Interview with Polish Railworkers leader

Wojciech Figiel and Bojan Stanisławski of Polish Labour Notes speak to Leszek Miętek , the president of the Confederation of Railway Trade Unions.

Could you please tell our readers how the process of restructuring the Polish State Railways was done?

The railway company was functioning as one state company up to September 2000 when the commercialization, restructuring and privatisation of Polish State Railways law came into force. In accordance with this law Polish State Railways S.A. was created along with its subsidiaries. It was all about that PKP S.A. take over the railway debts and the whole burden of restructuring. The “sick mother” was supposed to give birth to healthy unindebted children. Let us add that this law lobbied for a foreign consulting company that gave advice in the privatisation process of British Railways. It was a fiasco. The British paid a lot of money for this re-nationalisation than they did in World War II.

The breaking up of the Polish State Railways was motivated by the need to put Polish railway regulations in line with European Union directives which stated the separation of Railway infrastructure from trains. This time not only trains were separated but also other companies which were important in serving the Railway infrastructure such as for example energy or Railway telecommunications. Besides that the companies that were in charge of transporting passengers and goods were isolated. The Cargo company was trusted with managing the whole stock which it rented to passenger transporters. In a space of ten years of restructuring , locomotives and wagons have been taken from Cargo to passenger carriers, and commuter trains.

How many subsidiaries are in the PKP S.A.group?

No one knows that. For sure there are a number of subsidiaries affiliated with trains. It is worth remembering that when a client buys a ticket he thinks that he is travelling by train, travelling by PKP (Polish State Railways) considering both as one thing.

Railway transport as opposed to road transport is a structure that is inter-dependent. Dividing the railways into many subsidiaries brings complications associated with organising the timetables of trains. We use tracks that belong to Polish Railway lines. The controlling of trains is done with the help of isolated subsidies – Railway Telecommunications. However electricity is provided by the energy subsidiary. All these subsidiaries are interdependent and they cannot operate if they do not cooperate. Their division creates the need for the separate paying of tax and transferring of money. A number of different transporters operate in this kind of infrastructure. However each one of them have their own norms as well as safety in the workplace.

What kind of “complications” associated with train services came about after the breaking up of PKP?

Transporters function in accordance with business law – they must compete amongst themselves. The Intercity squad and the Regional Transporters compete on the Polish railways. The second company introduced InterRegio trains which service the routes between voivodships. The InterRegio routes are made possible with the help of commuter trains (EMUs) which are made for local routes and not for the whole of Poland. On the same route trains go one after the other with a difference of ten minutes or they go unannounced. However it used to be like this, at the station trains for different destinations were available, people could get in and after that the trains would leave for their respective destinations. Nowadays I have a problem with getting to Warsaw because at the station the train for Warsaw leaves ten minutes before the arrival of my regional train. It also happens that the passenger buys a ticket then it happens that it is not valid because it was given by another company.

What processes of restructuring backfired when it came to safety?

The security systems were not consistent with the process of liberalisation. That is why we can expect shortly, very serious complications in this area. At present each transporter gives their own instructions to the train engineer. In reality all norms should be confirmed by the government organ regulating railway line transportation but that does not give any guarantees that they are in agreement with each other. We have one instruction on the technical controlling of railway movement but all the other factors like braking systems and other important instructions set by the transporter personally.

The workers working in the railways, train engineers, train dispatchers and so on are mostly people who have 30 years experience. Let us tell ourselves the truth, the railways function thanks to their work and experience. I do not know how it will be when young people come who are without railway education, (railway schools were closed 10 years ago),trained too quickly, unused to dealing with extreme situations and
taught according to different railway rules. I do not want to be a prophet of doom but honestly speaking it can be a catastrophe.

How are train engineers trained at the present moment?

In line with the Third Railway Package which was accepted by the European Union the train engineer is trained and he gets a licence and a certificate soon after. The licence is given by the government office regulating Railway Transport and the certificate is given by the transporter. The problem is that the European Union set some standards which train engineers are supposed to master but it was not precise on the time frame. The minister of Infrastructure did not consider our regulations. In the regulations book there is nowhere where they address the amount of time needed by the train engineer to master certain topics. The result is that private training firms save on time and make the training shorter.

The Third Railway Package also liquidates the position of train engineer assistant. Up until now that position was very important. The assistant learnt the required skills, he learnt the routines and habits of the train engineers. Nowadays a young person, from the street without the knowledge of any compatible skills will operate the train. Alone.

