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Mixed fortunes in Upper Silesia

Katowice Rynek before reconstruction with a Düwag Pt car passing a 105N car. In the background is the characteristic silhouette of the Spodek (‘flying saucer’). (Image: Witold Urbanowicz)

Upper Silesia has around 20 closely-situated cities, housing over two million inhabitants. However, sources vary in determining exact urban areas, with the number of inhabitants potentially reaching 3.5 million, making it one of Europe’s biggest metropolitan regions.

For decades this was an important industrial region, known for mining and steelworks – even today the large 1970s Katowice Steelworks in Dabrowa Górnicza still produces rail and tramway tracks. After the collapse of communism this role dwindled with many undertakings closing, leaving a large employment void. As such the region now faces a variety of social and economic challenges, with consequent rapid depopulation; the population of Bytom, for example, has shrunk by 23.5% (53 000) in the last 20 years, the largest fall in percentage terms in the whole of Poland, and the second in terms of real numbers (only being eclipsed by Łódz).

Other problems have been caused by mining damage, changing the landscape of cities and necessitating the compulsory displacement of citizens.

Trams lose out

This unique region is served by a fascinating interurban tramway network, consisting of 340km (211 miles) of single track, and around 200km (124 miles) of interconnecting lines that link together 13 cities.

Operator Tramwaje Slaskie was a state organisation for a long time after the collapse of communism – the only such case in Poland where, as a rule, local transport is managed by local government. However, with little interest from central authorities investment was hard to come by, and the tramway system began losing out to other forms of transport. This, along with the region’s social and economic problems combined with the mismatch of current transport needs led to the decline of the mode and the first wave of closures during the still-Communist era of the 1970s and 1980s.

In the 21st Century cost-cutting measures, pro-bus politics and lower passenger demand caused further closures. In 2006 a line between Bytom and Dabrówka Wislana in Piekary Slaskie (line 8) closed, followed by the line between Bedzin and Wojkowice (line 25).

Finally, in 2007, Tramwaje Slaskie responsibilities were passed to the local authorities, with the cities through which the trams ran becoming shareholders – sadly this didn’t prevent continuing closures. In 2008 a line between the centre of Bytom, Łagiewniki district and Ruda Slaska was suspended and the tracks were dismantled. In 2009 a line linking the centre of Chorzów and the northern part of Katowice and Siemianowice Slaskie was closed.

The most controversial of these closures was decided on in 2009 by the authorities in Gliwice, a large town served by the westernmost part of the network. Despite the outcry of its citizens and even a referendum, the authorities opted to shut a popular route that passed through the whole city: the claimed reason was the expenditure required to modernise the route’s infrastructure. Only a short section with a depot in the eastern part of the town now remains in service.

In the wake of large EU-financed tramway projects in other Polish cities this decision seems short-sighted.

A helping hand from the EU

In 2011 Tramwaje Slaskie, along with Tychy city and trolleybus operator Tyskie Linie Trolejbusowe, launched a modernisation project that was the recipient of EU funding. While in terms of network length and investment compared to other cities the project might appear unimpressive, it proves that tramways don’t have to be an outdated option.

Initially, 46km (29 miles) of single track was modernised, along with 75 105N series vehicles; a further 30 new trams were then purchased (in 2012, delivered in 2013-14). Some 15km (nine miles) of trolleybus routes were also subject to modernisation, and 15 new trolleybuses purchased. Two park-and-ride facilities were constructed in Tychy.

The tramway modernisation projects were grouped into three main routes: Katowice Brynów – Chorzów – Bytom; Sosnowiec Zagórze – Katowice – Chorzów – Swietochłowice – Bytom; and Bytom – Ruda Slaska – Zabrze. This included construction of a second track from Katowice to Sosnowiec (line 15) and reinstatement of the Bytom – Łagiewniki district – Ruda Slaska route (line 7) with double track.

The rolling stock contract was awarded to Pesa, with the first fully low-floor Twist tram (2012N) brought into service in May 2014. The new trolleybuses were delivered by Solaris, enabling a complete fleet renewal at Tychy; the average age of vehicles in the city is now four years old.

Making savings in the project’s cost also enabled its expansion. Cost estimates received when projects were initially put out to tender were eventually followed by lower offers, so a second phase could therefore be implemented. This extended project includes further modernisation of 14.5km (nine miles) of single track, construction of a tramwash and the purchase of 12 new partially low-floor trams. Modertrans Poznan, a subsidary of MPK Poznan, will deliver the vehicles by the end of the year.

Plans for the 2014-20 EU Financial Perspective are certainly ambitious, totalling PLN880m  (EUR215m). The project covers 80km (50 miles) of track modernisation, mainly in the Zagłebie part (Dabrowskie basin) of the Upper Silesia region; construction of up to 29km (18 miles) of new lines and the purchase of at least 30 new partially low-floor trams.

