Poland's old steam trains still on track

Hurtling down the rails, whistle blaring, huffing and puffing coal soot and steam, Beautiful Helena is a sight to behold as it proudly chugs along the passenger run it's made for 73 years.

At full blast, it hits 130 kilometres (80 miles) an hour - only half the speed of some modern bullet trains - but the much-loved Helena stands out as one of the few European steam engines still used for daily passenger service.

These vintage commuters - 13 in all though only three run regularly - all operate out of Wolsztyn, western Poland, which is also home to an annual steam engine parade that drew tens of thousands of railway enthusiasts, young and old, this month.

"Wolsztyn is unique in Europe because steam trains have been running here non-stop from 1907, so for 103 years," said Andrzej Jablonski, a senior railway man with Polish state rail firm PKP Cargo, organiser of the yearly event.

The old trains ply a regional track between Wolsztyn and Poznan, 80 kilometers (50 miles) away.

In all, 11 steam locomotives - Helena and seven others from Wolsztyn, one from Germany, one from Hungary and a Czech Republic model named Matilda - showed off their vintage might at the weekend parade but the three foreign models are today museum or show pieces, Jablonski said.

All are fully functional, however, and made the trip by rail at their own speed.

Kitted up in Poland's traditional navy blue trainman's uniform with a square-topped cap, Jablonski glows when he speaks of "Piekna Helena" or Beautiful Helena, Wolsztyn's pride and joy.

Designed by Polish engineers in 1936 and built a year later, Beautiful Helena - known to experts as a Pm 36-2 type engine - runs about 40 kilometres faster than other steam engines, which average 90 kilometres an hour.

- 'Steam trains have soul' -

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It's top speed, in fact, is similar to the modern-day diesel and electric locomotives that replaced steam-powered engines in Poland during the 1950s.

But for Jablonski that's not what counts.

"Steam trains have soul, other locomotives, either diesel or electric, if they're standing still they're cold, but a steam train engine...if it's moving or if its standing still, we feel it has a soul," he said.

Engineer Czeslaw Janus, 56, concedes that "a steam engine is hard work," as he shovels coal into the glowing orange-red furnace of one of the locomotive he's driven for the last 37 years.

"On an electric train you just sit there and turn the wheel, but on a steam engine you have to shovel a couple of tons of coal, its hard physical work, but it's a real train," he said.

These workhorses powered Europe's 19th and 20th century Industrial Revolution - first in Britain then elsewhere in Europe - but started being replaced by their new electric and diesel cousins in the 1930s.

Despite the distance, Andrew Mullard, 40, a British trainman and steam engine fanatic from Kidderminster, near Birmingham in central England, grabbed the chance to see the vintage models in action.

"There's nothing like this in England," said Mullard, who can't get enough of the rhythmic choo-choo, the hiss of white steam, the piercing whistles and the clouds of black smokes billowing from these massive iron machines.

"It smells different, it sounds different, it feels different, it takes you back to an earlier time," he said wistfully.

In Wolsztyn, visitors can clamber over the engines and even blast the whistles in what Mullard said was a freer, hands-on experience than at similar exhibitions in Britain or other European Union countries.

Even the younger set was enchanted. A three-year-old named Pawelek perched in his father's arms covered his ears and gazed in wide-eyed wonder at the vintage engines chugging along.

"Its just like in that fairy tale," he grinned.

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