I spent my weekend at my home town of Suwałki and I chose to travel by trains this time. It seemed to be the most convenient as it was a Friday afternoon and the buses are much less comfortable if they are crowded. Was it a wise decision? What were the conditions like? You can read in the post below.
Names and types of trains
So first first first – Polish railways system is a bit complicated. Technically, except some smaller, private providers – all the public trains belong to Polskie Koleje Państwowe (abbreviated as PKP – you can definitely see it somewhere on the ticket). Most of the trains are operated by PKP Intercity, the other big group is called Przewozy Regionalne (Regional Transfers) and there are also Koleje Mazowieckie, Koleje Śląskie and Arriva that do not belong to PKP – they are private.
There are also several types of tickets and trains available. Przewozy Regionalne operates mostly on regional routes – yet, the trains might be either older or if they are not older – they are electronic trains resembling buses. Of course, there is also little space on seats and if you have no seat – you have to stand. These trains are usually called REGIO + some number. Intercity has more trains to choose from: around 10 years ago TLK was formed and it was called initially “Tanie Linie Kolejowe” (Cheap railways), in 2011 it was changed to “Twoje linie kolejowe” (Your railways) and in a few years – all TLK trains will be transferred to InterCity (IC). InterCity itself is a more expensive category that uses modernized trains (e.g. Dart or Flirt trains, I will write about Dart later). There is also an Express InterCity (EIC) and Express InterCity Premium (EIP) operated with Pendolino trains. The difference between TLK and EIP is around 15 EUR if you buy early enough. Otherwise, it is more and the difference is around 22 euros.
How Polish trains changed over the years
My impression of Polish trains was always negative – I used them only if I had no other choice and prefered to go by bus everywhere. Poland is getting safer and safer, but still – you can be robbed on the train easily, so if I wanted to get some sleep – I chose a bus. Trains in Poland are usually compartment trains – so there are 6 to 8 seats separated from the corridor by the glass door. In such trains I always preferred first class due to more safety as the trains in Poland can gather criminals and bunch of very weird people. Now, a lot has changed.
First of all, many trains have the possibility to choose between compartment and non-compartment seats. Both on Friday and on Sunday I travelled without compartments as for me it was a good mix between safety and privacy. I could hold my hand luggage below my legs and get to sleep – and no one could really steal from me. Without compartments people also seem to be more silent – which makes the trip more comfortable, especially if you had a tough day or you just want to read a book or a magazine.
The other thing is that we used to have very dirty trains, toilets were either closed or so dirty that it was very hard to force yourself to use it and one of them even froze during winter… there was even a viral picture on the internet showing one of the toilets of Polish train – it went through dozens of European media, so you might have seen that before.
Famous frozen lavatory- winter was strong this year, but it obviously shows how horrible some trains were (source: TVN24)
All right, so what went wrong this time? Fortunately, not much (except some 20-something minutes delay on Friday), but I can tell you – there is a big difference between Regio and Intercity trains. Regio trains are rather crowded (because they are cheap) and the comfort is absolutely minimal. The electric trains operating on the route Białystok-Suwałki-Kaunas-Suwałki-Białystok (Polish-Lithanian route of Rail Baltica) are modern, clean, yet – the comfort can be compared to a city bus – there is very little space for your legs and stuff and it is fine for 2 hour trip, but if you were supposed to go with it for like 5 hours – you might have had a problem with discomfort. Also – the rule of these buses is that if you don’t have a seat, you stand – like in a city bus. Here is a pic I made from my seat on Friday evening. There were not a lot of people fortunately, but the space was very little.
It might look like I might be obsessed with toilets, but the bathroom of the electric train is absolutely comfortable and I can say I am even impressed with it – using the bathroom is easy for the people of all sizes and with reduced mobility. In this case – this train gets a very big plus.
Since there are absolutely no restrictions for the people who do not have a ticket (even though there are no seat reservations in majority or even all of Regio trains – you can buy tickets in advance both online and in the cash desk of your station) – no one can really estimate how many people would be on the train and furthermore – how much of a luggage they would bring and what the luggage would be. When I was coming back – there were a lot of cyclist (who obviously I do not mind – my region is very popular amongs cyclists, so there are a lot of them there) – unfortunately this was a small electric train and each time someone was putting their bicycle on the train, it limited the space to absolute minimum.
While coming back I also had two very weird situations: one guy (who was either drunk or might have been under the influence of drugs) was spending half of his time in the bathroom. He was definitely smoking there, as it could be felt and also – he was hiding in order to ride without a ticket. His behavious caused big queues to the bathroom and a lot of angry people (no surprise, I would be angry too). There was also a group of young people who have been arrested in Augustów – 30 km after the start of journey. As I understood – they were hooligans of one of the football clubs and it was nothing new to them. So as you can see – low price (and possibility to enter without a ticket) can attract a lot of weird people.
With Intercity it is a little bit different and – much better in my opinion. So first of all – there are possible reservations in all the trains – in other words, when buying a ticket you are getting a seat and you must follow it. For some trains those seat reservations are obligatory. You can still buy a ticket from the controller of your tickets, yet – you can only seat on the place that is not reserved. Intercity trains have been modernized in majority, there are still some older ones going though. Here is a shot from my seat when I was travelling from Warsaw to Białystok.
