compartments create a temporary cell, hermitically sealed from the outside world. It allows you to indluge in daydreaming, catch up on reading, or chat with other passengers. Of course, chatting to strangers is not to everyone’s taste. Yet, as one poster noted, it is important to be able to chat for a while with strangers, even if just about the weather, or where you come from or how late the train is.

    I like the general absence of binge drinking on Polish trains. It still happens, here and there, and younsters often drink a can or two, but it is but far less frequent than in Britain. The trains from London to, say, Glasgow or Cardiff are notorious for becoming a sea of lager cans towards the end of the journey. Innocent tourists and respectable old ladies face drunken tirades from Trainspotting type characters. The tables are full of empty lager cans, their owners often slumped to the floor.

    As a foreigner in Poland, trains have a great deal of romance … Trying to pronounce village station names … the thrill of crossing a border by rail (always a strange sensation to island monkey Brits) … changing the bogies at the Ukrainian and Belarusian borders … Opening the gate in the pre-Schengen Lithuanian-Polish border to let the train through … food, coffee and (previously) beer in the restaurant car … steam trains at Poznan … overnight sleeper trains (a whiff of James Bond and Cold War spies)

    Sure beats the commuter train in Britian.

  23. island1 says:

    You reminded me that I wanted to add an amusing train vid to the post. Now done!

  24. wildphelps says:

    You have obviously never been on a train with recently discharged Army conscripts. Granted that might have been a few years ago, but those guys were highly intoxicated, loud, obnoxious, and scary. The conductors and police generally were to afraid to deal with them.

    I also have fond memories of the “Piwo, Jasne Piwo” men who would jump on trains during stops and sell warm cans of the cheapest beer for 10 snots.

    And let us not forget the conductors with their too small caps and grubby hands. If you lived in the sticks, very often the ticket windows in the stations would not be open for early morning trains or late evening trains. That meant you had to buy a ticket from the conductor. They had you over a barrel. Often when we asked how much a ticket the cost for a ticket was, we would hear, “The price for a round.”

  25. Stefan says:

    I’m afraid you’re talking about history. The army discharged conscripts twice a year, and it wasn’t a good idea to go on a train trip at that time. Fortunately it’s all over now. It’s even worse when a group of football hooligans are on their way to another city. This still may happen. Conductors are still guys of high sense of authority, which is really annoying (they won’t stand it when you discuss a stupid rule, there’s no room for negotiations ;) ). Anyway, travelling in a compartment is usually nice and comfortable. I share Newsaddict’s point.

  26. odrzut says:

    Last long weekend I’ve bought “Bilet podró¿nika” for 65 zl – friday evening I’ve gone from Lublin to Œwinoujœcie (probably more than 800km), then saturday from Œwinoujœcie to Szczecin, spend a few hours there, then to Kutno, and monday evening I’ve went back to Lublin.

    You can ride over 1600 km (I haven’t check it – probably much more) for 65 zl using Polish trains, if you know how.

    I can’t say it is comfortable ride, sometimes the conditions are extreme – for me it is a part of experience, but YMMV.

  27. Decoy says:

    I love to travel by train but most of my journeys in Poland have been on the local trains between Katowice and Kraków.

    I’ve been involved in some memorable situations involving train travel, but not all of them positive, including:
    – Running to catch a train and hopping on the train on platform 2 instead of 3, meaning I was going towards Lublin instead. I had to get out at the first stop and take the next train back, feeling obviously embarrassed
    – Having a pickpocket sneakily try to check the contents of my back-pack as I climbed the stairs to a platform in Katowice. Luckily I heard the zip being opened and I spun around to stop him in his tracks. I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say, and he non-chalantly walked off talking on his mobile phone as if nothing happened

    Having said that I still love taking the train, even with the compartments, and had a great journey between Katowice and Vienna once (changing in Prague, if I remember correctly). There were some beautiful scenes of southern Poland and beyond.

  28. Andy says:

    If you’d look at Google Earth or Zumi you’ll see that it’s not really like this. There are a lot of villages around but you just don’t see them from the train as it usually goes through forests (which are quite small and mainly around this line) or it goes in a cutting or however you’d call it :)

  29. Andy says:

    And to be honest I feel that the UK is much mosre deserted. When you pass the Midlands by M4 or go from Bournemouth to London by M3 you see only fields till horizon> I was always wondering where are all the people and cities?

  30. adthelad says:

    I sympathise but I’m also one of those who appreciates the train journey whatever happens – in a funny way the longer it is the more a surreal way of spending your time it becomes however comfortable or uncomfortable. Either way it leaves a mark, doesn’t it?

    Island1 – a gem of a pun I found once reads ‘If God had intended man to see the sunrise, He would have scheduled it for later in the day.’ :)

  31. Nika says:

    Well, I just love travelling by train too, guess that’s just so Polish ;P I got used to it :) and am always buying 2nd class tickets :)

  32. Mateusz says:

    A good book is the only thing that can make the 7-10 h trip from my Home city Lublin to Gdańsk appear shorter. Or two books ;)

  33. domingo says:

    How come no one mentioned this one?:)

  34. Malaysian says:

    Nice! I took the 11h-train back to Krakow from Gdansk 2 years back. It was a 6-seater compartment and it between the departure/arrival stations, people were getting on and off which made it pretty annoying especially when you got the seat nearest to the door.

    But after travelling by train in different countries, I haven’t find a seated compartment like Polish one.

  35. Cristobal says:

    It is not that bad when we compare PKO to any of British railway companies. British trains are late very often. British trains are dirty very often as well. But British trains are never cheap. And aren’t that fast. So which to choose… mhm…

  36. Cristobal says:

    Sorry, should be PKP not PKO :)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: