Tag Archives: bus

Polish minibus disaster surprises nobody

Eighteen people killed in a minibus—several million wondering if they will be next. Anyone who has been on one of these rattling deathtraps has been expecting this. There are tens of thousands of them on Poland’s roads, most of them operated by tiny companies and almost all of them alarmingly substandard.

The thousands of minibus operators fill a yawning gap in the nation’s public transport network. For millions of people living in rural areas they are often the only way of getting anywhere. The formerly state-run national bus company, Przedsiębiorstwo Komunikacji Samochodowej (PKS), was in a woeful state when it was broken up and partly privatised in 1992. More recently its monopoly was broken when new laws allowed competition. The minibus companies that sprang up like autumn mushrooms to fill the market are a fine example of the benefits and pitfalls of the free market.

I’m sure there is a stack of perfectly adequate regulation governing this industry, but I’m equally sure that they are completely unenforceable—there are just too many operators. Companies appear and disappear overnight, but the buses and drivers remain the same. Go to any of the multitude of muddy abandoned lots in Polish towns and cities that serve as ersatz bus stations for these crowds of minibuses and you’ll see layer upon layer of ambitious timetables issued by Franek’s Bus Company, Janek’s Bus Company and Auntie Halina’s Bus Company pasted on top of each other.

I have no idea if yesterday’s tragedy was anybody’s fault, but it is clear that the bus was ridiculously overcrowded—and this is certainly the most common problem. If a private operator can cram 47 paying passengers onto a minibus with 20 seats, he will. If you’ve been standing by the side of the road in the freezing rain for half-an-hour, you’ll put the risk at the back of your mind and try and be the 48th. I avoid minibuses during peak travel hours as assiduously as I avoid volunteering as a Chilean miner, but sometimes they are the only option if you don’t have a car—an alternative that I do not regard as significantly safer on Poland’s roads. It’s hair-raising stuff. It is, for example, common practice for the driver to collect money and hand out tickets as he is pulling away from the stop. Four of five people stand clinging onto seats, a couple of feet from the windscreen, as the driver steers with one hand and fiddles with change and the ticket machine with the other. I’ve even seen a driver changing the paper roll in the ticket machine as he is pelting down the highway at 60. Certain catastrophe balancing on a coin edge.

What astonishes me is that these potential tragedies are obvious long before they happen. Two local examples: in Krakow last year there was a series of accidents in the crowded Old Town involving horse-drawn carriages. It was sheer luck that nobody was killed or severely injured. Nobody who has spent time in the Rynek in mid-Summer was even mildly surprised.

Double melex: what could possibly go wrong?

In the past couple of years the number of those electric buggies, sometimes called golf carts (or melex), whisking tourists around the sights have exploded. These things are usually driven by students and often stuffed with ‘excitable’ tourists on pub crawls urging extra speed and louder music.  Melex are not exactly fast, but, fully loaded, and careening down a narrow street they are quite capable of mashing a passerby to a pulp against a wall. It’s just a matter of time, but not until it happens will anything be done.

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Timetable surrealism in southern Poland

At the mercy of the PKS Myślenice bus company over the Easter break I spent more time than I might otherwise have chosen at Myślenice bus station. Once I had exhausted the entertainment possibilities of counting dead flies in an empty kiosk I turned in desperation to a close reading of the bus timetable. I wish I’d looked sooner. Stapled to the outside of a locked and shuttered ticket office it was a document of rare surrealistic quality.

The Polish alphabet has 32 characters. Every single one of these had been used to add footnotes to the schedules. The compiler, not satisfied with this surely more-than-adequate level of annotation, had in fact gone on to use several of these letters in both upper and lower case as well as numerals, hashes, dots, exclamation marks, asterisks and a range of other obscure symbols that lurk at the periphery of keyboards. The list of footnotes was longer than the schedule itself and included nuggets of information along the lines of:

This bus stops at Gryfice except on Tuesdays in February or if Bartek is driving because he doesn’t like turning left.

or:

This bus doesn’t run on holidays or on June 17th (for no apparent reason).

timetable2

A truly mind-boggling set of footnotes from A to y³ and beyond.

I was about to allow myself a satisfying outburst of exasperation when I spotted the following astonishing entry concerning buses to Hrubieszów:

timetable1

Twenty-two points, plus triple-word-score, plus fifty points for using all my letters. Game’s over. I’m outta here. Scrabble addict on the lose in southern Poland.

I don’t know if this strange insertion was joke on the part of the compiler himself or a remark from the poor devil who had to type it up. Either way, I’ll never look at a bus timetable again without a smile.

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