An air hub for Poland
An international airport with connecting railways and roads seems like a promising project that will propel Poland into the future, but not everyone thinks it’s a great idea.
Developed European countries are expected to have reliable, fast and convenient transportation and infrastructure to move travellers and cargo from city to city, border to border. As Poland strengthens its economic position, it aims to compete with its western neighbours by taking advantage of its central position and construct a new airport hub along with modern railways that connect major cities to that hub. In theory, this concept seems simple, but in reality the financing, logistics, design and implementation are complex, not to mention land acquisition and political considerations that have to be taken into account.
The proposed multi-billion złoty plan to build a central airport called Solidarity Airport in Baranów, 45 km west of Warsaw, drew international attention when it was approved by the Polish government in November 2017. Set to be completed by 2027, the 45-million capacity passenger airport – with possible expansion to accommodate 100 million a year in the future – would be the largest transportation hub in the CEE. Rail and highway links are also an integral part of the plan, allowing passengers to reach the hub in 2.5 hours or shorter, and in the final stage a majority of Poland’s longhaul trains will pass through the airport. According to Secretary of State Mikołaj Wild, the government plenipotentiary for the project, the total investment is expected to cost 80bn zł. Despite the plethora of unanswered questions, some experts believe that the project – known as the Central Transport Hub (or Central Communication Port) – will be successful. Agnieszka Gajewska, a Partner at PwC specialising in infrastructure financing in the CEE, said that although there are many risks, if prepared and developed in a right way, it absolutely has a chance to be profitable and economically beneficial; however, “it’s the government’s job to consider the economic viability and make sure all the boxes are ticked before the actual procurement starts.” She added that PwC is closely monitoring the progress and it’s not everyday that a project of this scale is happening in our part of the world. Bottomline, Gajewska stated that the project if properly scoped and developed would help make Poland one of the central destinations in Europe, so the hub can capture the CEE market and not just Poland alone. “Of course we are not operating in a vacuum and there are many well connected airports across Europe that will not remain passive,” said Gajewska, “but it’s a good idea to look at Poland as the heart of the region that can benefit from increased traffic flow in the future.”
The key question, of course, is how it will be financed. Gajewska said the project involves different components which may benefit from different financial models. “Infrastructure projects usually find funding and there are many interested parties, both public and private, so financial risk isn’t the highest risk. There are many risks during the project cycle that the government needs to address.” Adrian Furgalski, Vice President of TOR Transport Consultants Group, has doubts about the project and the government’s ability to deliver it, mainly due to a lack of experience in constructing such gigantic investments, but also because of factors such as labour shortage, environmental problems, and insufficient EU funding. Furgalski said Poland should focus on decentralising air traffic because point-to-point flights are on the rise. The need for a giant hub, he said, is arguable. He added that Warsaw Chopin Airport should be expanded as a cheaper alternative to the hub in conjunction with joint management of Warsaw Modlin Airport. In an official statement, Warsaw Chopin Airport said it is “approaching its capacity limits, although it will be modernised.” The statement goes on to seemingly condone the construction of the new hub. “Poland must get in the game when it comes to airport infrastructure. We must put Poland on the main communication routes of Europe” said the statement.
Many ideas have been proposed for the development of airports in Mazovia, said the Marshal of Mazowieckie Voivodeship, Adam Struzik. In his opinion, “the most sensible solution is the development of existing airports, including the one in Modlin.” After a troubled start, the airport, located 40 km north of Warsaw’s city centre, has turned out to be a successful investment for such a young airport (opened in 2012) with over 3 million passengers annually and serving 50 destinations. “Currently its development is being withheld by Polish Airports’ State Enterprise and this airport is essential,” claimed Struzik. “As the board of the voivodeship we will do everything to develop this airport.” A basic requisite for the success of the new hub is reliable railway connections. Furgalski is sceptical when it comes to new lines connecting the hub: “Since 1989, we [Poland] have built 48 km of railway lines. Now we have to build 1,300 km of high-speed lines in 12 years. There are no foreseeable funds for railways in subsequent EU budgets for Poland and it’s problematic to allocate funds to proposed lines because many of them do not lie in EU transport corridors.”
No turning back
The government is determined to move forward with the plans, however. If and when completed, the investment would put Poland prominently on the global transportation map, opening its doors to ever newer markets and attracting talent and international businesses from further around the globe to the region. According to Gajewska, a lot of sectors nowadays are supported by logistical transportation hubs, with the services and innovative industries particularly attracted to these ‘airport cities’ which offer convenient travel and amenities. These sectors, as well as others, will benefit from strong logistical support and improved infrastructure. The impact of the hub on different industries will be direct, but there may be a much broader impact on the local market as a whole.