Eastern Poland is, in theory, one of the vaunted 'crossroads locations' that so many regions around the world proclaim themselves to be in their investment marketing literature. It is at the eastern flank of the EU and shares borders with not only its EU compatriot Lithuania – providing access to the Baltics and Nordics – but also non-EU members Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. So, theoretically, it provides a platform for companies to make goods within the safety of an EU market, while exporting onwards to eastern markets.
But accessing the northern part of the region, and moving around within it, is not as simple in practice.
A poor track record
Transport is a sore spot for most locations in north-eastern Poland. All roads lead to Warsaw, metaphorically and literally, and there is frustration among regional officials as well as foreign investors about the poor connectivity. There is a feeling that national priorities have heavily favoured the western part of the country and capital Warsaw.
Intra-regional connectivity is especially bad. Travelling among the key cities of eastern Poland is time consuming, inconvenient and almost always requires transiting through Warsaw. But the connections between these cities and the capital are also not what they should be. There is no direct passenger train service between Warsaw and Białystok, for example; a three-hour coach journey over country roads is the only public transport option. The city has no functioning airport, although after plans for a regional airport failed to get approval at the national level, it is moving ahead with development of a small airport in the city instead.
“The [cargo] railway structure is good and being close to the border helps – we have logs coming directly into [our] site from Belarus and elsewhere, and we are sending [materials] out by train directly to big customers in Russia and other markets. It's very efficient," says Ulrika Garbe, managing director of Ikea’s wood products factory in the small town of Orla in north-eastern Poland. But the road infrastructure and absence of air links are drawbacks. “The roads in this area are [not so great] compared with the western part of Poland,” she says.
Not digging it
Local officials are well aware of the problems. “Better infrastructure is [absolutely] necessary for our region. Infrastructure is at the core of our development needs, our dreams for our region, and for attracting more foreign companies here,” says Mieczyslaw Kazimierz Baszko, marshal of the Podlaskie voivodeship, which includes Białystok. “We are working to improve the quality of the road and railway infrastructure… The quality of external links is a priority of EU policy and the Polish government, but also for the local authorities in the region.”
His counterpart in the Warmia and Mazury voivodeship, Gustaw Marek Brzezin, agrees. “Of course, to be able to locate the investment, the infrastructure must be very well developed, both the communication infrastructure and also the energy and canal infrastructure,” he says. “Here, massive progress has been made in the recent [EU funding period] 2007 to 2013. Warmia and Mazury has changed: we invest a lot in infrastructure. This can be easily seen in a city such as Olsztyn, where we have dug up the streets [for roads upgrades and installation of a tram line] and the whole region is the same. We are still not fully satisfied, and we are fighting for our priorities.”
Warmia and Mazury’s air connectivity is set to receive a major boost in mid-2015 when flights are expected to begin at the new Olsztyn-Mazury Regional Airport, which is under construction in Szymany.
Szymany is 150 kilometres from Białystok – slightly shorter than the distance from Białystok to Warsaw – so while the new airport might not save that city’s residents any driving time, it can at least offer an occasional reprieve from the well-trodden road to Warsaw.