Some time ago in the Polish State Railways there were the same security standards. Nowadays every transporter employs his own train engineer. It is reaching such a point that private transporters employ train engineers on short term contracts or they hire services from a “one man company offering train engineering services”. There is no central registration of self employed train engineers. It is hard to tell at the moment how many transporters have such train engineers.

In some private railway businesses the working hours of a train engineer are counted from the moment “he gets into the locomotive”. If the train engineer lives in Warsaw and the train is supposed to travel to Gdańsk, the time that the journey takes is not counted as working hours. He rests in the train because he has not yet made it home then gets another phone call with the next task.

Catastrophes are now prevalent on Polish railways, in Korzyb (North Western Poland). There are locomotives made in such a way that the train engineer can only see from one side because from the other side the engine blocks his view. If he wants to go in another direction he must reverse looking behind him. That led to the accident in Korzyb. Sometime ago the assistant sat there and informed the train engineer of any danger. Nowadays that place is empty. Sometime back those kind of situations were regulated by the R1 rules which stated that one man service was only possible in locomotives which had two cabins (those which had cabins from both ends), those which had automatic train braking systems. However in the year 2003 the minister amended the formula which said “single person service is possible for twin cabin locomotives”. The words “twin cabin” were “removed”. After last year’s catastrophe in Korzyb the prosecutor took over but then refused to open an investigation when she did not see the presence of any criminal acts.

You mentioned InterRegio trains. What is the situation at the present moment in the regional transporting company?

The regional transporters are pro-social transporters who should be sponsored if the costs of running trains are more than the income generated from the sale of tickets. A few years ago all the equipment was the property of the Cargo company which subsidised passenger trains leasing locomotives and electric multiple units on some routes. Little financing from the earnings of Polish State Railways Cargo led these companies to lose their position on the market. Successive governments cut funds meant for passenger transporters as they wanted to get rid of them. In the end the government managed to accomplish its mission. The regional transporters company was given to local government. Earlier, commuter trains had been given away to Regional transporting companies, all the locomotives were added to the inter-provincial trains and the wagons were given to Intercity so that the Regional transporters would not have the equipment to service the inter-provincial routes.

The Regional transport company has got 16 owners. Each one of them has 4-5% shares. The largest part is owned by the voivodship Marshal and that is absurd when the passengers in this voivodship are transported by the Mazovian Railway company. The voivodship Marshals in a space of  2 years were unable to work out a collective expansion strategy. To finance the subsidised trains the personal income tax and corporate income tax to the local government was increased. There is no controlling how much of that money reaches the passenger train department. Already after 2 months in business, because of the mistakes committed during the process of subsidising the Regional transport company was around 400 million in debt and it filled the criteria for bankruptcy. Besides that the Regional Transporting companies are the property of local governments – there is no obligation to sign contacts with them. It is not an inside company so the local governments must organize bidding for certain routes. And the bidding is done in different ways. For example the Marshal of the Kuyavian- Pomeranian voivodship announced bidding for the servicing of diesel traction on which around 10% of routes in the region are made. A 10 year contract has been signed with Arriva for which the Marshal gave 40% of all resources. From the information from Arriva which I have, it shows that during the last time when there was a lot of snow there were days when there was not even one train on the routes serviced by this transporter. And there was no outcry in the media but only the exact opposite. The media hyped the rise of competition in the Kuyavian-Pomeranian voivodship. The truth is that when Arriva started to compete in this transporting business it did not have the right equipment and it did not prepare qualified train engineers. The last ones were taken from mines!

The Marshals are obliged to finance trains only in one given voivodship. It also happens that passengers travelling with Regional trains go to small stations which are on the peripheries of the voivodships. From those stops they are then taken to their intended destinations in the next voivodship by bus. We have that situation with the line that is servicing Białystok (In the North East of Poland) and Warsaw. Trains only go up to Czyżew (North East Poland)-which is the border of the voivodship and most travellers would want to travel to Małkini. The problem is that Małkini is already in that same Mazovian voivodship which does not want to fund these trains. In the near future passports will be needed at the borders between voivodships…

I would like to underline that a lot of costs that are encountered by transporters are equipment costs and costs in the everyday running of the company.We have a tendency that, the voivodship Marshals organise their own companies that are Regional transporters. How does that influence permanent costs? If equipment is going to be repaired only in the voivodship then instead of a number of service points that are open around the clock there will be fewer service points. Which are more expensive to manage.

