- Personal Impressions by Robert Schwandl
On Friday, July 18th , Alex, a metro-friend from Berlin, and I got on the Berlin-Warszawa-Express (6-hours journey) to explore the Warsaw Metro and the other railways operating in the Polish capital. Before entering the underground section of the mainline east-west route, we already looked, whether we could spot a WKD-train, which runs parallel for the last few kilometres. We could actually spot it at Ochota station and also recognise the Srodmescie terminus in the background just before our train disappeared into the darkness. At the Central Station the first impression was that the station has a very strange illumination. But we would come back here later anyway. The intermediate distribution level of the Central Station is a labyrinth of corridors with lots of small shops, but we did manage to get to the right tram stop after having bought a 3-day ticket for only 12 Zloty, which is about 2.70 EUR.
After relaxing a bit at the new IBIS hotel we were eager to get on the metro. But first we wanted to get a better idea of the city layout, and there's no better way than taking the elevator up to the 30th floor of the Palace of Culture and Science, the huge Stalinist tower next to Centrum station.
First we took the metro to its southernmost station Kabaty. We were very positively surprised of the absolute cleanness of the stations, no graffiti anywhere, as if the line had opened only a week earlier. The stations are well lit and provide a good view across the entire platform area without the typical kiosks and other useless 'buildings' found on the Berlin U-Bahn. But one thing which was a bit annoying is the loud noise of the trains, and the new trains are much noisier than the old Soviet-built stock (which mostly operates as 4-car trains only). The operation speed seems to be quite high, trains stopping at stations only for a few seconds. Doors are opened by the driver and only some 4-5 seconds later you can hear 3 short signal tones and doors shut again. In Berlin, the slow "Einsteigen, bitte!" and "Zurückbleiben, bitte!" plus the signal tones always gives me the impression of a very slow trip (even worse on the S-Bahn!). In Warsaw, people are used to get off and on very quickly and a lot of time can be saved this way. Just after doors have closed the next station is announced very clearly "Nastepna stacja: Natolin". On new trains, the next station is also announced on a LED-panel. The station name is repeated once the train has stopped and doors have opened. This is a very good timing, because the announcements are made when there is no train noise interferring. And although Polish is almost impossible to pronounce for the foreigner, the announcements are clear (something which is not true for stations in Copenhagen).
We not only explored the stations but also their surroundings. We observed heavy building activity around all stations, mostly quite pleasant blocks of flats you might also find in German cities. Also many of the prefab-blocks of the Communist period have been restored and painted in different colours. Together with the people who rode the metro it looked like quite a middle-class area, which certainly increased its standard with the arrival of the metro.
The metro stations are easily accessible, and many have ramps from the street level to the ticket hall. The underpass can generally be used to get from one side of the street to the other. Inside this underpass there is a kiosk in most cases, which sells tickets and other stuff like newspapers, sweets or drinks. Many stations also have very clean toilets to be used for 1 Zloty.
Currently there are two types of tickets, a small Paris-style magnetic ticket and a Smartcard. We had a 3-day ticket which is a magnetic card and which slips through the validating machine and releases the turnstiles. We did observe, however, that at least 25% of all passengers use another way of getting into the metro, by simply jumping over the turnstiles and nobody seems to bother. Although there are guardians at all stations it doesn't seem to be their job to make people pay or control their tickets.
The stations all look different, although there are certain similarities and certain station types. Most are with a square station box typical for cut-and-cover excavation. Except for 'Centrum' all have a 10m wide central platform, with exits mostly at either end. An elevator is available for the handicapped and the elderly between the platform and the vestibule, and also to the street if no ramps were built. The floor of new trains exactly matches the level of the platform, old train floors are some 10cm higher.
Coloured panels or tiles were used on the walls behind the track. This area is, however, often too dark and the tiling cannot be appreciated properly. The colour patterns basically look nice, but do not help to distinguish the stations. Of the three stations with a vaulted roof, for example, Wierzbno can easily be distinguished as the yellow station, the other two, however, are both red, Raclawicka in a more Bordeaux-style red, and Pole Mokotowskie in a shiny red matching the train's blue and red scheme. Ursynow and Sluzew look very similar with some diagonally fixed tiles in some areas, but with basic brown/beige tones. Centrum and Wilanowska can easily be recognised because of their balconies above the platform area. Swietokrzyska boasts many strong colours in a very good combination. After Swietokrzyska, Ratusz looks very pale and colourless, although the lighting supports add a very distinctive feature to that station. All in all, my favourite stations are Swietokrzyska and Wilanowska, and the least appealing, almost ugly, was Politechnika, which has a grey flat concrete ceiling, grey panels on the walls and a grey stone floor. But I appreciate the variety of station design offered along the line, which I missed a lot in the new metro in Copenhagen.
On station platforms and in the entrance areas there is a line map and a station surroundings map which is very useful. Unfortunately the line map does not include the tram or bus lines, neither are transfers to trams announced on the train. On buses and trams, stops intersecting with the metro line are generally called 'Metro Sluzew', etc. In the metro stations, since the opening of the last two stations, directions are given as Kabaty and Mlociny although the metro won't actually reach its northern terminus for the next 5 years or more. But that's a symbol of the optimistic spirit ruling in Warsaw, which can be observed everywhere.
