Restoring the railway age

At a cost of PLN 2 bln, a programme is currently underway to renovate 200 train stations across Poland. Over half of these are listed as historic buildings, which means that not only will PKP be working with architectural studios, but the work will also need the approval of conservation bodies

As Wojciech Zabłocki, the investment director at PKP, explains, the programme, which started in 2016 and will continue until the end of 2023, includes improvements to both listed buildings and those that are not covered by such legal strictures, as well as erecting completely new buildings, referred to as Innovative System Stations [Innowacyjne Dworce Systemowe]. This investment in the railway buildings is being financed by the PKP as well as by the state and from the EU’s Operational Programme – Infrastructure and Environment.

Historic value

“In theory, the modernisation of a historic building can be divided into several stages. Depending on the type of project, this includes preparing a functional use study or drawing up a description of the building that is to be refurbished, then commissioning architectural studios to prepare the right project documentation and applying for all the necessary administrative decisions. Only then can we get down to rebuilding the station by putting the general contractor project out to tender,” explains Wojciech Zabłocki. It takes an average of two years to enlarge a station that is a listed building. “The time it takes is not just due to the building itself, its size, and the type of conservation its listing entails, but also depends on whether each individual stage of the project runs smoothly when we use external contractors for the design and the building work,” points out Wojciech Zabłocki. He also goes on to say that when working on such old buildings there are often surprises. Sometimes certain aspects need repairing or replacing, and at others the work that was planned requires even more approvals to achieve the desired high-quality effect. “Besides all this, it’s extremely difficult in this regard to compare a station like Gdańsk Główny (the city’s central station) with one in a small town like Susz in Warmia-Masuria, even if you’re only considering their dimensions,” he explains. The costs of redeveloping older buildings do, however, have one thing in common. They are much higher than for standard buildings. “For example, the redevelopment costs of Gdańsk Główny came to PLN 100 mln, while the work on the station in Białystok was almost PLN 45 mln. In Susz a total of PLN 7.5 mln was spent. In comparison, the cost of building a new Innovative System Station, such as the one in Dębe Wielkie, amounts to around PLN 4.5 mln,” reveals Wojciech Zabłocki.

Hand-in-hand with the conservator

As was previously mentioned, historic station buildings are covered by different types of conservation orders. Normally, most of the issues related to preserving the historic features of a building are decided at the design stage with the conservation office. But occasionally, the buildings require specialists to draw up a conservation programme with the building conservation officer before the first earth is dug on the site. However, approvals at the design stage are often not sufficient on their own and approvals need to be granted on the building site, which means that the conservation officer has to work with the investors and architects almost up until the completion of the project. Kinga Treder of the Monument Conservation Office in Bydgoszcz points out that for those buildings that are on the record as historic buildings but haven’t been included on the register (such as the stations in Kołodziejów, Złotniki Kujawskie and Mogilna), renovations can take place if the plans submitted by the investors to the local conservation authorities are approved. “The time it takes to complete a project varies and mainly depends on how much the investor is prepared to spend and whether something unforeseen occurs that requires changes to be made to the original project,” she explains. But she also adds that if the building is not on the official register then there is no requirement for conservation officers to supervise the work on the site. “What’s important for PKP as an investor is not only that the historic features of a building are restored but also that the station building is adapted to meet current construction regulations and technical norms. It also has to meet the needs of the passengers, including the disabled, ensuring their safety and comfort,” emphasises Wojciech Zabłocki of PKP.

The architect’s view

According to Szczepan Wroński, a partner of the WXCA architectural studio, train station renovations are very complicated projects with their own specific requirements, because they are on closed-off sites and agreements must be obtained from the many different PKP subsidiaries that use particular areas of them. “These companies don’t operate within the legal deadlines laid out by administrative decisions and approvals, which are binding for administrators. This means that procedural issues and obtaining approvals can be a draining experience. As is the case with every project involving a number of parties, the design stage becomes an amalgam of all those involved. But it is often one person who decides how a project will proceed. When you are talking to a public official who cares about the architecture or the engineering that is to be used, they can often be persuaded about what will be the best. For example, ten years ago we were working on the modernisation of Dworzec Letni in Poznań [one of the buildings of the Poznań Główny railway station], a building that is over 100 years old. We suggested a modern grey graphite roof for the building, which suited the historic building beautifully. The local conservation officer in Poznań accepted our proposal because he appreciated the look we had created,” recalls Szczepan Wroński. His studio also worked on the stations in Pusczykowo and Koło. “I admit that even though these were challenging undertakings, the design work went extremely smoothly. This was mainly due to the investor, PKP Poznań, which set up a professional team of several people for the modernisation work and also appointed a project supervisor and we all worked together on finding the best solutions,” he adds. He also admits that because of the way such design firms are selected, his studio for a long time avoided such projects. “Studios are often selected through tenders that don’t select the best architectural concept. What generally wins out is the price and that’s something that isn’t a happy bedfellow with quality. The modernisation of PKP’s stations is a really costly undertaking, so skimping at the initial design stage really doesn’t make sense. This almost guarantees that when it comes to the construction work, budgets are going to be breached and chaos will ensue throughout the management of the entire project,” admits Szczepan Wroński, who goes on to say that with the public financing for such large and important buildings, architectural competitions or technical dialogues should have been held: “Competitions do take place, such as recently in Wrocław and Częstochowa, but they are the exception rather than the rule. As a result, reputable studios are not interested in the modernisation of PKP’s stations, even though these are intriguing projects commissioned on the basis of a tender system,” he explains.

What next?

As part of its railway investment programme, PKP has already completed over 200 stations that are under various types of conservation orders, including a large building in Białystok. Work is also underway on other historic stations, the largest of which is currently the extension of Gdańsk Główny. However, the programme does not only involve such large buildings. “Among the real architectural pearls there are also stations in smaller towns, like Pszczółki, Susz, Kąty Wrocławskie and Smolec. This year we are planning to reopen historic stations in the towns of Skarżysko-Kamienna, Radymno, Szczytno and Bolesławiec as well as Wałbrzych Główny station. When we complete the programme, more than 100 such stations will have been refurbished, not including those historic stations that we modernised before 2016,” says Wojciech Zabłocki.


Almost PLN 37 mln for Białystok

In the autumn of 2020, almost two years of renovation work came to an end for the historic PKP station in Białystok. The building was erected in 1861 to serve the Warsaw–St Petersburg line, and has been listed on the historic monument register since 1960. “We took on the challenge of reconstructing the early 20th century hall. We can’t, however, say that this was a true restoration – it was more a kind of a re-creation project that harks back to the renaissance revival, restoring most of the former interior elements, such as the coffered ceilings, the cast-iron columns, the friezes and the black-and-white chessboard floor. All of this combines to create a coherent whole and allows anyone who visits Białystok central station today to imagine what it was like at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries,” claims Wojciech Zabłocki, the investment director of PKP. The work undertaken by Budimex also included reinforcing and securing the building. The station has been fitted with a BMS as well as solar panels, new bathroom fixtures and CCTV surveillance. The building’s thermal insulation has also been upgraded, while obstacles for those with impaired movement have been removed. Investment costs for the project came to a total of PLN 36.6 mln net.