A trip from Berlin to Malbork and Gdansk, recalling the Polish Corridor of the 20s and 30s and its system of Privileged Trains.
New York Times, May 1, 1925
Poland – A German express train from Königsberg to Berlin crossing the Polish Corridor derails on a sharp curve between Swarożyn (Swaroschin) and Starogard Gdański (Preußisch Stargard), sending the locomotive and six cars 25 feet (8 m) down an embankment; 26 people are killed and 12 seriously injured, mostly in first class, and because the train doors were locked while in Poland, passengers remain locked in the undamaged cars for another two hours. Germany accused Poland of poor maintenance while Poland blamed Germany for sabotaging their own train to discredit Poland.
Berlin to Kostrzyn (Trains 1 & 2)
August 2022, and I am here in Berlin about to take a train into a part of Poland that was once a part of Germany. I will be travelling east for about 400km along the former main line to Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). My trip will take me as far as Malbork (Marienberg), a town famous for its UNESCO-listed castle.
On my way back I will stop for a few days in Poland’s largest port city, Gdańsk (Danzig), before returning to the German capital by a different route. My journey will allow me to explore the fascinating and often violent history of changing borders in this part of Europe.
I am starting off from the Ostbahnhof in the centre of the city and board the S-Bahn just for a few stops to Lichtenberg. This early change is necessary because the little diesel train that I am boarding next is banished from the centre of the city and forced to terminate out here.
At Lichtenberg I find my train right on the opposite side of the station to the S-Bahn. It is formed of two two-carriage PESA diesel multiple units operated by the NEB, one of Germany’s private operators. I will be riding this service all the way to its destination, Küstrin-Kietz, 81km to the east. It will be about a 60-minute run with several stops along the way.
We set off on time and run parallel to the S-Bahn tracks as far as Strausberg (27.9km) and then emerge into the wide open and largely flat countryside that will be a feature of much of my journey today.
The main line here was singled after the war with the Russians taking the second track as part of reparations. This causes us a delay today as we are forced to wait for a late train coming in the opposite direction. My train is supposed to go to Kostryzn, the first town in Poland, but they are repairing the bridge over the River Oder so I will be catching a bus. Now, I start to worry about the 5-minute connection time.
The train is a full 8 minutes late arriving at Küstrin-Kietz and there is a bit of a scramble out of the station into the car park where the replacement bus is supposed to be waiting. The bus has gone. Incredibly it left on time 3 minutes ago without waiting for the train it was meant to connect with.
Now I am worried. The schedule says we would have had a 20-minute connection at Kostryn, so we are already down to 12. Without a bus it looks hopeless. There are about 40 of us waiting, most of my fellow passengers seem to be Polish and many have large suitcases with them. After a couple of minutes, a small bus pulls up and parks in the car park. It is not supposed to operate but somehow the people persuade (there is a lot of arguing in Polish) the driver to take us.
It is a squeeze as the little bus is not built for the number of people on board. I am lucky, I get a window seat and soon after we leave the station yard, I am treated to a grand view of the railway bridge under construction as we pass over the River Oder into Poland.
Kostryzn – Krzyz (Train 3)
It is only a 10-minute bus journey to Kostrzyn, but we are still arriving with only two minutes to spare. Knowing that there will not be another train east for 2 hours and thankful that I have bought a ticket in advance, I run onto the platform. I find my next train waiting with the conductor standing smiling on the platform next to it. I smile back as I dash past him, climb aboard and find a seat.
The train is another two-carriage PESA diesel, this time in the bright colours of Polregio, the Polish regional operator. The departure time comes and goes but we don’t go anywhere. It is clear that the conductor wants to make sure that everyone from the bus has boarded. The train gradually fills up. When we finally leave, we are more than 10 minutes late.
Back on the German train all the announcements had been bilingual, now everything is only in Polish. Judging by this and the people on the train, I am guessing that not many Germans use this route to visit Poland. Most international traffic from Berlin will go via Frankfurt and Poznan.
Before 1945 Kostryzn was itself German and known as Kustrin. The border between the two countries was established here on the Oder at the end of the Second World War. Since then, there have been a few changes; on the German side the country changed from the DDR to the Bundesrepublik in 1990, whilst the entry of Poland into the Schengen agreement in 2007 put an end to passport control.
The two countries, both EU members, generally get on well, but there have been signs of strain recently. The issue of who is to blame for the fish-killing chemicals recently found in the River Oder has been dominating politics here over the past weeks. Meanwhile Poland is about to present Germany with a 1.3 trillion Euro bill for war reparations, without payment of which, it claims that relations can never be normal.
We are making good progress on the way from Kostrzyn and by the time we reach Gorzów Wielkopolski, the largest city on this section of line, we have made up most of the time. Most of my fellow passengers alight here and we get a fresh set of people boarding for the trip on to Krzyz.
