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New Europe

Day One Hundred and Two: Poznan

Michael Palin - New EuropeIn that case, I'm in for a very Polish morning, with polot in abundance, for I'm to drive the 8.58 scheduled rail service that covers the 50 miles from Poznan to Wolsztyn (the 'sz' is pronounced as 'sh').

In 1997 a British railway enthusiast, Howard Jones, persuaded the Poles to give him access to some of the last surviving steam-hauled services in Europe, and to let him run a driving course on one of their branch lines. Which is why I'm here on an overcast morning with a bit of bite in the air, changing into overalls and a cap and feeling distinctly nervous, for two particular reasons. One concerns whether or not I shall be able to understand my Polish co-driver and instructor Janus, 'a lovely bloke' according to the compulsively reassuring Howard. He has a few words of English, but once in the cab with all the clatter and hissing and roaring of the boiler could be talking Albanian, or indeed Polish.

Poznan Central is not a station for beginners. For a start, it's on the Paris-Berlin-Moscow main line. Twenty-coach trans-European expresses come through here, and at this time of the morning they're swelled by commuter trains rolling thick and fast into Poland's fifth biggest city. The Wolsztyn train consists of only two coaches, one clean, the other very dirty indeed, but they are drawn by a monster of a locomotive. For those who like these details, it's a 2-6-4, which means it has twelve wheels. It's a menacing sooty-black colour with windshields on either side of the boiler and a freshly filled tender. Its number is 0149 and it bears the white eagle motif of Polish Regional Railways, and, confusingly, the name 'Bob Wyatt'.

My messing about on the footplate. There are passengers on the train. Good peopleother, more serious, concern is that this isn't just about me and Janus, who only want to get from Poznan to Wolsztyn on time and alive.

I watch them climbing aboard. A sensible woman in a headscarf and long skirt carrying a bag of shopping. An elderly man with grey hair and a briefcase, and a couple actually running to get a seat.

Howard's reassurance technique merely terrifies me further. Lots of the people who come on this course have never driven a train before, he says comfortingly, then adds that Janus will take over whenever we meet the main line. Meet the main line?

I help the fireman shovel some coal into the firebox and Janus, who has a big, droopy grey moustache in the Lech Walesa style, beams indulgently down at me. I try hard to impress, so hard that my shovel cracks into the side of the gate and sends coal flying across the floor of the cab. He beams even more indulgently as he watches me clear it up.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred and Two: Poznan
  • Country/sea: Poland
  • Place: Poznań
  • Book page no: 240

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