The minister of infrastructure promised us that before the process of subsidising there will be a package of guarantee for the workers. Up to now it is still not in place. The company separated itself from the trade union of railway workers. It announced a Company Collective Bargaining system and it does not want to go along with the rules of of workplaces. For the government the problem is public debt and for us the fate of 15 000 people who work just in Regional Transporting. At the same time the government is presenting commercialisation laws in parliament which are slowly causing the collapse of railway companies. If these laws are passed then Regional Transporters will collapse at once.

And how is the situation in Intercity?

When 2 years ago inter-provincial trains were given to Intercity the capital of the company increased by 300% and capital inflow increased by 50%. Already we had noticed that the situation of this company would get worse in dramatic fashion. 2 years ago the directors went around the country and requested that the train engineers and other workers that they leave Regional Transporters and come to Intercity. And now the president of the same company in a meeting with trade unionists said that he has 50% more people than he needs and they need to retrench some.

The actions which are worsening the results of the company are a lot. The management of the company is blaming everything on the introduction of cheap trains by InterRegio. In my opinion the main reason for the loss of passengers in inter-provincial transporters is the catastrophic state of railway infrastructure. Who would want to travel by train from Warsaw to Gdynia (Northern Poland) when the journey will take 7 or 8 hours. That line has been under renovation for 6 years. On the other lines the commercial speed is not above 40km/h. A train needs more than 1 hour to cover a 60 kilometre distance between Toruń (Northern Poland) and Bydgoscz. The businessmen travelling by Intercity cannot allow that. Let us note that Intercity does not complain on the number of passengers on the Warsaw-Kraków (Southern Poland) route or Warsaw-Katowice (Southern Poland). The infrastructure for the central railway route is in a better state and sometimes rail transport can compete with road transport.

Why were union funds for infrastructure suspended?

That decision made us write an impulsive open letter. 25% of railway lines were closed. At this moment 19 000 kilometres of railway lines are functioning. There were 27 000 kilometres earlier. The president of Polish Railways S.A. says that the company can maintain at most 7,500 kilometres. In the coming years two thirds of railway lines will be closed. The residents of Kraków and Lublin have threatened Grabarczyk that if there will be no bypass then the Civic Platform will be dealt with in the next elections. That is why it was decided that money could be taken from the railways. It is explained that the railway is not in a state to manage these funds. That is a half-truth. I am not saying that Polish Railways prepare for all projects perfectly and on time. I am only making a point on the fact that the government did not prepare the legal and organisational conditions for such a serious investment.

First of all – the Minister of Finance did not give guarantees on credit for Polish Railways which would have financed its own contributions. If that money is not available you cannot get any grants. The law on commercialisation and privatisation was passed but the railway was not given access to its assets. If the government wanted to shorten the long process of enfranchisement, notaries, allotments then the law would have given the railway power over its assets, predicting compensation for its present owners. Legally a huge amount of investment work has to be done just like it was done in road infrastructure. Because there is no regulations which can hurry up investment processes. Railway workers have to ask about everything: if water is flowing from the platform, then it is a “leak” and you have to put a drainage system in place at once and so on…

Even if there is investment in railway infrastructure it is only in trans-European circles which are needed by the European Union. In Poland the lines that are needed are those that go from north to south. There is no railway investment in in Śląsk (South of Poland). If a train goes there at a speed of 10km/h it is possible go to it, open the door and calmly put in some coal, which is done anyway.

In the European Union it was decided that 60% of the budget is directed to road investment ,and 40% to rail transport. In Poland roads and railways are financed at a proportion of 95:5. The railways have to repair on their own and coordinate the process of exploiting railways. The rates on the availability of infrastructure for transporters are some of the highest in Europe. That means that for access to railway lines you need to pay ten times more than you pay for access to a carriageway.

The debt of PKP S.A. has been talked about a lot. How did these debts accumulate?

Because of the use of public transporters without refunding them. Parliament provided some relief but it did not give money. More than 400 000 people worked in the railways. Today there are around 100 000 workers. The railway health service was liquidated, nurseries, tailors…. A whole sector of the economy was restructured without a single zloty coming from the budget. PKP even replaced the employment offices, paying the retrenched workers pre-pension benefits. Also some government companies were in debt-for example the ironworks. Because the ironworks were earmarked for privatisation – their debts to PKP was suspended. The ironworks found a foreign investor and PKP remained with debts. Every year the subsidiaries must raise a 300mln ransom which is then used for paying interest and not debts. I note that debt did not come about because of rail workers. That is a national budget debt in PKP S.A. The rail has been always a trash can where you can always take from and where you can always dump into.