Modernisation will focus on routes in Bytom (around 25km/15.5 miles), Sosnowiec (15.5km/ten miles), Zabrze (12.5km/eight miles) and Dabrowa Górnicza (around 10km/six miles). There are four new routes planned: extension of line 15 from Zagórze towards the Klimontów district in Sosnowiec, a route west of the Politechnika Slaska loop to Miechowice in Bytom (although this is now under review), connection tracks on Grundmanna street in Katowice, and extension of the route from the Brynów loop to the Piotrowice district in Katowice.

Ruda Slaska says ‘no’

It seemed everything was working out well at last for Tramwaje Slaskie – but then on 14 February 2015, tramline 18 between Bytom Stroszek and Ruda Slaska Chebzie was closed. The Ruda Slaska authorities had wanted to shut it years earlier. In 2007 some residents were already campaigning for closure of this impractical, cumbersome and ‘dangerous’ line, according to Andrzej Nowak, plenipotentiary of the president of the city of Ruda Slaska for transport. Several factors are said to have contributed to this: obsolete rolling stock, the poor state of repair of track, and a lack of a clear vision for the future.

The city argues that it undertook efforts to rescue the line, but for a long time the needs voiced by Ruda Slaska on transport solutions, mainly for improvements in regards to the functioning of its tramway, were not taken into account by either the transport organiser, KZK GOP, or representatives of the Tramwaje Slaskie company.

Numerous interventions and declarations in 2008-11 by Ruda Slaska to contribute to the investment programme for modernisation and development of its tramway were not considered by Tramwaje Slaskie as a solution. Although further action was taken by the city, time was not its friend says Nowak – as even in 2008 the organiser, KZK GOP, proposed to replace tramline 18 with buses.

However, despite such adversities line 18 struggled on – until now. According to the authorities that undertook an examination of the bridge at the Piastowska and Sobieskiego intersection, its failing condition posed a threat to the safety of the tramway and its passengers. The poor state of tracks at Wolnosci and Piastowska streets was also cited, while vibrations from trams were said to be contributing to the decay of surrounding buildings. The high-floor fleet was another reason given for the route’s poor performance, by creating difficulties for the elderly and mobility impaired, even so far as preventing use of the trams for some.

Traffic safety is a further consideration. On Piastowska and Wolnosci a single track with passing loops is located on one side of the road on the route towards Bytom. This meant trams heading in the direction of Chebzie ran against the flow of traffic, its positioning and stop locations forcing passengers to alight directly into the path of approaching vehicles. Over the last ten years the police in Ruda Slaska have reported 109 accidents and 526 collisions on Wolnosci and Piastowska streets, resulting in six deaths and 146 injuries.

Differing views on trams

Although the line was ‘suspended’, it seems clear that it will not return due to differences between Tramwaje Slaskie and the city of Ruda Slaska over the vision for the tramway.

“We don’t agree with it and we don’t understand it. It is possible to carry out a facelift and modernisation works, which would allow the line to operate until modernisation of the bridge,” said Andrzej Zowada, spokesperson for Tramwaje Slaskie, on the decision to close line 18. The company is, however, aware of the shortcomings of line 18: “The line in its present form, with the old rails in the street and with a single track operation, might not be appreciated by many people,” Andrzej Zowada admits. However, he points out, that doesn’t have to be a permanent state.

“Reconstruction and modernisation could be carried out, laying a second track in places where possible. We also have an alternative version with points towards Zabrze at the intersection of Wolnosci and Zabrzanska street, this would allow us to improve transport connections of this part of Ruda with Zabrze. There is potential, with a railway station on the route, for turning points to be constructed. Currently passengers only have a bus line that doesn’t run very frequently”.

These proposals were rejected by Ruda Slaska, however. New turning points by the railway station and on the intersection of Wolnosci and Zabrzanska would duplicate existing routes, argues Andrzej Nowak of Ruda Slaska. He points out that passengers can use direct railway routes – the train to Zabrze takes five minutes, while the tram takes around 25 minutes. He also states that the existing tramway connections with Zabrze (line 1) in the south of Ruda are not popular – ridership only rises in Zabrze. In Nowak’s opinion, passengers prefer the more punctual 840 and 870 bus lines.

Yet Ruda Slaska says it is not against tramways, despite its decision to close line 18. “A city such as Ruda Slaska should have tram transport in the form of so-called urban trains: dynamic, with double track served by a state-of-the-art fleet, transporting people much faster than by road,” says Nowak.

However, the city feels ignored and bitterness is escalating within local government, prompted by investments elsewhere. Nowak says: “For a long time Ruda Slaska clearly indicated the need for modernisation of route 9, the most heavily-used tramline in Ruda Slaska. So far our voices have not been heard. If modern Pesa Twist trams can operate on the Zawodzie Zajezdnia – Katowice Plac Wolnosci route, you have to ask: why not us? Are we worse than them?”

It must be hoped that with investment behind them, other city authorities will be more patient and more determined to maintain tramway service. However, with such a vast network and a long list of needs, it is clear that some places could wait a long time. As such, not everything might be saved – the obvious targets being the more remote single-track routes.

Feature originally appeared in December Tramways & Urban Transit (936).