Designing and constructing a new tramway from scratch hasn’t been easy, but the city of Olsztyn officially opened Poland’s fifteenth system in December 2015. Words and photo by Martyn Janduła.The last city in Poland to open a completely new tramway was Czestochowa, in 1959. Olsztyn is not only the first city for over 50 years to construct a completely new tram system, but it also marks a return as the city’s original tram network closed in 1965, exactly 50 years before the new line’s opening.
The first tramway
The city’s history is inextricably linked with trams, thanks largely to construction of a hydroelectric powerplant at the confluence of the Lyna and Wadg rivers. Work began on this in 1906 and completion in 1907 allowed the full electrification of Olsztyn – then Allenstein, and part of Germany.
Tracklaying started during the summer of 1907 ahead of a grand opening on 15 December that year. Trams ran on the then standard metre-gauge, today replaced by a 1435mm network. The first cars had two motors, each with 30 horsepower. Six motor cars and two trailers were ordered, each seating 16 people with space for 14 standing on the outside platform. A single journey cost 10 Pfennig, without the right for a transfer, with fares thrown into glass boxes at the tram entrance. Olsztyn then commissioned a more economical version of the cars, which meant that the cab wasn’t protected with glass. For a year drivers had to struggle with adverse weather, especially during winter, with snow and frost common in this part of Europe.
Two lines rise and fall
When the original tramway opened, Olsztyn’s population was less than 33 000. Wilhelm Peterson developed the routes, mostly single-track with three passing loops. The first connected the railway station (located some distance from the city centre), through the old town and the cattle market, known now as Roosevelt Square. The completed route of the second line linked the town hall (located in the old town) with Jakubowo, the big park on the northern edge of the city that includes a forest of over 1000ha – a favourite walking and leisure location for the city’s residents.
The presence of the small tramway was seen as a sign of the city’s importance – line one was 2.32km(1.44 miles) long and line two just 2.36km (1.46 miles) – and the city began to grow rapidly as ten years after the launch of the first tram the population had risen to around 40 000. The first extension was built in 1930, when line 1 changed its western terminus – instead of going to the cattle market, it went straight on beyond the old town in the direction of Długie Lake, where a city beach was located. This lengthened the route by several hundred metres.
New settlements were created, but further expansion of the tramway was deemed too expensive so in 1938 the first two trolleybus lines began operation. The development of both modes was halted by World War Two. At the end of the war, the city was invaded by the Soviet Army under the guise of ‘liberating the Polish lands’. In January 1945 the old town was almost completely destroyed and Olsztyn, ruined and looted, with a destroyed tramway and trolleybus system, came under Polish control (the so-called Recovered Territories).
Trolleybuses and buses
After the war the new authorities made the restoration of tram services a priority. Line 1
was relaunched on 30 April 1946, joined by line 2 on 28 June. Unfortunately for the tramway, as in many other cities, the attention of the communist government turned increasingly towards the development of trolleybuses and then buses for cost reasons. There was no money for the repair of tram systems, cars or track. Although other cities received funding, Olsztyn was at the bottom of the ‘food chain’, explained Rafał Betkowski, a local historian.
The authorities took the decision to close the tramway network completely and 20 November 1965 is considered a symbolic date as it was the final day of operation of line 1, the last to be replaced by bus connections.In 1959 it was reported that the transport system of Olsztyn totalled 43km (26.7 miles) – 27km (16.8 miles) of trolleybus lines, 10km (6.2 miles) of bus lanes and only 6km (3.7 miles) of tramways.
Trolleybus operations didn’t last much longer with buses, by manufacturers such as San, Jelcz and Berliet, replacing them. The trolleybus network closed on 31 July 1971.
The first seeds of the return
Plans for a return of trams were first mooted at the beginning of the 21st century. The transport development plan for 2004-13, adopted by the city council, stated that after 2007 it should be considered whether a new mode – in the form of trams or trolleybuses – should be introduced. In August 2006, officials set out a transport modernisation scheme in order to obtain EU funding under a special financing programme for the redevelopment of Eastern Poland. “As soon as information appeared about a special programme dedicated to the five eastern Polish provinces, and that it was to include funds specifically for the modernisation of public transport, we started our analysis. We also asked the citizens what mode should be introduced”, says Piotr Grzymowicz, the city’s current Mayor. In December 2006 the project was approved.
“The city appointed a company to conduct a study: Six proposals were presented – what would happen if nothing was done, additional buses and expanding the existing system, developing bus and trolleybus systems, trams and trolleybuses or, finally trams and buses, as has actually happened”, the Mayor adds. “We took into consideration all the parameters and indicators, closely examining efficiency and rational analysis, which allowed us to choose the option of developing trams whilst maintaining the existing bus system. It was calculated at the time that the bus variant would cost PLN243m (approx. EUR54m), bus and trolleybus PLN319m (approx. EUR71m), and bus and tram PLN360m (approx. EUR80m).”
