Austin Birks is in Poland, where he observed Sir Brian Souter’s eye catching and rapidly expanding PolskiBus operation in action.

It was not a good start!

Checking in at Gate K at Heathrow Airport, I was advised by a nice young lady in a LOT uniform, bearing a big fixed smile, that a plane had just crash landed at Warsaw Airport and there would be no flights to Warsaw for between 24 to 48 hours. Fixed grin removed, she wondered off, leaving me with a phone number and a problem.

Prepare Plan B. Rearrange a Ryanair flight to Wroclaw (my original destination) and so save myself an eight-hour drive across the heavily congested road network of Poland – bonus.
So, off the next day to observe the ritual joy called ‘Ryanair at Luton Airport’. Cue the eagle-eyed, hawk-like lady hostesses who circle the waiting area focusing in with uncanny accuracy on the slightly over-sized hand luggage, or the ever so so tiny over-laden suitcase – 30 euros here, 30 euros there, it all adds up as the recently published excellent financial returns just announced by Mr O’Leary and his merry men. And to be fair they do warn everyone – it’s in the small print!

Two hours later and Witamy z Wroclaw – welcome to Poland. The journey begins, a taxi through the leafy splendour of Wroclaw, the Venice of Poland, and my first glimpse of the bus and tram user. Packed trams and lumbering MPK buses glide along the occupants sharing the vacant solitary expressions of all public transport users in Poland, conversation is not encouraged it seems, silence is preferred.

And then on day two, my first glimpse of Polski Bus, the new offering from Souter Holdings Ltd, the personal investment vehicle for Stagecoach co-founder and chief executive Sir Brian Souter. A large, bright red, gleaming coach, immaculate and unmissable and seemingly from a different world. It illuminates the austere drabness of the tired Polska public transport. Polski Bus has basically got it all right – the brand, pricing, passenger comfort, WiFi, journey times, and this is not my view but that of the user.

Tamasz Kosturski is 32 years old, educated, successful and typically used to catch the train to travel from Warsaw to Gdansk, a mere eight hours and 40 minutes, costing about 124 zloty (or £34), but not any more. Now he books his seat in advance, at polskibus.com, and pays 13 zloty (£4) and he gets there in six hours. Quite simply a no brainer!
The fares offer excellent value for money. The drivers are polite, and help with luggage. The seats are comfortable – not only reclinable, but also able to move sideways (always good if you find yourself sat next to Mr Blobby).

Success, quite rightly, has been almost immediate. I had the chance to meet with the CEO of Souter Holdings Poland, Roger Bowker, who is one of the industry’s gentlemen. He told me with genuine pride that not only has patronage risen dramatically (175,000 passengers in its first three months of trading) but people genuinely like the service. Interestingly not one incidence of vandalism has occurred since operations began – surely that says something about customer satisfaction!

For me this is where the future lies. Souter Investments clearly agrees, announcing in October that it will invest in 50 new Van Hool coaches for Polski Bus, expanding the fleet to 68 vehicles. The benchmark has been set – 25 years on from deregulation the UK market has evolved to produce genuine quality, and as the Polish bus market embarks on it’s journey into privatisation let’s see how long it takes this nation of innovators to catch up. Are we seeing the next Celtic Tiger, or in this case the White Eagle? Time will tell, my friends.

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport. Click here to subscribe.