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Protests Derailed: A History Of Polish Railways Getting Political

Polish state railways have been accused of deliberately keeping protestors from reaching the capital for an anti-government protest march. This is not the first controversy the railways have faced.

Photo of trains in the Warszawa Rembertów Station, Warsaw, Poland.

Warszawa Rembertów Station.

Piotr Stanisławski via Wikimedia Commons
Katarzyna Skiba

Last June, Polish opposition leader and former President of the EU Commission Donald Tusk called on Polish citizens to protest against the “authoritarian” steps taken by the ruling party, PiS . Estimates by state organizers approximate that 500,000 participants marched in Warsaw, with smaller marches occurring in other Polish cities.

“Do you have enough of [PiS’s] lies, theft and corruption?” Tusk asked in a video published on his Facebook page. "Then come to Warsaw on the 4th of June… we will show them our might”.

In the days leading up to the protest and on the day of the event itself, passengers and groups of demonstrators blamed state railways for delayed train permits, inaccessibility for those with disabilities and a deficit in the train's ability to transport participants to the capital.

“This is how rail functions in Poland,” an anonymous passenger told Gazeta Wyborcza , “It is impossible to get to Warsaw for the March at 12 p.m. from Szczecin.” The same passenger told Wyborcza they were “speechless” at the realization, adding that “it’s an outright exclusion of rail communication”.

This is not the first time that the state-run rail lines have come under fire for allegedly political acts.

Accusations of nepotism and corruption

In 2020, several senior-level state firm-appointed leaders — including the head of the Polish rail freight company — were accused of being nepotism hires . President Andrzej Duda’s uncle, Antoni Duda, is currently on the railway supervisory board and was kept on in spite of nepotism concerns.

Duda has admitted that he has no experience working in the railway industry, but defended his appointment to Super Express , citing his experience as an ex-Parliamentarian who has worked in management, industry, and government.

While two senior-level PiS appointees were forced to step down due to claims of nepotism, Antoni Duda has maintained his position at PKP Cargo.

Participants attending an anti-government march.

Anti-government march led by the opposition party leader Donald Tusk on the 34th anniversary of Poland's first postwar democratic election, Warsaw, Poland, June 4, 2023.

Beata Zawrzel/ ZUMA

Cream cake controversy

Earlier this year, Polskie Koleje Państwowe (Polish State Railways, or PKP) came under fire on social media for offering its passengers free “papal cream cakes” ( kremówki ) on the 18th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s death. This happened mere days after a controversial documentary on the Polish network TVN revealed that the Pope, born Karol Wojtyła, had knowingly participated in sexual abuse coverups and allowed offending priests to continue serving during his tenure as Archbishop of Krakow.

For some, this meant that attending the protests was impossible.

The pastries, a known favorite of the religious leader from his time growing up in the town of Wadowice, were passed out by the rail line the same day as tens of thousands of people around the country marched in defense of the former Pope’s honor. The crowds included senior members from the Polish government, including Deputy Prime Ministers Mariusz Błaszczak and Piotr Gliński in Warsaw and education minister Przemysław Czarnek in Lublin.

“We wanted to honor the legacy of a great Pole,” Deputy Director and former spokesman of PKP Intercity Cezary Nowak told Gazeta Wyborcza , adding that trains on this day also projected special animations celebrating the late pope which included some of his famous quotes.

“This is a cake that is associated with the memories of Pope John Paul II’s visits to Poland, and one which evokes warm memories for Polish people,” Nowak said.

Train in a station.

Train in a station, Poland.

Stevenlodz via Wikimedia Commons

Suppression of protest

Demonstrators from several cities, including Szczecin and Rzeszow, reported difficulties with rail transport to Warsaw. For some, including Marek, who uses an electric wheelchair, this meant that attending the protests was impossible.

“I wanted to attend the June 4th marches, but the PKP did everything in their power to make that impossible for me,” Marek told Gazeta Wyborcza . The railways had suspended all train traffic to Warsaw’s central station both the day of the march and the day before, citing ongoing construction.

Train inaccessibility did not stop protestors from voicing their discontent.

In Lower Silesia , the state railways reportedly attempted to block specific trains carrying protestors to the marches in Warsaw. According to Michal Jaros, the chairman of the Polish opposition party in Lower Silesia, this included delaying permits for two passenger trains, each carrying 230 demonstrators, from Wroclaw to Warsaw.

Along Poland’s coast, train inaccessibility did not stop protestors from voicing their discontent with the ruling party. Demonstrators instead gathered in Szczecin’s Solidarity Square. For some, insufficient connection to the capital became part of the movement.

“The protests in Warsaw are a good reminder of how difficult it is to get from Szczecin to the capital, even though it is only 566 kilometers away,” Inga Iwasiów wrote for Gazeta Wyborcza . “Renovations that have been ongoing for several years have lengthened the journey to over seven hours,” she added, saying that trains also rarely arrive on time, likening the journey to “bull-riding”.

PKP is currently in the process of renovating its train cars and railways, having doubled the budget of its rail investmen t last August, but passengers have continued to note delayed arrival times and outdated train cars.

With a huge amount of renovations underway, state railways look as though they will provide improved connections between cities and smaller towns.

As for protests, smaller follow-up events, including a press conference by young Polish activists , are set to continue. Time will tell if the railways continue to face accusations of deliberate suppression.

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