Signing the first contracts
“The city officially decided on choosing a specific variant in 2009, after the next local elections. Then I came back to the town hall as Mayor. Over the previous two years, matters hadn’t moved forward so, in May 2009, as a new Mayor I called the city council. We decided to proceed with the variant preselected as the most effective”, continued Piotr Grzymowicz. “That gave the green light for the tram project.”
To save time, and to comply with EU financing regulations, the city opted for a single contract for design and construction. In summer 2010 a tender was launched for the tramway network with a depot at Obiegowa, a subway at Piłsudskiego and an optional extension to Pieczewo and the university campus at Kortowo II. Eight companies tendered bids, with five approved for the second phase.
A year later, in June 2011, a contract was signed with FCC Construcción which offered completion for PLN250m (approx. EUR56m). According to the planned scheme, the network should comprise approximately 11km (seven miles) over the three lines.
It took another year to prepare the design documentation with construction finally beginning in September 2012 on Płoskiego Street on the southern section of the future tramway. Unfortunately, the relationship between contractor and authority worsened as each month passed.
The residents of Olsztyn saw slow progress, with workers digging up large parts of the city. The media began to report that there were no workers at the construction sites. It was also reported that the contractor moved workers from one site to another to show some movement on the investment.
“I had to cancel the contract, because it would be a complete disaster and this investment wouldn’t be finished on time”, commented Piotr Grzymowicz. The Mayor was publicly very critical of the contractor and in August 2013 the relationship was officially terminated.
This decision wasn’t easy, as the whole project – as for all EU investments from the Financing Perspective during 2007-13 – had to be finished by the end of 2015 or risk losing external funding, which could be fatal for the budget. It was thus decided to divide the project into six smaller sections with design separated from the construction phase.
“We decided then that we would prepare tenders on the basis of design projects prepared by an external company. This required a lot of effort and additional tendering processes”, states Grzymowicz. “However, this did allow us to implement many positive changes, especially in the city centre, where the city decided to reduce car traffic in favour of pedestrians, cyclists and public transport.
The original company proposed the narrowing of some city pavements to make room for the trams; this concept did not survive, neither did an idea to construct a pedestrian underpass. Additionally, the city also took the opportunity to lay two tracks to Piłsudskiego instead of one, as previously planned.
Having been split into six sections, the project was awarded to five contractors – Skanska, Strabag, Torpol, Balzola and Budimex – all of which were selected by tender in 2014. The pace of works required for the successful completion of these projects was optimistic but, in December 2014, Olsztyn saw the first tram rails laid on the streets of Płoskiego.
Skanska was awarded section A and was responsible for the long southern section including Witosa, Płoskiego and Sikorskiego, as well as the single-track stretch through Tuwima to the University campus. The company also won the section E contract for a temporary bus depot at Sikorskiego (buses had to partially vacate the depot at Kołobrzeska for trams).
As part of section B Austrian company Strabag was to build Obiegowa, a new street with track and a viaduct at ołnierska. Section C was awarded to Polish firm Torpol, which was responsible for the section along ołnierska, Kociuszki, Konstytucji 3 Maja Square and a non-service connection at Dworcowa and Towarowa to the depot.
The most difficult section was section D – right in the heart of the city centre – which was awarded to Spanish outfit Balzola. As part of this contract the tracks were to be laid on Piłsudskiego Avenue, Jana Pawła II Square, 11 Listopada Street and Jednoci Słowiaskiej Square. The last depot at Kołobrzeska, marked by contract F, was the only design-and-build contract and was awarded to Polish company Budimex. A shed was required for 18 trams, each of approximately 30m in length.
Due to the tight new schedule all works were carried out almost simultaneously, meaning that important streets and intersections had to be closed. This resulted in all sorts of challenges for motorists, pedestrians and cyclists, and questions about the plan for the tramway’s return began to be asked once more by the residents of Olsztyn.
A unique Solaris Tramino
The tailor-made Tramino Olsztyn (part of a 15-vehicle order) is bi-directional with an unusual 2.5m width running on the standard 1435mm gauge. It is the widest tram in Poland.
The Tramino Olsztyn, in a smart steel grey and lime green livery, measures 29.3m in length, is equipped with six pairs of double doors on each side and can carry more than 200 passengers, equivalent to the capacity of nearly three standard buses, or 40 cars. There are 43 seats in a 2+2 layout, achieved thanks to the additional 100mm of width.
“The air-conditioned vehicles are 100% low-floor and each of the three sections is mounted on a fully rotary bogie. The first and last are driving bogies and the middle one is a trailer. The maximum speed is 70km/h [44mph] and it has an automatic floor height stabilisation system, regardless of the number of passengers”, adds Solaris’ Mateusz Figaszewski.
The first delivery left the Solaris factory in June 2015 and required the use of special 40m long low-loader trucks as the trams were transported as single units. Instead of the more direct 350km (approx. 220 miles) route from Poznan, the convoy had to cover 650km (over 400 miles) as not all roads could accommodate such an extended vehicle. As the convoy could not travel during the daytime, it took two nights to reach Olsztyn, arriving on the morning of 12 June 2015. As the first tram stayed in Poznan for testing and homologation, the first to arrive was No. 2.
