Getting acquainted with the railways of Scandinavia

Posted by Tom Murray
on Thursday, January 5, 2012

An X2000 train operated by SJ (Statens Järnvägar [Swedish State Railways]) crosses the Northern railway bridge as it departs Stockholm Central Station.

During the summer of 2011, my wife Marcia and I spent ten weeks in Europe. In three earlier posts, I described the trains we rode in Wales, England and Scotland. After leaving the United Kingdom, our next destination was Scandinavia.  We went there as part of a program organized by Elderhostel, an educational travel organization that markets its services under the "Road Scholar" brand. This two-week program would take us to the Scandinavian capitals of Copenhagen, Oslo, and Stockholm, as well as to Helsinki, Finland. (Follow this link to the SJ web site and click on "Route map, Nordic countries" to see a rail map of all four countries.) Our Road Scholar tour wasn't rail-oriented, but I did find time to ride and photograph a few trains while we were in this part of the world. And after this program was over, Marcia and I returned to Norway for a two-day rail and ferry trip from Oslo to Bergen and return.

We arrived at the Copenhagen airport (located in the suburb of Kastrup) on a flight from Edinburgh. It didn't take us long to have our first exposure to the Scandinavian rail system because, like many European airports, this one has a rail connection to the city center. We bought a ticket from a vending machine in the airport terminal and descended an escalator to find ourselves at trackside. Pictured below is the train lineup at the time of our arrival: over the next half hour, there would be four trains departing for Copenhagen and other destinations in Denmark (such as Elsinore and Aalborg) and two for points in Sweden (Malmö, Kalmar and Göteborg). Trains to and from Sweden operate via a five-mile-long tunnel and bridge (the longest rail-highway bridge in Europe); it crosses the Øresund Strait between the two countries.

To get to Copenhagen Central Station, we boarded an Öresundstag train; these trains provide local and regional service in the suburbs of Copenhagen (Kobenhavn in Danish) and in southern Sweden. At the time we were there, this service was operated by a joint venture between DSB (Danske Statsbaner [Danish State Railways]) and U.K.-based First Group; hence the DSBFirst logo on this Öresundstag car. Since then, the Swedish portion of the service has been contracted out to Veolia Transport. However, trains continue to operate through between their Swedish and Danish endpoints, and there are normally no border formalities to worry about.

The Öresundstag cars were built by Bombardier and are designated as Class ET in Denmark and Class X31K in Sweden; they can operate on the former's 25 kV, 50 Hz power supply, or on the latter's 15 kV, 16 Hz system.

While we were in Copenhagen, I was able to spend part of one day at the city's Central Station. This was the train lineup for one hour-and-ten-minute period:

From Copenhagen, intercity trains operate to several European destinations including Hamburg, Berlin and Frankfurt, Germany; Amsterdam, Netherlands; Basel, Switzerland; and Stockholm, Sweden. This DB InterCity Express train was preparing to depart for Hamburg...

... while this SJ X2000 train was destined to Stockholm (the control car at this end of the train is unpowered; the locomotive is at the opposite end).

I had one afternoon free in Copenhagen, so I took the short international trip to Malmö on a Stockholm-destined X2000 train. I had been aboard an X2000 demonstrator in California in 1993, when I was working at Southern Pacific, and I was determined to ride one of these trains during our time in Scandinavia. I checked the SJ web site, so I knew there was a valid fare from Copenhagen to Malmö, albeit at a higher price than on the Öresundstag trains. I had a hard time buying a ticket at Copenhagen's Central Station because the agent at the first ticket window thought I was crazy to spend the extra money to ride the X2000 train. Everyone going to Malmö rides the Öresundståg train, she told me. You can't ride the X2000.

But I persisted, and the second ticket seller I spoke with was more tolerant of this eccentric American. She patiently verified that yes, there was an applicable fare to Malmö on the SJ train, and sold me a ticket. I was glad I made the trip – it allowed me to say that I crossed the Øresund Strait by rail, and it gave me a chance to look over the X2000 equipment, which has been operating in Sweden since 1990. These 200 km/hour (124 mph) trainsets were among the first wave of high-speed tilting equipment to enter service in Scandinavia, and they feature posters describing their technical attributes. 

