Thursday, 3 March 2011

Interview with Polish Railway Trade Union Leader (Part 2)

Below is the second half of the interview with the leader of the Railway Trade Union Confederation in Poland published in Labour Notes.
How the Polish Railway is being destroyed… And how to fix it? (Part 2)
By jadakiss05, on March 1st, 2011

Why were union funds for infrastructure suspended?

That decision made us write an impulsive open letter. 25% of railway lines were closed. At this moment 19 000 kilometres of railway lines are functioning. There were 27 000 kilometres earlier. The president of Polish Railways S.A. says that the company can maintain at most 7,5 000 kilometres. In the coming years two thirds of railway lines will be closed. The residents of Kraków and Lublin have threatened Grabarczyk that if there will be no bypass then the Civic Platform will be dealt with in the next elections. That is why it was decided that money could be taken from the railways. It is explained that the railway is not in a state to manage these funds. That is a half-truth. I am not saying that Polish Railways prepare for all projects perfectly and on time. I am only making a point on the fact that the government did not prepare the legal and organisational conditions for such a serious investment.

First of all- the Minister of Finance did not give guarantees on credit for Polish Railways which would have financed its own contributions. If that money is not available you cannot get any grants. The law on commercialisation and privatisation was passed but the railway was not given access to its assets. If the government wanted to shorten the long process of enfranchisement, notaries, allotments then the law would have given the railway power over its assets, predicting compensation for its present owners. Legally a huge amount of investment work has to be done just like it was done in road infrastructure. Because there is no regulations which can hurry up investment processes. Railway workers have to ask about everything: if water is flowing from the platform, then it is a “leak” and you have to put a drainage system in place at once and so on…

Even if there is investment in railway infrastructure it is only in trans-European circles which are needed by the European Union. In Poland the lines that are needed are those that go from north to south. There is no railway investment in in Śląsk (South of Poland). If a train goes there at a speed of 10km/h it is possible go to it, open the door and calmly put in some coal, which is done anyway.

In the European Union it was decided that 60% of the budget is directed to road investment ,and 40% to rail transport. In Poland roads and railways are financed at a proportion of 95:5. The railways have to repair on their own and coordinate the process of exploiting railways. The rates on the availability of infrastructure for transporters are some of the highest in Europe. That means that for access to railway lines you need to pay ten times more than you pay for access to a carriageway.

The debt of PKP S.A. has been talked about a lot. How did these debts accumulate?

Because of the use of public transporters without refunding them. Parliament provided some relief but it did not give money. More than 400 000 people worked in the railways. Today there are around 100 000 workers. The railway health service was liquidated, nurseries, tailors…. A whole sector of the economy was restructured without a single zloty coming from the budget. PKP even replaced the employment offices, paying the retrenched workers pre-pension benefits. Also some government companies were in debt-for example the ironworks. Because the ironworks were earmarked for privatisation-their debts to PKP was suspended. The ironworks found a foreign investor and PKP remained with debts.Every year the subsidiaries must raise a 300mln ransom which is then used for paying interest and not debts. I note- that debt did not come about because of rail workers. That is a national budget debt in PKP S.A. The rail has been always a trash can where you can always take from and where you can always dump into.

Was any procedure of removing debts in PKP S.A. ever put in place?

A fund was created in which money from the sale of fuel is directed there. It was meant to enable the building of rail infrastructure. However, because PKP is in debt it has been decided that the fund will buy shares of Polish Railways on behalf of the national treasury. Because of that, PKP will then have money to pay its debts. The problem is that in the next few years those funds will cover only one third of the debt. The rest around a billion zloty per year, the Polish Railways must find it on their own. They could take credit but the government’s guarantee is needed. That would in turn increase the public debt. The government would not agree to that. The only options that are left are the selling of assets and privatisation. The best railway companies are preparing for privatization. It is not about increasing capital so that the companies could invest but about the brutal selling of the most valuable assets only to pay debts. That is why for example Polish Railways is being sold to a company with a 20% return.
The infrastructure repair centres have been sold. PKP Cargo the second largest goods transporter in Europe is getting ready for privatisation. Because there is a crisis in Europe -there is no profit in big railway companies. Polish companies will be sold to anyone, for cheap so that the debts can be paid.

Us as trade unionists do not want money from the budget. We just want the creation of a level playing field. We are not against privatisation but we want the money obtained in such a way that it funds rail companies in order for them to become more competitive. I will give an example, for the past few years Cargo has been operating in an open transporting market. However because it is being forced to pay the credit for PKP cargo it is less competitive according to Polish and foreign transporters. German companies have been allowed on the market and they do not have any debts. In addition to that they have access to public funds which finance the buying of equipment and so on. How are we supposed to compete in such conditions?

What does the future hold for the National Railways?

Without the systematic changes of which we talked about nothing will change in the railways. For the government the PKP debt is marginal. The government is spending public debt and reducing the deficit is not important. For us however it is a matter of life and death.
Poland is situated at the centre of communication in Europe. We could compete in the transportation of goods and earn a lot. But the lobbists in the car industry will not allow that because they want to maintain the inequality between road transport and rail transport. In Poland sometime it is more productive to transport coal by trucks from the mine to the port. The state is interested mainly in road transport but it does not look at the consequences of such politics. How many people die on Polish roads? How many are removed from professional life? How much are the costs of rehabilitation?
For a number of years we have been saying that the processes of restructurisation are going the wrong way. Now we are standing over irreversible decisions. If a company collapses or is sold we cannot do anything. The railway workers will have to pay for those decisions. This time they are not at fault in any way-they just do what they are told.
If nothing is done the regional transporters will collapse, equipment will be divided between voivodships which create these companies. The consequences are that there will be more problems when it comes to travelling between voivodships, the costs of exploitation will rise and in regions where there are few travellers trains will be liquidated. In the main towns the only available connections will be those by road. Two thirds of the railways will be closed and the regional transporters will be practically liquidated. That would cause economic problems in regions. If there wont be any railways then there wont be any investment.

What should be done to avoid such a scenario?

Unfortunately no one wants to see a situation where the polish railways are only limited to the needs of the Polish economy and not the European economy. The most important thing here is the will. If there is no will there are always a million reasons available for not doing anything . If there is a will then there is need to fix all the things that we talked about. First of all we should find a way to liquidate the debts in PKP S.A.
The problem with the rail is that trains should not only be colourful, smell good and have good promotion but they must also operate. For that specialists are needed , those who know the exploitation processes needed for operating trains. Unfortunately for a number of years the railways have been managed by people who think that they are rectifying the problems by making the trains nice and smelling good, not having the slightest idea of the exploitation processes. They draw some plans where a train goes across the whole of Poland without servicing. On paper everything is ok. Only that in reality nothing is ok.This is not about lack of motivation. Simply they are incompetent people. I wonder what would be if these people went to manage banks.

In what ways are trade unions opposed to this situation?

In 1998 we organised a four day strike of train engineers. We demanded then that the railways be financed on a level of 1% of the GDP. We organised conferences, we prepared even alternatives projects for changing the railways. However the management did not take it seriously.They treat trade unions as boys with dirty fingernails. Our efforts are tossed away and they hire consulting firms. Therefore I am not optimistic but I can assure you that we will fight to the end!
Translation: Marlon Nziramasanga

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