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A train enters the Warszawa Wschodnia station in Warsaw last month. Brussels promised billions of euros to revamp eastern Europe's railways but only 10 per cent has been spent. Picture taken May 15, 2012. To match Special Report EUROPE-TRAINS/ REUTERS/Kacper Pempel (POLAND - Tags: BUSINESS TRANSPORT) (KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)
A train enters the Warszawa Wschodnia station in Warsaw last month. Brussels promised billions of euros to revamp eastern Europe's railways but only 10 per cent has been spent. Picture taken May 15, 2012. To match Special Report EUROPE-TRAINS/ REUTERS/Kacper Pempel (POLAND - Tags: BUSINESS TRANSPORT) (KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)

New EU states struggle to spend Brussels billions Add to ...

But train travel times on some routes have actually slowed in the two decades since the fall of communism.

Despite a boost in infrastructure spending, dozens of railway improvement projects have been postponed or delayed. As of May this year, Poland had received just 5.5 per cent, or €303-million, out of €5.5-billion available under the EU cohesion fund budget, the ministry of regional development said.

Construction sites dot Poland’s capital. A new fast rail link takes travelers from Warsaw to the airport, the central train station was renovated and a second underground line is being built.

But the signs of overall decline after two decades of weak spending following the fall of the communist regime are all too obvious. The average age of a Polish passenger carriage, at nearly 30 years, is almost twice that in the United Kingdom. Thirty per cent of railway tracks are unsuitable for high speed trains, while 70 per cent of wooden sleepers need to be replaced.

“We have moved backwards, not developed,” said Janusz Wdowiarek, a retiree who as a Boy Scout in postwar Poland used to nap on the four hour train ride from Warsaw to the main port city of Gdansk, 300 kilometers north.

More than half a century later, the same trip takes 90 minutes longer and many people prefer the bus because of delays, poor service and run-down, dirty carriages.

A €3.4-billion plan to upgrade the Warsaw-Gdansk line, including new carriages, began eight years ago and was meant to be completed for this month’s Euro 2012 football championship, which sees matches in both cities. Gdansk, the largest Baltic coast port, is of huge importance to Poland’s economy.

But at the current rate of construction, the job will likely be completed four years late, in 2016, and only a fraction of the EU funds will be used.

On a recent spring morning, the train to Gdansk pulled out of the capital and stopped two minutes later due to construction work. Modern conveniences offered in most Western European trains – such as electrical sockets and Internet – were notably absent.

“Travelling by train used to have its charm. Now all the pleasure has vanished. Once you could depend on the railway, now you can’t,” Wdowiarek, a 65-year-old retired science teacher, recalled while travelling with his wife, Jadwiga. “I dream of going to France and taking the TGV.”

Railways were a strategic priority for Poland’s communist regime, with its obsession for heavy industry, but after the arrival of capitalism in 1989 they became an unpopular relic of the past.

Many Poles now prefer cars to rail. A new car is one of the most powerful symbols of prosperity in Poland.

Officially, the government is keen to get more people on trains. But it’s struggling to put those words into action. Building roads has been politically popular and necessary to alleviate growing congestion.

Maria Martisiute, a European transportation expert at the infrastructure managers’ organisation, said that eastern European states have not built more railways “because of a lack of institutional capacity and experience”. As a result, Warsaw has dropped some railway projects and asked the Commission to shift €1.2-billion to roads, which are faster and easier to build.

Brussels, which is committed to reducing carbon emissions, rejected the request.

“They must focus more resources on actually implementing the projects that we funded them to do and they accepted to do,” the EU official said.

The EU is getting even tougher on other new members.

Estonia has had the greatest success in absorbing the Brussels funds. It received €76-million, or 41 per cent of its allocated budget of €185-million.

By contrast, Latvia has absorbed just 2.8 per cent, or €7-million out of €256-million available. Brussels suspended Latvia’s payments in January 2012, citing weak controls over how the money was being spent, the country’s finance ministry said.

Like other members, Latvia has complained about the time-consuming and complex process for receiving EU funds, which requires states to pay for projects upfront and meet tough technical and environmental requirements. Reimbursement often takes months and sometimes years.

“We were not able to generate sufficient cash from our operating activities to pay the invoices,” said Zbigniew Szafranski, former head of the state railway administrator, complaining it took two years to set up an accounting framework. “If we hadn’t announced tenders independently and obtained independent sources of financing…we would not have been able to launch many projects.”

Brussels has given Latvia three months to work out a plan to eliminate shortcomings. The country’s finance ministry sent out its action plan on April 26 and the European Commission says it will review the suspension in the next few weeks.

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