After a run of around 2 hours, we finally pull into Krzyz. The train terminates here, and I have a 50 minute wait for the next one.
Krzyz to Pila (Train 4)
At Krzyz (Kreuz), 188km from Berlin, we meet the electrified Szczecin (Stettin) to Poznan (Posen) line. This town was created by the railway; its name comes from the German word for crossing. Fittingly, there is an old Polish steam locomotive on display at the end of the main platform.
The line I am travelling on was once the main route of the East Prussian Railway (Preußische Ostbahn); it linked Berlin with the important cities of Danzig (Gdańsk) in West Prussia and Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) in East Prussia. It stretched for over 700km all the way to the border with the Russian Empire at Eydtkuhnen (now Cheryshevskoye, Russia, on the Lithuanian Border). From the time of its construction until the end of the First World War it lay exclusively within the borders of Germany.
The line was built in stages between 1851 and 1867; the eastern sections were completed first and the very last part was the short cut from Kostryzn to Berlin. In fact, initially trains had headed north from Krzyz to reach Berlin via Szczecin (Stettin).
The old main line can be seen on the modern PKP (Polish Railways) network map below. Now a “thin” secondary route of the modern network, it stretches from Berlin to Kostrzyn, Krzyz, Pila, Chojince and on to Tczew with its junction for Gdańsk (Danzig). The main line then continued east to Malbork, Elblag, Braniewo, and over the current Polish-Russian border to Königsberg (Kaliningrad).
Apart from the obvious attraction of the steam locomotive, Krzyz is not the most exciting place to wait. There is supposed to be a cafe, but it is closed, possibly permanently. The place is quite deserted.
Soon, way before its departure time, my next train pulls in. It is another 2-car diesel. I get on and settle into a seat. There are just three other passengers on board when we leave. The train stays quiet all the way to Pila. The journey takes an hour.
Before the First World War this route was used by the famous Nord Express. The train ran from Paris Nord through Brussels, Cologne, Hannover and then Berlin before continuing along this route to Königsberg, though Latvia and on to St Petersburg.
Until January 1945, there were also frequent express trains along this line connecting Berlin with Königsberg. Now, with that city part of Russia, the railway, which doesn’t pass through many other significant settlements, generates little traffic. There have been no through services since 1945; the line is now served by short-distance local services.
Another 50-minute wait here, and on the surface, Pila doesn’t seem much busier than Krzyz. The cafe is closed here too, so I leave the station and go in search of something to eat. I am lucky; just near the main entrance I find a milk bar attached to a convenience store.
It takes a bit of time to fathom what some of the dishes on the menu at the entrance are, but it is time well spent, because the lady behind the counter doesn’t speak any English. I order Bigos (a stew based on sauerkraut) and a plate of Pierogi with meat filling. The little cafe is a bit of a culture shock after the busy chain restaurants of Berlin, but it is a nice shock and so are the prices.
Until it became part of Poland in 1945, Pila used to be known as Schneidemühl. There is a connection between the names; the German translates as “saw mill”, the Polish as just “mill”. I am surprised to see that the walls of this little cafe are covered with old pictures of Schneidemühl. My food takes a while to arrive, but when it does it is excellent.
Pila to Chojince (Train 5)
Back at the station my next train, another 2-car diesel, arrives on time. Unlike the previous one it is pretty full, and it is a struggle to find an empty seat.
At first, I think I have spotted one but there is a sign suggesting the bay of 4 is for crew use only. Sure enough, the conductor soon arrives and spreads himself out over the 4 seats. At each station he is off to close the doors and check tickets but, he has arranged his things carefully to make sure no one occupies his space. Fair enough, I suppose.
As I leave Pila and head eastwards, I am approaching what was once known as the Polish corridor. If I had been making the trip from Berlin to Königsberg before 1918, or between 1939 and 1945, I would have been travelling wholly within Germany. Yet had I been travelling in the period between the two world wars, I would have passed through three sets of national frontiers.
The country of Poland, having been off the map for more than a century, was recreated by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The settlement to end the Great War carved out the country from territory that had previously been part of the Russian and German Empires. At the same time the former German city of Danzig was accorded “free city” status.
For Germany this meant not only the loss of a substantial piece of West Prussia, but the rendering of East Prussia as an exclave, separated from the rest of the country by the new Poland. The Eastern Railway line, hitherto the major domestic link between Berlin and East Prussia, suddenly became an international route complete with frontier crossings.
As a partial remedy to the situation, a system of “privileged trains” was introduced. Certain Berlin to Königsberg expresses were treated as domestic transits and passengers travelling on these services were exempt from any form of customs or immigration procedure.
The old frontier is no longer visible of course, but it was located between two of the halts that we stop at today; Wierzchowo Człuchowskie (Firshau) and Moszczenica Pomorska (Mossnitz). The old border stations are just four Kilometres apart.
