Full Steam Ahead: The Trains of Interwar Poland
default, Full Steam Ahead:
The Trains of Interwar Poland, Torpeda Podhalańska, 1936, photo: szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl, center, #000000, 2000px_torpeda-podhalanska-1936-3_1_0_8_2970_207737-2.jpg
From Luxtorpedas to a poem by Julian Tuwim, from Polish film success to the Narty-Dancing-Brydż, trains were a huge part of Poland’s Interwar period. Glitzy, speedy (in some cases even more so than today’s trains), and fuelled by the progress of newly independent Poland, they became a symbol of the era.
But why did they become so popular? And exactly what impact did they have on popular culture?
Back on track
Although much of the infrastructure within the borders of newly-independent Poland had been destroyed during World War I, the country very quickly re-established a reputation for railways. New lines sprang up – even if some had to be rebuilt to standardise tracks across the lands of the former partitions, and allow for economic development and integration.
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The railways and their unification was an extremely serious issue, because other systems of transport did not count at that time. The road transport was less developed because of shortage of paved roads and the river navigation has a secondary meaning because only a few sections of Polish rivers were navigable.
Despite the government’s ambitions, there were, however, considerable obstacles to overcome. Finance was a major issue: the government, according to Przegiętka, realised the state could not fund railway growth as hoped, so foreign capital was sought – to little avail. However, one railway – from Herby to Gdynia – was built using French funds, and is ‘considered the greatest achievement of the Polish railways during the interwar period’, as it linked the economically important coal areas of Silesia to Polish harbours.
But though some projects could not be completed, modernisation was being achieved. Rolling stock was developed, and made more glamorous, with cars made to incorporate standard luxuries of the Interwar age, including spaces for dancing and bathing. Electrification was beginning and trains were truly becoming a standard part of life.
During the week, as legend goes, you could set your watch by the punctual train arrivals; on weekends, you could hop on a tourist train and explore the country. And there was far more magic to Poland’s railways than that…
What better way to start than with one of the most exciting trains of them all: the Narty-Dancing-Brydż (Ski-Dancing-Bridge). First launched in the early 1930s by the Polish State Railways with the Kraków Society for the Promotion of Skiing, and flitting from city to resort, the Ski-Dancing-Bridge train became a prime example of Poland’s railway success story. And it did…exactly as it said on the tin.
In some carriages, bridge tables were set up for passengers to play as they travelled. Other carriages had space for dancing to jazz music played by musicians, with others for bathing. Ski schools were organised on the train for professionals and novices – who could then break off for drinks in an extravagant restaurant car. Occasionally, a cinema car was also attached for added entertainment. Then there were the sleeping cars, with racks on the ceiling for skis.
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Travelling hundreds of kilometres by night, the trains would stop at ski resorts during the day, allowing elegant passengers to disembark and take advantage of local attractions.
It became known as Poland’s ‘Orient Express’.
And of course, the Narty-Dancing-Brydż became such an element of popular culture that there was even a humorous song written about it. Express – narty – bridge, written by Bogumił Kuroń and with a train-like rhythm courtesy of music by Emil Stern. It was performed by Chór Dana and featured in the Cyrulik Warszawski theatre.
Such an express, skis, cards
It’s not a mockery, it’s not a joke
Instead of on rails
Go, go, hello, hello
Where? Who knows?
Zakopane, Monte Carlo
Hell knows where…
Express – narty – bridge
A cross between a limousine and a bus, Luxtorpeda trains also became a symbol of the pizzazz of the Interwar period, and the growing strength of the Polish railways. Based on an Austrian design, and named after the Latin for light (Lux), due to their speeds of over 110 kilometres an hour, the classy Luxtorpedas eventually took the country by storm.
Luxtorpedas were first introduced as Poland began to realise how much more effective diesel trains could be, as opposed to steam locomotives. They were produced in Poland’s first state locomotive factory, Fablok, in Chrzanów, according to a new Polish design – which modified and streamlined the Austrian original, allowing for cheaper production. The trains consisted of a single railcar with internal combustion engine.
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But with their attractive, aerodynamic look and plush interiors – as well as extra comforts, such as rubber-lined wheels for a quieter journey – the 22-metre long Luxtorpeda became a byword for luxury, embodying Poland’s rapid technological progress during the Interwar years. A legend on the tracks, they zipped between key Polish cities, driving around 60 passengers who paid high ticket prices (around the price of 40 loaves of bread!) for the privilege. They were first-class only.
Tourism posters from the time advertised the train alongside the words ‘Poznajcie piękno rodzinnego kraju’ (‘See the beauty of your country’).
And suitably, Luxtorpedas were most often used to reach the fashionable Zakopane, which was becoming the cultural capital of Poland, attracting Polish artists, sports stars and celebrities alike. In fact, according to historians, in 1936, a Luxtorpeda set a still unbroken record journey time between Kraków and Zakopane, of two hours, 18 minutes.
Luxtorpedas were not the only Polish trains receiving praise for their swish designs, according to Marcin Przegiętka.
One of the greatest achievements of Polish railway industry of the interwar period was the Pm36 streamlined steam locomotive, constructed by FABLOK in 1937. It received an award at the Paris International Exhibition. This locomotive headed prestige passenger trains for only two years, until the German attack on Poland.
However, he notes that ‘the problem was that there were no tracks for such a high-speed train’ (which could reach speeds of up to 140 kilometres an hour).