After coming off the bridge, we passed this Swedish EMU (an Alstom Coradia X61 operated by Skåne Commuter Rail) at the Hyllie station.

At Malmö's Central Station, there was an older Skåne EMU, an ASEA-built X11,  in similar colors.

I returned to Copenhagen on an Öresundstag train, and spent some time watching afternoon commuter trains leave the station. This DSB Class ME locomotive, built by Henschel, had a familiar sound – it's powered by a General Motors 16.635E3B engine.

It was departing on a train of double-deck cars (Class ABs cab units and Class B and Bk coaches) destined to Kalundborg, approximately 68 miles west of Copenhagen.

Other destinations closer to the capital are served by EMU equipment like this Class SA trainset, built by Linke-Hofmann-Busch/Siemens.

At the end of our time in Denmark, we took an overnight ferry to Oslo. Our vessel, the DFDS Pearl Seaways, was larger than some cruise ships we've been on, with a capacity of 2,168 passengers, but ferries of this size seem common in the Baltic area where many people use ferries for short getaways to nearby countries.

Our tour of Oslo filled every daylight hour of every day, so I didn't have a chance to do any rail photography until we were ready to leave for Stockholm on a train consisting entirely of SJ equipment. Power was SJ Rc6 1387, in a paint scheme that is now being replaced by a black-and-white livery reminiscent of Norfolk Southern's. One slight problem was that the configuration of the car we were on didn't match up with the seat numbers on our tickets; Marcia and I had seat numbers 34 and 35, for example but there were no such seats in the car, Our conductor eventually solved the problem by squeezing six of us into a small private compartment at one end of the car.

The six-hour trip from Oslo to Stockholm was uneventful, and the scenery was mostly rural but not memorable. Once we reached Stockholm, I found a couple of good sites to watch trains. One was at Älvsjö station, near our hotel (about 10 minutes from downtown Stockholm). This is a set of Class X40 Alstom Coradia Duplex equipment...

... while this trainset consists of X55 Bombardier Regina equipment.

This was the train lineup one afternoon at Stockholm's Central Station. SL stands for Storstockholms Lokaltrafik, or Stockholm Public Transport, which operates local bus and rail service, including several rail lines operating out of Stockholm Central. The intercity and regional trains listed on the right are operated by SJ.

One great vantage point for train-watching is just south of Stockholm Central, where trains cross the Norra järnvägsbron (Northern railway bridge).

You can stand on a nearby riverbank and watch trains from a distance, or use the public walkway on the bridge, which will get you quite close to the action. Here an SJ intercity train departs behind an Rc6 in fresh-looking paint.

This SL X60 (an Alstom Coradia model) is arriving at Stockholm from the south.

Later that day, I happened to be at Stockholm Central as the 2122 train for Luleå was departing. Its consist included several Liggvagn cars (economy sleepers)...

... as well as standard sleepers (Sovvagn)...

... and a restaurant car.

This train was scheduled to arrive at Luleå, 750 miles north of Stockholm, at 1112 the next day, but I'm sure some passengers would be leaving the train at Boden at 1022 to connect with points north of the Arctic Circle. The northbound train from Boden would depart at 1054 and arrive at its final destination (Narvik, Norway, another 272 miles to the northwest) at 1700 that afternoon. (As of June 2011, SJ also had a through train departing Stockholm at 1757, arriving Narvik at 1314).

I found it interesting that the northernmost rail-served point in Norway was actually reached by a train from Sweden; NSB (Norges Statsbaner [Norwegian State Railways]) gets only as far north as Bodø, which also lies above the Arctic Circle, but is 190 road miles south of Narvik.

After a few days in Stockholm, we moved on to Helsinki, on another cruise-ship-sized ferry. When our Road Scholar tour concluded in Finland, we had three days before our next major tour would begin (another Road Scholar program, this one in Switzerland). We decided to use that time to take the popular "Norway in a Nutshell" tour between Oslo and Bergen. We arrived mid-day in Oslo, and traveled from the airport into the city on a high-speed (and, like almost everything in Norway, rather expensive) Flytoget train. The 22-minute trip from the airport to downtown Oslo cost the equivalent of US$28 per person.