Finishing in style
The contactors completed the infrastructure works on time, building a complete tramway within a year – a seemingly impossible task. By the end of October 2015 commissioning was underway and the first test tram left the depot on the night of 19 November.
The official opening took place on 19 December 2015 in front of the town hall, where the launch of the first Allenstein trams was celebrated 108 years ago. The ceremony was modest, but significant. “We have waited a long time for our project to reach its finale and it was the hard work of many people”, emphasised Mayor Grzymowicz at the opening. He also recalled the challenges that accompanied the investment. “It was a difficult project. It’s not just the tram, but also the modernisation of many roads, the construction of bus lanes, upgrading many kilometres of underground utilities, building beautiful cycling paths and changing the public space. It includes a modern, intelligent traffic control system.”
The new tramway had long been part of everyday conversation in Olsztyn and on the opening day a real excitement could be observed. The trams were packed and as a ‘thank you’ for the residents’ patience, travel was free of charge until the end of the year.
The new tramway is almost 11km (seven miles) long, with a trunk route, two short branches and a route to the depot. As the system was built from scratch it could be freely laid out, allowing separate tram lanes, creation of the joint bus and tram lanes and the use of so-called Viennese stops (boarding from a raised traffic lane). The trunk line section is double-tracked – as well as the depot track and the route to Piłsudskiego, with the exception of the last stop near the old town. Only the branch towards the University is single track with passing loops. This decision is surprising given the plans to extend this line to the University campus.
The network uses bi-directional trams, so there are no loops at the terminal stops. What’s more, there are a few stops with an island platform – a unique feature amongst Polish tramway networks.
Initial lessons learned
The tramway is destined to be the backbone of the city and its launch offered an opportunity to remodel the bus network, too. Some of the routes were closed, some were modified, and new feeder lines appeared. Additionally, time-valid tickets were introduced to complement single journeys.
Line 1, linking Wysoka Brama (in the Old Town) to Kanta with a terminus at Jaroty, began services on 19 December 2015. Other services were introduced gradually, as not all of the new drivers had amassed the required 35 hours before the launch day. Line 2, between the railway station and Kanta, was inaugurated on 27 December and the last line, linking the railway station with the University campus, joined the system on New Year’s Eve. The last line will be appreciated by students from all around the region, as Olsztyn offers the best higher education facilities in the area.
Expectations for the new tramway were high but optimistic journey times, which were officially envisioned, proved unrealistic. This resulted in significant delays during the first days of operation. Part of this can be attributed to the ongoing calibration of the new Intelligent Traffic System (ITS), but also the automatic point operation system failed and line 1 was cut short for a few days; not calling at Wysoka Brama, the last stop.
It was therefore decided to increase the journey time of each route from the start of the New Year. “We had to realistically approach the subject. This opening period was to give us an answer as to how it would really look under everyday conditions”, commented Paweł Pliszka, a spokesman for Olsztyn’s public transport operator ZDZiT.
Line 1 sees the most frequent operation; in peak hours the trams run every 7-8 minutes and after the timetable adjustments the journey time is now 20 minutes. Line 2 takes 22 minutes to reach the station, and line 3 takes 16 minutes. The extended journey times created a problem of insufficient rolling stock. As a result, line 3 operates only every 30 minutes on working days and an order for a further three trams is being discussed.
January brought fresh issues. When the temperatures dropped well below freezing the rails broke in four places; in every case it happened on welds. “If the welding is done at too high a temperature, it can damage the structure of the material within the weld”, explains Piotr Grzymowicz. As such the infrastructure is to be thoroughly inspected.
Olsztyn wants to focus on the further development of its tram network. Officials have already presented some ideas of what they want to do. “We would like to make a circular route via Witosa, Krasickiego, Leonharda, Pilsudskiego, and Dworcowa to connect with the existing line”, states the Mayor. Such a system would serve Michelin – the region’s biggest employer.
The creation of the tramway ring is the main plan for Olsztyn. The city also has complementary options such as extending tracks along the university campus or a few connecting lines in the middle of the future ring. “These are the alternative elements that can be implemented at a later stage, when the costs will allow it”, says Andrzej Karwowski, Director of Tram Investment.
Olsztyn has already contracted a company that will create the whole concept and will gather necessary documentation. “This is a very important, crucial stage”, says Piotr Grzymowicz. “This will be one of the most important documents when Olsztyn prepares an application for external funding.”
Mayor Grzymowicz emphasises that, without the tram, so many changes could not have been introduced in Olsztyn. The main task for the new means of transport is to improve and increase the importance of transport in Olsztyn. “With the trams we can modernise the entire public transport system for the city, its residents and all who want to use it”, says Grzymowicz. “Let us hope that, despite the initial teething problems, residents are willing to use the new means of public transport.