Infrastructure vanishing in fog
Wieslawa Lewandowska talks to Mr Jerzy Polaczek, MP, about the destruction of the Polish railways and why Czestochowa will have the biggest traffic jams in Poland soon.
Wieslawa Lewandowska: – The German press is alarming that till 2012 the German railways will have terrible problems. We feel better when we learn that problems with infrastructure are not only a Polish speciality. What is the condition of the Polish state railways in the background of the EU countries?
Jerzy Polaczek, MP: – Certainly our problems cannot be compared with the German ones.
– Why? They are so slight that after the huge confusion in the Polish railways in December 2010 the Minister of Infrastructure, ‘innocently’ accused by the opposition, got a bunch of flowers in the forum of the Polish Parliament…
– These flowers given after the unsuccessful attempt to recall Minister Grabarczyk are only a reflection of the irrationality of the whole situation, created, not only in the railways, by the present government.
– The Minister of Infrastructure did not deserve these flowers?
– Minister Grabarczyk is surely lucky because he is working in the period of the biggest EU means for the years 2007-2013. Thanks to that even the most ‘football’ government or minister can boast of spending more on the modernisation of our infrastructure than three, five or ten years ago. It is a pity it is not supported by real effects for Poland! On the other hand, if we, passengers on the trains, learn that currently the government of Prime Minister Tusk is moving several billion zloty from railway investments to road investments (to compensate the cuts made here!) one should shout fully metaphorically, ‘Pull up! Pull up!’ because we will crash in a moment!
– Can one see the horizon of this crash?
– Yes, very clearly! There are increasingly fast growing budget tensions. The settlement date of the EU funds is very near – the year 2013. And considering what Tusk’s government has generated in the sphere of the state debt we will soon lack our own contribution, which is required to use the EU refunding programmes of the incurred costs. Then the passengers of the Polish railways will feel that strongly. And when the others move forward quickly the next Polish government will have to announce the necessity to return billions of unused euros!
– Instead of wonderful promises…
– Unfortunately, yes… I want to remind you that Prime Minister Tusk announced the start of the construction of the so-called fast rail system during his term. After one year of being in office he spoke about the year 2015 as the start and now the matter has vanished in fog…
– Are you astonished that the railways during the times of the Third Polish Republic were treated badly from the beginning and did not have such a strong lobby as the automobile-fuel sector?
– Indeed, they were. The railways have always had to bear full economic costs, both in goods transport and passenger transport. Whereas facing rapidly growing traffic, lorries and cars, the carriers did not share the burden of higher costs of maintaining the state road system. They only paid for fuel. And in 2005 the government of the Democratic Left Alliance introduced the mechanisms of paying 70% refunds for the cost incurred by lorry drivers on ca. 200km paid motorways (the state spends almost one billion zloty a year for their maintenance). The present government prolonged this mechanism till 2011 although it used the project of the bill that the previous government and I had prepared. The bill was to finish this mechanism, unprofitable for the budget, as early as in 2008!
– For some time the Polish media tried unsuccessfully to promote the motto ‘Lorries on rails’. Is it not only a proposal of ‘stricken’ ecologists?
– On the contrary, it is a very sensible solution. During the previous term the government created a formal basis to support this intermodal transport. This mechanism can be effectively applied together with the principle ‘users pay:’ only then we can speak about competitiveness of goods transport on roads and rails.
– Could the Polish railway transport constitute a large part of the goods transport through Poland?
– Yes, it could. Despite the unfavourable conditions Poland is still transporting goods by rail (PKP Cargo is the second carrier in Europe). We can even say that we are a country of railway transport.
– Does it mean that our rail infrastructure is still good?
– In Poland the railway system could create better conditions for goods carriers than the road transport and would give passengers alternative and safe transport provided the speed and standards of trains are improved.
– Did you try to force this ‘pro-railway’ thinking when you were the Minister of Transport?
– Yes, I did, through arduous work, preparing a system solution that would increase the distribution of budget means for railway investments. I want to stress that only the previous government rapidly increased means for railway investments (at the end of the rules of the Democratic Left Alliance the amount was about several hundred million, today it is almost 3 billion) and furthermore, last year the government did not gain even one euro from the EU refunds!
– If the government had wanted and known how to use the EU money the Polish railways would have been ‘flourishing’?
– Certainly, they would. The statistics do not lie. The PKP companies had their best results in transport and economy in the years 2006-2007, at the same time trying to decrease and limit their inherited debts. Now I am sorry to say that we are ‘going down’, the evidence, for example, the recent gigantic confusion with the timetables. For the first time people bought tickets for non-existent trains… It was as if someone wanted to get rid of all passengers from the stations. I am afraid that now we can see a colossal increase in passengers’ mistrust in the offers of the railways after the biggest confusion in the history of the Polish railways.
– The biggest one within the last 20 years?
– No! There has never been such confusion in the entire history of the Polish railways! And additionally, what should be firmly stressed, the cause was not the lack of money! Having only good will one could settle the elementary things such as timetables easily and without any additional means. But this government cannot settle matters that have been routine tasks in Europe for 100 years…
– What was the cause of this confusion in the Polish railways?
– As a former minister of transport I feel obliged and I can point clearly to its sources that, I think, are in the nonchalant management and personnel policy. Recently almost all competent people have been fired from the directors’ boards of the railway companies… There was also a complete change of the body of directors in the Railway Transport Office.
– Within the framework of getting rid of the people of the Law and Justice Party?
– Most probably. Although I do not remember anyone of these directors belong to any political party.
– But you as a minister of the Law and Justice Party employed them?