But what about travellers seeking adventure further afield? Polish trains could cater for all, with Interwar connections to large cities across Europe, from Italy to Prague. The first express train to run through Poland was the famous Nord Express, which travelled from Paris, through central Europe, to Warsaw, and then could connect to Moscow.
Songs were also written about connections abroad, with Express Warszawa – Władywostok penned by Andrzej Włast and based on a medley of compositions.
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Hey, this train is going like an arrow
One compartment, ten days
Cut along its length is all of Russia
Which flashes from outside the windows
And in the compartment, comrades
They still sing to me as a choir,
In time, the steam engine is panting
And a snake crawls in the wagons…
Express Warszawa – Władywostok
Connections to Germany also improved in the 1930s. On one occasion in May 1934, when tourists travelled to Berlin, they were met with excited hosts, according to the daily newspaper Ilustrowany Kurier Codzienny. Writer Antoni Wasilewski said that ‘the Nazi orchestra welcomed us with the Pierwszs Brygada and a bunch of Polish songs’.
But what about culture? The obvious interwar cultural reference to trains is Julian Tuwim’s onomatopoeic poem Lokomotywa, which was published in 1938, and has been a classic Polish children’s poem ever since.
Poof, how she’s burning,
Oof, how she’s boiling,
Puff, how she’s churning,
Huff, how she’s toiling.
She’s fully exhausted and all out of breath,
Yet the coalman continues to stoke her to death.
Julian Tuwim, Lokomotywa
The silly (and brilliant) Lokomotywa was actually an unusual poem for the usually highbrow Tuwim. In the early Interwar years, Tuwim had founded the experimental poetry group Skamander – although he had also dabbled in writing mass culture hits and skits for cabaret.
But in the late 1930s, he was asked to write three poems for children, and Lokomotywa was born, telling the story of an exhausting train hauling passengers and cargo to their destination.
Trains also played a key role in film. The 1932 picture Głos Pustyni (Sound of the Desert), directed by Michał Waszyński and written by Interwar heartthrob Eugeniusz Bodo, was filmed in Biskra, in Algeria, with the crew travelling there by train via Paris, and then by boat. Their return journey took two weeks.
Trains in song
As we’ve seen, several legendary aspects of Interwar train journeys inspired cultural artefacts, particularly songs – but there were many more songs written about general train-life too.
One was the 1934 Błękitny Express, a foxtrot with music by Leon Boruński, and written by Polish star Hanka Ordonówna. She also performed the song, for Poland’s recording company Syrena-Electro:
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I’m driving the Blue Express
No stop, no destination, across the world
Although I will lose this life with a mishap
But no one will steal my moments
Ten minutes, I’ll stop wherever I want
Ten minutes, then away again
Ten minutes, and everything will be in them
My joy, my peace, my regret…
Other songs had similar love themes, including Henryk Wars and Andrzej Włast’s 1931 tango Przysięgnij Mi (Swear to Me). This song, performed at Włast’s sumptuous Morskie Oko theatre, told the story of parting lovers:
The whistle of the locomotive
Goodbye, write to me, be happy
Someone’s body faints in my arms
The lips whisper these few simple sentences:
Swear to me
That you will not make yourself upset
Her little one, her only one, far away…
And then there were songs about travel itself, including Henryk Wars and Marian Hemar’s 1936 Panienka na Prowincji (A Young Lady in the Countryside), about a rural girl dreaming – or haunted – by a better, more fulfilled life in Warsaw. The timetable of trains to the capital forms the song’s captivating refrain:
There are two trains from Warsaw
One at eight to twelve in the morning
Two-thirty in the evening
You can hear a rattle every day
A distant, long whistle…
Panienka na Prowincji
But Juliusz Gabel and Emanuel Schlechter’s 1931 Ta Co Pan Buja (The One You Swing) has a more vivacious take, as a dialogue between a young man and woman – one from Vilnius, one from Lviv – meeting in the third-class carriage of a train.
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Night train, third class.
In the corridor ‘She’, ‘He’
She: figure, race, class
He is ‘Vilnius’ – chic, bon-ton!
Detailing the meeting between the couple, the song encapsulates the ability of the railway to connect together different people – much as the real-life railways were able to do in Interwar Poland. Interestingly, the real situation on railways to and from Lviv was far less poetic: although developments did link the eastern city to the rest of Poland, there were far fewer railway lines in Galicia than in western areas, leaving Lviv cut off on occasion. There were also issues with corruption and embezzlement.
The railway became a convenient scapegoat, on which a number of inter-war Poland’s anxieties converged. Frustrations with inefficient paternalistic government, where personal connections often mattered more than merit, and Poland’s relative economic backwardness were projected upon the railway. Senior railway officials and regular railway workers felt the consequences.
polish artists of the interwar period
But despite the real life issues, Polish Interwar trains were still romanticised. Aboard Luxtorpedas and the Narty-Dancing-Brydż, it seemed like Poland was speeding forth towards a bright future – which ultimately would be tragically cut short.
Written by Juliette Bretan, August 2020
Sources: dziennikpolski24.pl; przelom.pl; naszahistoria.pl; ‘Eastern European Railways in Transition: Nineteenth to Twenty-first Centuries’, edited by Henry Jacolin and Ralf Roth, Routledge, 2013; ‘Lviv’s Uncertain Destination’, Andriy Zayarnyuk, University of Toronto, 2020