Even if you are travelling longer distances, most of Intercity’s non-compartment seats are very comfortable, even if it is not the most modern train. They are wide and there is a lot leg space, there are also power sockets (that work, but only when the train is running – I tested that).
There is surely enough space for your luggage and if your luggage does not fit the overhead shelf, there is also additional space at the back or the rear side of the wagon, so you can simply leave your luggage there. It is relatively safe – there are no compartments, so people are much less tempted to steal stuff :) There is also a table that you can use during your trip.
Except the trains that are operating for years and are modernized, there are also some very modern trains that are of the highest standard. Surprisingly – one of them is Polish and I had a pleasure to go with it on my way back to Warsaw – the train is called Dart and it is optimized for Polish rails – there are a few where going around 200 km/h is possible, but usually – it is maximum 160 km/h (on modernized rails). Dart is produced by Polish company PESA – they are one of the most successful Polish companies operating in Bydgoszcz, Poland. The seats are very comfortable and wagons are non-compartment, but some of the part of them are quite tiny (they kind of resemble a big compartment). My part of the train included just 16 seats – 8 of them connected with a common table and the following 8 – with a private table that was very big, I could fit my book, documents, water and phone there without any troubles. The seats are separated by the small alley that you can see below.
The seats were very comfortable and I hope that one day such comfort would be possible on all the Polish trains, not only those modern ones.
The train impressed me with one thing: the messages were given to the people both in Polish and English – they were a bit inaccurate though (for some reason, there were messages saying that we are approaching Warsaw West when we were close to Warsaw East and some of the people travelling by this train were kind of confused). Another thing they should work on is to possible use English versions of the station names (e.g. the message in English was: The next station is Warszawa Wschodnia – would be good if it was “The next station is: Warsaw East). Otherwise – everything was fine and I was kind of proud of my country. There is also a screen included that displays your route and next stops.
Soon I will also have my first travel with Express Intercity Premium. This is the most expensive train in Poland and it is not only possible to have a ticket purchased before entering the train, but also – it is obligatory to do so. If you have no ticket then you must be aware of facing very strong financial consequences, as there is no possibility to purchase the ticket from the ticket controller or train crew. For quite a long time the fine was set at a horrible level of 650 PLN (that is approximately 160 euro). Now, such fine is discounted in 2 situations.
First one is when you pay on spot, then the fine will be discounted to 130 PLN (around 32 euros) + the price of the ticket (something around 30-40 euro). If you pay the fine within 7 days – then you will have to cover 162,50 PLN (over 40 euro) + the price of the ticket. It is still very expensive and confused many people in the past. I personally buy tickets in advance as I am very organized, but if you decide last minute – you must be careful when choosing a train.
Express Intercity Premium is operated with Pendolino trains and also – it has one feature that I will test myself. This feature is “Silent zone” which is in the wagon number 7. I always appreciate when I can read a book or magazine in silence, there are no people shouting, people have their phones on silent mode etc. I hope that people will follow that, I definitely will :) As I checked – there is also some snack provided on board, I suppose it might be some candy bar and coffee / tea.
Some things change, some stay
The trains are changing, but some habits do not. There is always some guy who will go through the train and will try to sell beer. Fortunately, in non-compartment trains no one really buys it (the truth is that it is prohibited, but in compartments some of the people drink alcohol). I can compare that with Bulgarian railways where there was always a person that went through the train and were selling…magazines. Honestly, I would really prefer magazine instead of a beer, even though I like beer but I do not believe it should be allowed on public transport.
If the train has a restaurant wagon (operated by Wars S.A. and in most cases, just called Wars) there is a person who would go through the train with a trolley offering some basic things like drinks and snacks, and you can purchase it without going out of your seat.
What definitely changes is the quality of trains (they are really better and more comfortable) and the speed of them. I see the difference between 5,5 hours and 4,5 hours of travel between my home town and Warsaw and I kind of dream that in the near future it will go down even further and I will be able to travel from Warsaw to Suwałki below 4 hours. I think it is possible in the next few years!
You (almost) never know which train you will take
So, the last paragraph of this super long post will be about buying tickets. Unfortunately, Polish Railways are a bit inaccurate. For example: when I was travelling to Warsaw from Białystok I was supposed to go by train called Esperanto – instead, the name of the train was Mickiewicz. I also had no idea that I would be taking Dart train – it is not written anywhere. There is a map though where you can get such trains (nevertheless – there are only 20 of them in the whole country, so it might be hard to put them on every single route ;) ).
The only thing that is sure is that Express Intercity Premium will be operated with Pendolino trains. Another thing is that the more expensive the train is, the safer the travel will be. No, I am not saying about the quality of the train or rails – what I am referring to is the quality of travellers. The cheapest ticket can attract not only people who have a bit less of money but also some criminals, weird people and dangerous groups. In other words – it’s really worth paying a bit more and travel safely.
If you ever had a chance to travel with Polish train – feel free to share your opinion in comments :)