Rail Projects in Northern Scandinavia

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The European region north of the arctic circle in Finland, Norway and Sweden is often called „Cap of the North“ („Nordkalotten“ in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, or „Pohjoiskalotti“ in Finnish). That area is thinly populated, but there are some towns with a few 10’000 inhabitants and a more densely populated area in their vicinity, like Tromsø, Narvik, Alta, Harstad and Kiruna. I don’t want to take the arctic circle as a hard boundary, but rather write about rail projects in the north of these three countries, at least those I have heard of. Railroad construction in this area is mainly motivated by freight traffic. The Iron Ore Line from Narvik to Kiruna has been built to access the huge iron ore deposits in northern Sweden, mostly Kiruna. Now northern Sweden contains further iron ore deposits and also in northern Finland a lot of mining, mostly for iron ore, could be possible. Finland has already been called the „new Australia“ because of that. Even northern Norway contains some smaller share of iron ore deposits, mostly in the area of Kirkenes near the Russian border. This mine is the reason for the northernmost railroad in Norway connecting the sea port of Kirkenes with the mine, being just a few kilometers long. Because of declining profitability mine and railroad had already been closed down, but because of increasing demand and increasing prices for iron ore, they have been reopened.

The railroad to Narvik does not have any connection to the remaining Norwegian railroad network via Norway. The Nordland Line is running from Trondheim to Bodø. Bodø is situated pretty much half way through the whole country, between the Swedish border in the south in Svinesund and Grense Jakobselv at the Russian border in the northeast. Since the 1920es plans have existed to build this railroad line, but not only to Bodø, but also the Polar Line to Kirkenes and Vadsø in the northeast. During the second world war the construction of these lines was accelerated, which resulted in parts of the line from Trondheim to Bodø being built, even though the whole line was opened in 1962. North of Fauske and Bodø to Narvik some tunnels, bridges and railroad dams have been built, some which have been incorporated into the highway E6. Today a railroad to Kirkenes and Vadsø can no longer be considered reasonable, because the train would no longer be the only means of transport, since the area has been well equipped with highways, ports and airports. The number of inhabitants is too low to justify daily passenger trains in a situation where other means of transport exist. Even freight traffic is covered well by ships and trucks in this relation. The part of northern Norway north of Tromsø has so little population, that its contribution to air pollution created by Norway is not very significant.

Another question is the extension of the Nordland Line from Fauske to Narvik, Harstad and Tromsø. In this case a railroad from Trondheim to Tromsø with branches to Bodø, Narvik and Harstad could be imagined. This is a project that is discussed in Norway every couple of years, but it does not seem to have priority. Connecting towns and cities with somewhat more significant population this could provide potential for running freight and passenger trains several times per day with an acceptable number of passenger and acceptable amount of freight. A problem is the Tysfjord, which cannot easily be crossed or bypassed. In spite of almost unlimited resources for highway construction it has not been possible to build a ferry free section of the highway E6 between Fauske and Narvik. For a railroad three scenarios could be considered:

  • Ferry Line: The railroad leads to the fjord, probably to Drag, and is trajected by a railroad ferry, going to Narvik and Lødingen. This would allow for integration of Harstad, but the ferry would probably make the rail connection too unattractive to compete with highway, ship and air transport. So this variant will probably no longer be considered, if the line is ever built.
  • Fjord Line: The railroad follows the eastern shore of Tysfjord, with many tunnels.
  • Mountain Line: The railroad runs near the Swedish border across the mountain range, intersecting with the Iron Ore Line from Kiruna to Narvik near Bjørnfjell, this allowing for a branch to Narvik by just providing a connection.

More concrete than this are connections from the coast inland. Finland has lost its ice free port in Petsamo in the Arctic Sea during the second world war. It is no longer such a big deal because ice breakers have become more of an option, allowing even otherwise frozen ports in the Baltic Sea to stay open during the winter. The relationship between Norway and Finland is now good and Norwegian ports can be used by Finish companies. But trucks are not very useful for transporting huge quantities of iron ore. Such plans do exist for accessing a new mine near Pajala in northern Sweden using 90 ton trucks between the mine and the next railroad connection in Svappavara. It has even been authorized. But there are downsides. The highway and the bridges will be used up in as little as five years and the houses near the highway will need triple glass in an area where there were just a few cars per hour. There will be a 90 ton truck every two minutes, day and night. In the long run a railroad might be a better solution. In principle several options exist for connecting the new iron ore mining areas in northern Finland and Sweden with the sea ports that have been discussed recently:

  • Connections to the south via the existing railroad network to the south to Swedish and Finish ports (Kemi, Oulu, Luleå,…)
  • Connections going south or east via the Finish railroad network to Russia.k
  • Construction of a new railroad line from Pajala and northern Finalnd to Skibotn in Norway.
  • Construction of a new railroad line from Pajala and northern Finalnd to Kirkenes in Norway.
  • Construction of a new railroad line from Pajala and northern Finalnd to Svappavara.

It needs to be considered that Finland and Russia are using broad gauge (1520 mm in Russia, 1524 mm in Finland), while Sweden and Norway are using standard auge (1435 mm). While the difference between Russia and Finland is within the tolerance, having to change the track gauge is a hardly acceptable obstacle for freight traffic. The Iron Ore Line from Kiruna to Narvik is already quite congested, so there is not really much spare capacity for providing connections to other mines. But its capacity is extended to some extent by providing more and longer two track sections for allowing trains to meet and by improving the track bed for allowing higher axle loads of 30 tons.

Skibotn is a village with 700 inhabitants having just a small boat harbor. A port for huge sea ships could be built there, but it would be completely new. Also the slope from there to Finland is quite steep making it quite expensive, but still possible to build a railroad. Being in Skibotn in 2012 I have been told that this connection is no longer seriously considered.

Kirkenes already has the rail line for the first few kilometers, but in 1435 mm, which would have to be converted to 1524 mm. If the line is built, it will have to pass Lake Inari in the east or in the west. Kirkenes already has a sea port with options for extending its capacity. Other than Skibotn, Kirkenes might have some potential for passenger traffic, maybe for one or two daily trains, one during the day and one during the night. Because it is the northeastern end of the Hurtigruten it is a relevant tourist destination. Considerations exist also to connect Kirkenes to the Russian railroad network, but they are much less concrete than connecting to Finland, even though the route is much shorter.

Already south of the arctic circle it is worth mentioning that a new railroad line from Boden to Happaranda has been opened in 2012 running parallel to the shore of the Baltic Sea and shortening the trackage significantly. A huge drawback of the Swedish railroad network north of Sundsvall is that the trunk railroad lines have been built far away from the coast for military strategic reasons, leaving the connection of the major towns and cities which are near the coast to branch lines. This is no longer very competitive in these days. This has been fixed to some extent by the Bothnia Line running from Sundsvall to Umeå somewhat near the coast. This is a mostly single track high speed railroad line opened in 2010. An extension from Umeå to Luleå (near Boden) is considered as North Bothnia Line.

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4 Gedanken zu „Rail Projects in Northern Scandinavia

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