Was any procedure of removing debts in PKP S.A. ever put in place?

A fund was created in which money from the sale of fuel is directed there. It was meant to enable the building of rail infrastructure. However, because PKP is in debt it has been decided that the fund will buy shares of Polish Railways on behalf of the national treasury. Because of that, PKP will then have money to pay its debts. The problem is that in the next few years those funds will cover only one third of the debt. The rest around a billion zloty per year, the Polish Railways must find it on their own. They could take credit but the government’s guarantee is needed. That would in turn increase the public debt. The government would not agree to that. The only options that are left are the selling of assets and privatisation. The best railway companies are preparing for privatization. It is not about increasing capital so that the companies could invest but about the brutal selling of the most valuable assets only to pay debts. That is why for example Polish Railways is being sold to a company with a 20% return.

The infrastructure repair centres have been sold. PKP Cargo the second largest goods transporter in Europe is getting ready for privatisation. Because there is a crisis in Europe – there is no profit in big railway companies. Polish companies will be sold to anyone, for cheap so that the debts can be paid.

Us as trade unionists do not want money from the budget. We just want the creation of a level playing field. We are not against privatisation but we want the money obtained in such a way that it funds rail companies in order for them to become more competitive. I will give an example, for the past few years Cargo has been operating in an open transporting market. However because it is being forced to pay the credit for PKP cargo it is less competitive according to Polish and foreign transporters. German companies have been allowed on the market and they do not have any debts. In addition to that they have access to public funds which finance the buying of equipment and so on. How are we supposed to compete in such conditions?

What does the future hold for the National Railways?

Without the systematic changes of which we talked about nothing will change in the railways. For the government the PKP debt is marginal. The government is spending public debt and reducing the deficit is not important. For us however it is a matter of life and death.

Poland is situated at the centre of communication in Europe. We could compete in the transportation of goods and earn a lot. But the lobbyists in the car industry will not allow that because they want to maintain the inequality between road transport and rail transport. In Poland sometime it is more productive to transport coal by trucks from the mine to the port. The state is interested mainly in road transport but it does not look at the consequences of such politics. How many people die on Polish roads? How many are removed from professional life? How much are the costs of rehabilitation?

For a number of years we have been saying that the processes of restructuring are going the wrong way. Now we are standing over irreversible decisions. If a company collapses or is sold we cannot do anything. The railway workers will have to pay for those decisions. This time they are not at fault in any way-they just do what they are told.

If nothing is done the regional transporters will collapse, equipment will be divided between voivodships which create these companies. The consequences are that there will be more problems when it comes to travelling between voivodships, the costs of exploitation will rise and in regions where there are few travellers trains will be liquidated. In the main towns the only available connections will be those by road. Two thirds of the railways will be closed and the regional transporters will be practically liquidated. That would cause economic problems in regions. If there wont be any railways then there wont be any investment.

What should be done to avoid such a scenario?

Unfortunately no one wants to see a situation where the Polish railways are only limited to the needs of the Polish economy and not the European economy. The most important thing here is the will. If there is no will there are always a million reasons available for not doing anything . If there is a will then there is need to fix all the things that we talked about. First of all we should find a way to liquidate the debts in PKP S.A.

The problem with rail is that trains should not only be colourful, smell good and have good promotion but they must also operate. For that specialists are needed , those who know the processes needed for operating trains. Unfortunately for a number of years the railways have been managed by people who think that they are rectifying the problems by making the trains nice and smelling good, not having the slightest idea of the exploitation processes. They draw some plans where a train goes across the whole of Poland without servicing. On paper everything is ok. Only that in reality nothing is ok. This is not about lack of motivation. Simply they are incompetent people. I wonder what would be if these people went to manage banks.

In what ways are trade unions opposed to this situation?

In 1998 we organised a four day strike of train engineers. We demanded then that the railways be financed on a level of 1% of the GDP. We organised conferences, we prepared even alternatives projects for changing the railways. However the management did not take it seriously. They treat trade unions as boys with dirty fingernails. Our efforts are tossed away and they hire consulting firms. Therefore I am not optimistic but I can assure you that we will fight to the end!

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