Back in the 1920s and 1930s, eastbound privileged trains would have stopped back at Schneidemühl to be prepared for transit across the Polish corridor. The carriage doors would have been locked and sealed, not to be opened again until the train was back on German territory at Marienberg (Malbork).
As we arrive at the terminus of our train, Chojince (369km from Berlin), after a journey of an hour, we are only about 3 minutes late. Nevertheless, it is still a bit of a scramble for the next 9-minute connection.
Chojince to Tczew (Train 6)
The train to Tczew is waiting on the opposite platform. It is yet another 2-carriage diesel unit and yet again it is already full when I get to it. I spot a couple of bays free at the front, but once more there are signs suggesting they are for crew use. This time it seems that 8 seats will be occupied by two ticket collectors. I get the very last free seat, a side-facing tip up job just across from them. Other people are standing.
Chojince (Konitz before WW1) was the first former-German large town to be encountered going east into the Polish corridor. Between the wars, passengers on most of the non-privileged trains would have undergone immigration and customs checks here. The next stage of my journey, a 90 minute all-stations plod to Tczew (Dirshau) replicates exactly a trip across the old corridor.
Almost as soon as it was established there were political problems with the corridor. The Poles objected to the word “corridor” because it implied a seemingly false notion that the country didn’t actually have its own coastline and needed a corridor to access the sea. Whilst German bitterness at the loss of territory grew as time went on, relations worsened with the 1925 train derailment and deteriorated further after the coming to power of the National Socialists in 1933.
The Nazis issued some interesting “How would you like a corridor through your country?” propaganda postcards that featured maps of other countries suitably modified with corridors and free cities. The one directed at the UK was complete with a free city of Hull and a wide trans-Pennine canal that would have been a true engineering marvel had it ever been built.
The train never gets any less busy, but we do manage to arrive in Tczew on time. Between the wars, there would have been immigration and customs procedures to exit Poland here.
Tczew to Malbork (Train 7)
Having endured five journeys on 2-carriage diesels, for the last lap I have been promoted to the pride of the Polish train fleet. The EIP (Express Intercity Premium) that will take me the short distance to Malbork is capable of speeds of up to 250km/h. It is expensive and reservation only, but it is leaving now and there are not many alternatives to it at this hour.
I have now joined the main Gdańsk to Warsaw line and this train is heading for the Polish Capital. I am impressed by the beautiful interior and the comfortable seats and feel a bit sorry that I am making such a short 20-minute journey.
We leave Tczew and pass over the Vistula River on a long bridge. During the 20s and 30s, bottlenecks over this bridge were often a source of conflict between the Polish and German authorities. The bridge here came under German attack on the first day of World War Two.
After the Vistula crossing, privileged trains would have left the Polish Corridor and crossed a small piece of land that lay between Poland and Germany and belonged to the Free City of Danzig.
It is not long before we are crossing a second river, the Nogat, and slowing down for our arrival at Malbork (Marienburg) station. Back in the days of the privileged trains, we would now be arriving back on German territory. The train could now finally be unsealed before it continued its journey on to Königsberg.
The station at Malbork was built by the original East Prussian Railway Company and is a splendid example of neo-gothic style. I spend a few minutes marvelling at the booking hall and waiting rooms.
The city crests of many of the stations on the old route adorn the walls. Those for Berlin and Königsberg (Królewiec) are appropriately displayed over the main entrance to the platforms.
It is interesting to note that if I had been standing here 110 years ago, I would still have been in West Prussia, and my journey east would have soon taken me across the internal Prussian boundary, not too far from here, into East Prussia, and on to Königsberg.
Yet 100 years ago, I would have already been in East Prussia. The border between the two parts of Prussia having moved west after the creation of Poland, with everything east of the Polish corridor now counted as East Prussia.
I walk out of the station and, after a pleasant stroll through the little town, I come to Malbork’s main attraction; its UNESCO-listed castle. Apparently, it is the largest castle by area in the world.
The fortress was built in stages, starting with what is known as the High Castle, then expanding first into the Middle Castle and then finally the Lower Castle. The whole complex is encircled by three rings of walls and strengthened with dungeons and towers.
It was begun by the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century and continued to be their headquarters for 150 years. It was eventually seized by the Polish army and became the residence of Polish kings.
In 1772 the Prussians turned it into a barracks, then in the 19th century it was taken into government protection. Although the castle sustained considerable damage in the Second World War, today it has been restored and looks much like it did six centuries ago.
Considering how extensive it is, the fee to enter the castle is reasonable and includes an impressive audio guide that works via GPS. Among several sub-exhibitions included inside the castle is one on Amber. This area of Poland is famous for the substance.
It takes around 3 hours to see the whole thing and at the end of it, I am satisfied with the visit. I walk out of the castle, get a beer from a stall and sit on the bank of the Nogat river. In the distance I can see trains crossing the bridge. I watch them for a while and then make my way back to the station.