Swiss funds to put Polish trains back on track

A worker welding a window frame of a WKD train

The ageing public transport system in Poland’s capital, Warsaw, is struggling to cope with increasing commuter traffic.

This content was published on July 25, 2010

The old rolling stock of the Warsawska Kolej Dojazdowa (WKD), a suburban railway that connects the city centre with the southwest, is to be modernised with funds from Switzerland's enlargement contribution.

In the centre of Warsaw, right next to the city's famous landmark, the Palace of Culture, there are modern shopping malls, a multilevel city park, lots of green, lots of music and crowds and advertising for brands from Armani to Zara.

In striking contrast, a simple sign with the red-white-and-blue WKD logo points downwards into a dark and grey, crumbling concrete tunnel that exudes the socialist dreariness of the 70s.

The gap between the consumerist 21st century and the transport methods of the 19th century is typical of Poland today. It shows how much the country still has to catch up in areas like public transport.

This wasn't always the case. The train line between Warsaw and Vienna was opened as early as 1846, when Switzerland was still fighting its last civil wars.

The WKD also made history. The private railway was opened in 1927 as the first electric train in Poland, for suburban transport from the city centre to Grodzisk Mazoniecki. After the devastation of the World War, it was nationalised by the communists.

In 1972 more than 30 new units of socialist design were bought to replace the ancient carriages that had been acquired in England in the 1920s. And those 1972 models are still in operation now.

Clean but inefficient

The units have been continuously renovated and maintained and now take up to seven million passengers annually from the outskirts to the city centre and back.

Everything in the trains give a clean and well-cared-for impression. There is little graffiti or evidence of vandalism. But many things are lacking.

“The digital age has not arrived here yet, whether in train, track or signal technology”, says Krzysztof Kulesza, a WKD strategic planner.

“We also don't have the kinds of passenger information system common in the West, like electronic screens, GPS and web-based monitoring systems.”

Things look set to improve with money from Switzerland as the WDK submitted a proposal to the authorities.

As part of the infrastructural projects of the Swiss enlargement contribution, approved by voters in 2006, Switzerland has been allocating SFr1 billion ($ billion) to finance projects in favour of the ten countries that joined the EU in 2004.

Almost half of this amount will go to Poland – the largest and most populated of these countries.

Web-based support

The Polish authorities felt the initial submission had gone well.

“The Swiss Contribution Office in Warsaw followed up and suggested some refinements”, says Heinz Kaufmann, who is responsible for all the Swiss enlargement contribution projects in Poland.

“This included the integration of the WKD into the country's public transport upgrade, web-based support, accessibility for the disabled and synergies relating to a possible extension of the tracks towards the airport.”

According to Kaufmann, this suburban rail project is one of the more straightforward ones in the office’s large project portfolio because there is little need for further clarification as anyone who takes a ride on the railway can see clearly what is lacking.

Kaufmann adds that train operations are often viewed separately from ownership and maintenance of the tracks, track beds and railway stations in current privatisation drive of other Polish rail companies. This tends to result in ‘English situations’, railway jargon for complications.

Independent management

“But the WKD is lucky to be able to manage its train operations and maintain its tracks, stops and stations independently”, says Kaufmann.

Ten years ago all Warsaw commuter trains, including the WKD, had split off from the national Polish State Railways. In 2007 a consortium, led by the regional government of Masovia which also belongs to Warsaw, bought the WKD.

This ownership solution reminds Kaufmann in many ways of the ownership situations of numerous Swiss private railways.

The final decision on the WKD project has not yet been taken. Should the project go through, however, Poland would contribute SFr14.7 million ($14 million) with Switzerland paying 20 million.

The money would be used to buy six new trains, to introduce modern monitoring systems and to provide the necessary training the 230 employees.

As employees of an 80-year-old railway company, they do not need to be taught about punctuality and security but about electronics and digital applications that boost the level of passenger comfort and reduce travelling times.

Alexander Künzle in Warsaw, (adapted from German by Urs Geiser )

Enlargement contribution

As part of a second set of bilateral treaties with Brussels, non-EU member Switzerland pledged SFr1 billion ($950 million) to the ten new EU member states mainly in eastern Europe.

Swiss voters endorsed the government plan in a nationwide vote in 2006.

Almost half the funding is going to Poland for infrastructure and security projects.

Bulgaria and Romania which joined the EU in 2007 also benefit from Swiss funds.

The Swiss contribution is part of efforts to reduce social and economic disparities in the enlarged EU and to ensure security, stability and prosperity throughout the continent.

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Cohesion fund

The EU cohesion fund is aimed at member states whose Gross National Income (GNI) per inhabitant is less than 90% of the union’s average.

Switzerland’s contribution is implemented autonomously and is not part of the EU’s cohesion policy.

The cohesion fund finances activities under the following categories: trans-European transport networks and environment, including energy efficiency, renewable energy.

The financial assistance of the cohesion fund can be suspended by a council decision if a member state shows excessive public deficit.

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