This visit gave me a chance to explore the city's Central Station (which everyone in Oslo refers to as "Oslo S"). This was the mid-afternoon lineup:

Photography was more of a challenge at Oslo S than it had been in Copenhagen, Stockholm, or Helsinki, in part because there was construction going on all around the station. Still, I did manage to get photos of a few NSB trains, like this Class 70 trainset departing for Lillehammer...

... and this Class 72 commuter train.

Even with many newer trainsets in service for local and commuter business, the backbone of NSB's Oslo-area service remains its older Class 69 cars, built by Strømmen in the 1970s but refurbished within the past six years.

Some longer-distance trains are locomotive-hauled, using NSB's fleet of 22 Class El 18 units, built by Adtranz and Swiss Locomotive and Machine Works and delivered in 1996-97.

When we arrived at the station the next morning to depart on our trip to Bergen, I had a chance to get a closer look at one of the El 18 locomotives, which had just arrived on the overnight train from Bergen. Yes, the logo on the car door means what it looks like – you can bring your pet aboard, as long as the car carries this marking.

Scenically, our two-day tour in Norway was everything we had hoped for. After traveling through farm country in the lowlands near Oslo, and then passing several large lakes as we got into more mountainous territory, we stopped at Finse, the high point of the Oslo-Bergen line (at an elevation of 4,010 feet). About 30 minutes later, we disembarked at Myrdal (elevation, 866.8 meters, or 2,844 feet). Our train consisted of two Class 73 trainsets (totalling eight cars), which continued on to Bergen. This equipment was delivered by Adtranz Strømmen beginning in 1999.

From Myrdal, we took a one-hour, 12.5-mile ride on the scenic Flåmsbana line to the village of Flåm.  The grade on this line is as steep as 5.5 per cent descending the 2,831 feet of elevation from Myrdal to Flåm, which is located at sea level on the Aurlandsfjord. Pictured below is the uphill train, which we passed about halfway into our trip.

The locomotives used on the Flåmsbana (which is operated by NSB under contract) are Class El 17, built by Thyssen-Henschel and Norsk Elektrisk/Brown Boveri.

From Flåm, we took a fjord tour aboard a ferry operated by Norwegian transportation company Fjord1. The ferry took us to Gudvangen, where we boarded a bus that carried us to Voss. There, we boarded a local NSB train for Bergen. It had been a long day, and the weather wasn't great, but the scenery had been spectacular.

After spending the following day walking around the beautiful city of Bergen, we boarded the 1558 train for Oslo, using the same Class 73 double trainset that had brought us to Myrdal the previous day.

But our return trip to Oslo was terminated by an electrical failure on the railway somewhere between Nesbyen and Oslo. Along with at least 200 fellow passengers, we ended up disembarking from our train at Nesbyen, and taking a two-hour bus ride back to Oslo, arriving there about midnight.

Despite the less-than-perfect weather on the first day of this two-day tour, and the unexpected bus trip to get back to Oslo, I can recommend the Norway in a Nutshell tour without reservation. It gives you a look at some of the best inland scenery in Scandinavia, and if we did it again, we would spend more than a single day in Bergen – in fact, we would probably use that city as a base to explore some of Norway's coastal fjords.

What else do I hope to do the next time we're in Scandinavia? Travel by train to the Arctic! The service to Bodø runs along the coast north from Trondheim, and by all accounts it's another very scenic trip, taking about ten hours. In the summer of 2011, you could choose between a day train and an overnight service. From Bodø, I would have to find my way over to Narvik, which aside from being the northernmost station on the SJ route map, is also home to the LKAB iron ore line with its heavy-duty electric locomotives. And then I would take a train south to Stockholm. Finland, too, has trains that travel above the Arctic Circle, with modern double-deck sleeping cars operating out of Helsinki.

To sum up, having gotten a taste of the Nordic countries, I'm ready for more!

Additional rail photos from our travels in Europe during the summer of 2011 can be seen at my Picasa photo gallery.

For an overview of the trains and other forms of transportation we used during our European trip, see our personal travel blog.


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