Poland has built a network of high-speed roads almost from scratch in the 21st century, with a density approaching that of Western Europe. Considerable funds have been earmarked for the modernisation of railways but genuine results are yet to come.
Dziennik Gazeta Prawna - Special Edition: World Economic Forum Davos 2022
Poland had only 500 km of expressways at the beginning of this century. These were mainly short stretches of motorway, some of which were built by Germany in the 1930s and ended up in Polish territory after the Second World War following the redrawing of the country’s borders. In the 1990s, despite rapid motorisation, the Polish government was unable to raise funds and start building a true road network. This task was only achieved with Poland’s accession to the European Union, ensuring access to substantial funds for infrastructure. The award of the European Football Championship in 2012 to Poland and Ukraine was also extremely motivating. That year, a record number of high-speed roads spanning almost 600 km became available to drivers. Many plans fell through at the time, however, such as completing the S7 expressway which was to run from north to south, connecting Gdańsk with Warsaw and Krakow.
Road construction in Poland is still moving at the fastest pace in Europe. As a result, 300-400 km of fast roads are completed every year. Poland will have almost 5,000 km of motorways and expressways in total by the end of 2022. Over four years ago, Poland overtook Great Britain, which is more populous although slightly smaller in size. If the current pace of road construction is maintained as the government aspires, Poland will have as many kilometres of roads per population as Germany or France within five or six years.
The top priority now is to complete the country’s transportation backbone, including the Gdańsk-Warsaw-Kraków motorway, and to close the ring road around the capital city. However, some experts are arguing that the construction of these thoroughfares should be slowed down. The idea is to put more emphasis on railway as it is more environmentally-friendly. The financial challenge will soon become urgent as funds need to be raised for the repair of the dense road network. Another challenge is posed by road tolls as the system differs considerably case by case. On the one hand, there are very expensive motorways built and managed by private licensed operators with tolls of up to PLN 0.40 per kilometre. On the other hand, there are also motorway sections administered by the government, which are four times cheaper than private motorways or even free of charge over long stretches.
While the law clearly provides for tolled motorways in Poland, in an effort not to irritate drivers, the government has been delaying the introduction of tolls for years. Equally confusing are tolls for lorries which drive across Poland, a transit country, in great numbers. Drivers of vehicles weighing over 3.5 tonnes should pay tolls not only on expressways but also on busier national roads. The network of free roads for trucks has been growing for almost five years as the government lags behind in adding newly built sections to the toll system.
After years of oversight, Poland is upgrading its railway network. Railways increasingly lost importance after the fall of communism in 1989. In 2020, the worst year since, passenger trains disappeared from 1,028 km of railway lines, in particular local ones. With Poland’s accession to the EU came money and government programmes to modernise railway routes. The biggest allocation has been available in the last two budget perspectives: PLN 23 billion for 2011-2015 and currently PLN 77 billion for 2016-2023.
Polish railways have turned into huge construction sites. Some experts, however, point to the low efficiency of the investments. The completion of works, which may take from six to eight years, sometimes brings no apparent reduction in the travel time of trains. Some parameters may even decline, for example where passing spots are eliminated due to savings, which limits the capacity of the line. Delays in railway investments are quite frequent. Reconstruction may slow down somewhat in the coming years because the railways have recently been unable to open tenders for the modernisation of tracks due, among others, to the fact that the National Recovery Plan of Poland has not been approved by Brussels.
This notwithstanding, the improving condition of railways is bringing about a renaissance for this mode of transport. The number of train passengers has increased almost every year over the past decade. The Polish railway carried around 28% more passengers in 2019 than in 2010. This upward trend was halted only by the COVID-19 pandemic. With more and more new and comfortable rolling stock, people are encouraged to take the train. The development of railways in large urban agglomerations has recently become a priority. For passengers, it is an alternative to commuting by car in heavy traffic. Previously cancelled lines to towns that were cut off from transport in the absence of trains are being reinstated. Most members of the political class and public recognise the need to invest in efficient railways.
However, there is no consensus with regard to another infrastructure project: the construction of the Solidarity Transport Hub, including among others a large new airport hub to replace the existing Okęcie airport on the outskirts of Warsaw. The government decided in 2017 that the new airport would be located in the town of Baranów, some 35 km west of downtown Warsaw. The investment project was prompted by the absence of space necessary to expand Okęcie, which is surrounded by housing estates. In 2019, just before the pandemic, Okęcie served almost 19 million passengers, close to its capacity limit, estimated at 22-24 million.
The new airport will cost around PLN 30 billion. Initially, its capacity is to reach 40 million passengers but the airport will have land reserves sufficient to increase its capacity to 100 million passengers per year in the future. According to forecasts, the airport will be operational by the end of 2027, which seems unrealistic. Opponents of the investment point out that a dual airport concept would cost several times less. Mainly, it would amount to a minor expansion of the existing Warsaw airport to reach a capacity of 26-28 million passengers per year. In addition, the Modlin airport located 37 km north of Warsaw, which is now used by the low-cost airline Ryanair, could be significantly expanded. A former military airport, Modlin has been in operation for 10 years. The terminal is already very cramped and has long been in need of an upgrade.
The government’s Solidarity Transport Hub project also envisages the construction of almost 2,000 km of high-speed railway lines, which are to radiate out from the new airport. They would not only improve access to the airport but also to a large extent facilitate travel throughout the country. The exact locations of the new routes are now under deliberation. Many experts agree that the new lines are needed but they are not as enthusiastic about all of their locations. Furthermore, there are serious doubts as to whether the railway lines can be completed by the middle of the next decade as scheduled by the government. It is unclear, for example, whether funding can be raised for the construction of the new lines, which are to cost at least PLN 100 billion in total. ©℗
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