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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 March, 2004, 08:42 GMT
Keeping Polish steam trains on the rails
By Adam Easton
BBC correspondent in Warsaw

It was well below freezing as the 1335 to Wolsztyn puffed away from the snow-covered platforms of Poznan station in western Poland.

Steam train at Wolsztyn station
Wolsztyn in March is a cold place - but it is steamy
On the dirty footplate behind the controls was British businessman Howard Jones.

In 1997 he resigned as director of a travel company, sold his home in Sussex and came to Wolsztyn to start a new life.

"When I started in the travel industry in 1970 it was a lot of fun. But like a lot of things in Britain now, sadly all the fun's gone and it's all stress. I couldn't be happier now. I just play trains and enjoy life," he said.

Wolsztyn, a small town 60km (37 miles) south-west of Poznan, is a steam train enthusiasts' paradise.

It is the only place left in the world where you can get to drive a passenger steam train taking hundreds of commuters to work.

Trainspotting

Over the last six years more than 1,500 people from all over the world have come to Poland to take a week-long course to learn how to do just that.

Howard Jones is the director of the Wolsztyn Experience course.

Howard Jones
British businessman Howard Jones started a new life in Poland
He has been captivated by steam trains since his father used to take him trainspotting as a boy.

"Steam is the closest a piece of machinery comes to being alive. It's temperamental," he says.

About 90% of the enthusiasts who come to take the course are from the UK. It is a two-person operation: as one drives, the other fires under the careful guidance of trained Polish crews.

On the footplate with me were father and son Brian and Paul McKinnell.

Paul, a 26-year-old livestock inspector from Shropshire, and his family had arranged the course as a 60th birthday surprise for his dad Brian, a financial adviser from Kent.

Passion

As son Paul took the controls, I asked Brian about his passion for steam as he shovelled coal into the engine's blazing furnace.

"The interest in steam trains for me started when I was in the pram. I just love them, I love the sight, the smell, the sound. A steam engine has something else and I think today's railways are a lot poorer for not having them," he said.

Meanwhile, Brian seemed to have got the knack of the controls - the regulator, brake and cut-off almost immediately.

I asked him what his friends and colleagues thought about his hobby.

"Well they think I'm a nutcase to be quite frank with you. The girlfriend doesn't seem to take too high an opinion of it but it's the one thing that makes me tick," he said.

In a little over two hours we arrived in Wolsztyn, home to one of the last working steam engine depots in Europe.

Three Polish-made locomotives from the 1950s ply the commuter route between Wolsztyn and Poznan every day.

Attraction

Poland's heavily-indebted state railway company (PKP) can afford to keep them running because of the extra money brought in by the tourists.

"The money from the courses goes to either specific big projects like the overhaul of a locomotive or if there's a small problem that needs an instant repair, we provide the cash and they can go ahead and do it," Mr Jones said.

He has an agreement with the company until 2007.

"I'm optimistic we can get it beyond there. When I first came out here I wasn't in the best of states, I was going through a separation and had business problems," he said.

"Someone said to me you'll never do it. It was like a red rag to a bull - just watch me.

"I think there's now a realisation of how special Wolsztyn is. It's a way of life, it's industrial heritage rather than a museum," he added.

That is good news for both the Polish train crews and the tourists. For a few years at least, Poland's steam age will live on.


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