– I chose real professionals, without asking about their political preferences. It was important that they would support our programme of revitalisation of the Polish railways with their knowledge and competences. Today they are fired as ‘collaborators of the Law and Justice Party’… and not being able to find jobs in state organs that find jobs in foreign competitions of the Polish railways…
– Perhaps better professionals have replaced them?
– I wish that… Currently, the head of one of the PKP companies, TK Telekom, responsible for managing the system of platform and station information and steering this information, is Mr Andrzej Panasiuk (former deputy of Minister Grabarczyk), who is a historian…
– And in your opinion it was the accumulation of incompetence that evoked this recent gigantic chaos in the railways?
– Yes, it was, but the ‘information chaos’ had its source in the first months of 2010 when the Transport Information System Office in TK Telekom was closed. The office was realising a project that would allow passengers to reserve and buy train tickets on the phone, to get information about the railway traffic and disturbances on-line. The liquidation of this Office is perhaps the most precise source of this chaos.
– If you had been the Minister of Infrastructure there would have been no collapse of the railways?
– I am sure of that. I remind you that it was our government that started the procedure of PKP Intercity entering the stock exchange so that the company could gain considerable financial means for its new investments in rolling stock. But our successors did not realise this scenario and today we are lured by the news about new investments, the co-called joint trains, which have no ensured finances… Our intention was to strengthen the investments in the Polish Railways Company: strengthen competences and ensure suitable financial means so that engineers, supervising the investments and the modernisation of the railway system, were paid well.
– Isn’t the government of Donald Tusk doing it?
– Unfortunately, it isn’t, although Tusk used fully the programme of deduction of liabilities of the Regional Transport Company, which we had prepared. The company had debts because it was not financed in the years 2001-2005. The present financial condition of PKP Group is getting worse. The task of the state to develop the regulatory functions of the Railway Transport Office, which should be able to have influence on the equal position and competitiveness of railway entities as similar institutions in the European countries have, is not being fulfilled and one should add that this task is very important to the Polish railways.
– What should this wise regulation of the railway market in Poland look like?
– For example, having in mind safety we should not allow transporting scrap metal because some carriers will surely want to introduce it to the Polish railways within the framework of the liberalisation of our railway market.
– You said Poland was a country of railways. What should we do to continue that?
– The Polish railways need wise regulations, i.e. the state concern about the railway infrastructure on the already liberalised passenger transport market. But we are dealing with negligence and disrespect. I have not heard about the slightest anxiety of the authorities that because of this chaos, which we had in the Polish railways, we are giving the passenger market to some competition for free…The experts have even claimed that it could have been a conscious action to make passengers angry with this carrier because of this chaos and to make passengers ready to accept other offers.
– For example, what offers?
– Such discouraged passengers are ready to accept any offer except the one of the ‘helpless’ Polish carriers… It seems that the new regulations in the railways lead to the scenario being created just to fulfil the order of some carriers outside of the PKP group so that they could enter the Polish market completely without any costs…
– The Polish railways are on the brink of disaster but the present government is supposedly successful in building motorways…
– The successes are highly dubious. I was criticised for not using one billion out of 12 billion zloty in 2007 and in the year 2010 only 19 billion out of 30 billion was used… In the campaign before the self-government elections the government of Tusk kept convincing us that he was not doing politics but building roads and bridges and one day after the elections he announced the cancellation of the road programme perhaps on purpose, not to be held accountable for its realisation, and in order to avoid summing up his ‘successes’ he proposed a new five-year programme.
– So this is the end of his wonderful visions?
– It seems so. Before the elections in 2007 the Civic Platform announced a national programme of huge constructions and boasted of dozens of additional ring roads and extra kilometres of express roads, thus surpassing the 2008-2012 programme of Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s government. Nowadays, Tusk’s government, boasting of having great successes, cancels this programme! It turns out that no Polish motorway and express road will be completed before the year 2015! And the road system will be so torn that the early opened road segments will generate more traffic and thus making narrow throats, which means multiplying inconveniences for drivers and inhabitants of many cities.
– When you look at the map of the planned and drawn investments what is most surprising to you?
– Actually everything, but the most surprising thing is the postponement of the A1 motorway from Pyrzowice to Strykow till the year 2013. Here the government’s defeat is the biggest.
– The contract to build this segment was signed with the firm the shareholder of which was the one who caused the biggest delay in the construction of the Okecie Airport (the firm was removed from the Okecie Airport in the autumn of 2007). Now it turned out that the project concerning the construction of 160 km motorway, prepared in 2009, was ‘crushed’… In this situation, in one year and a half (after opening the segment of A1 motorway from the Czech-Polish border to Pyrzowice) it will turn out that Czestochowa will have the biggest traffic jams in Poland…! It will be a tragedy for this city. At the beginning of 2010 (!) this government announced the realisation of A1 motorway to Strykow in the year 2012 – now the real completion date is 2017. One cannot make such a five-year mistake!
– Why has the firm known to be unreliable and not able to fulfil its obligations been chosen?
– This is a secret of my successors…
– In your letter to your colleague, Minister of Infrastructure Cezary Grabarczyk, you write bluntly, asking, ‘What on earth are you doing? How long can you play football? And you warn him against a catastrophe.
– I speak about a potential catastrophe that would create the necessity to pay back some EU funds when we settle accounts for the budget period 2007-2013. I want to turn his attention to the fact that pushing the investments in infrastructure, which was to be the condition to increase Poland’s competitiveness against that of her neighbours and to modernise the country, is being done in chaos and complete budget fog…
– So we must stop thinking about wonderful roads?
– For now, but one can see the ‘miracle’ Prime Minister Tusk announced in 2007 that we would have ‘second Ireland,’ with the highest public debt in the history of Poland.