For the metro and transit items collector, Warsaw is still far behind Western European standards. Although city-wide transport maps are visible at some tram stops, these are not available anywhere. It also took us a while to find information offices. Whereas people in restaurants and shops were very friendly and helpful, most of them speaking fluent English, people behind an information desk window did not really bother to help, mostly pointing us at bookshops where normal city maps are sold which show bus and tram lines anyway. The only information leaflet we saw was a chart of new ticket prices. This situation is, compared to the more touristy Prague, quite insufficient.
After having explored the modern metro we also wanted to see other ways of getting around Warsaw. Still the busiest means of transport is probably the extensive tram network. On the Internet I could find a quite practical map before we left, which shows lines in different colours according to their corridor in the city centre, which is quite a good idea. These maps are also displayed inside the trams and at some stops, but unfortunately the front of the tram, which shows the line number, does not show this colour. There are several generations of trams in operation, the newest with a central low-floor section. Due to the very low platforms (sometimes also street boarding) they cannot be used by wheel chairs either. Contrary to some reports we had read about pickpockets on trams and buses on certain routes, we did not observe anything like that, but felt quite safe (just back in Berlin I observed a gang of Southeastern Europeans 'working' on a Kurfürstendamm bus!!!).
After the great metro and the convenient trams and buses the suburban trains were kind of a shock! The metro station 'Centrum' is near the Srodmescie PKP station, but there is no direct interchange, one has to walk some 300m on the surface. Getting into the Srodmescie station is like leaving a booming city to dive into a dark underworld and go back into the dark ages of Polish communism. The suburban station, which lies to the east of the Central Station, is a Spanish-type 3-platform station, where trains can open doors on both sides. The wider central platforms have exits directly to the surface at either end, whereas the side platforms are basically meant to access the station through the two entrance buildings and to transfer to the Central Station. At the western end of the platform stairs lead down to a very narrow and low tunnel which leads to the eastern end of the mainline station platforms. I have to admit, that I would not have walked through this tunnel on my own! Arriving at the Central Station platforms is a similar experience. All very dark, quiet and almost no-one in sight, as the far eastern end of the platforms is hardly used. Behind the first stairs the station hall gets higher, better illuminated and busier with passengers waiting for long-distance trains. Platforms are some 300m long and we took the western stairs up and arrived at one of the shopping corridors, where we also found a sign for 'Dworzec WKD'. From there a 50m long ramp took us to the platform used by this kind of light rail line, which is basically a suburban line without any importance for inner-city traffic. The single platform is quite long and covered by a roof which seems to be falling down the next five minutes. The station is separated from the PKP tunnel by concrete columns. The long distance between the PKP Suburban station and the WKD station is not so bad if one has in mind that transfer between both systems is also possible at Ochota station, where both platforms lie parallel to each other, although the quality of the structure there is just the same and reconstruction is urgently needed before serious accidents happen.
We took the WKD train out to Salomea, as I thought that our 3-day ticket would be valid on it within the city boundaries. This was not true, but the ticket inspector didn't bother, so he let us go without. We ended up at Salomea, in the middle of nowhere, and just waited for the next train to take us back. They run every 30 minutes. We met the same ticket inspector again and he pointed us to the driver's door, where one has to knock and wait for a tiny window to open, where a ticket can be bought.
On the way back we changed from the WKD train to the PKP suburban train at Ochota, and we actually wanted to go to Powisle, on the eastern end of the cross-city tunnel. The train was almost empty and reminded me of Spain some 20 years ago before the big Renfe reform. Just after we sat down we were surrounded by three young guys who wanted to see our ticket. They showed some ID hanging from their necks but immediately withdrew it again not giving us the minimum time to see what it said. They also made clear that the metro ticket was not valid and that we didn't have a ticket. Fortunately another older man in uniform joined them, so the situation looked more serious. At Srodmiescie station I wanted to get off not to cross the Wisla bridge with them, and on the platform I tried my best to mix my basic Czech and Russian into something Polish and eventually could convince them that we just wanted to go 1 station and then they let us go. But it was that kind of situation you think they are playing the trick on us stupid ignorant tourists and making us pay a fine anyway. Later we visited the Powisle station on foot and found that it also looked quite run down although not that scary, but lying too far from the central Nowy Swiat street it was almost empty. We didn't feel like going back on these trains, which we later saw even travel with the doors open!!
On Monday we still took the tram to the other side of the Wisla River, to Praga, which seems to have a bad reputation. We didn't observe any problems but stayed on the main streets. First we didn't find the Wilenski station, which is now hidden inside a new shopping centre. Although it is just a concrete design, it is a beginning for an upgrading of the whole suburban network.
All in all, we did get quite a positive idea of Warsaw as a city, booming and fit for the E.U. in 2004. The metro is certainly one of the highlights and hopefully expansion will continue. At Dworzec Gdanski construction works on the surface are being finished, whereas at Plac Wilsona excavation of the station seems to have just started. We'll be back there in about 5 years to see how the city has changed.
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