Faster train line challenges airlines

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This week’s debut of a new, faster train line between Oslo and Stockholm is aimed at posing a direct challenge to airlines serving the route. It came at the initiative of Swedish train operator SJ, and was hailed by environmental activists and somewhat-upstaged Norwegian politicians.

Norwegian Transport Minister Ketil Solvik-Olsen (center) praised the efforts made by Sweden's SJ to get the new express train line between Oslo and Stockholm rolling. At right, SJ's chief executive Christer Fritzson and at left, Norwegian government minister Jan Tore Sanner, in charge of municipal governments. PHOTO: Statens Järnvägar (SJ)

Norwegian Transport Minister Ketil Solvik-Olsen (center) praised the efforts made by Sweden’s SJ to get the new express train line between Oslo and Stockholm rolling. At right, SJ’s chief executive Christer Fritzson and at left, Norwegian government minister Jan Tore Sanner, in charge of municipal governments. PHOTO: Statens Järnvägar (SJ)

The first express train from Stockholm rolled into Oslo’s central station on Monday, and waiting on the platform to greet it were Norway’s state government ministers for transport and municipalities, and the head of Oslo’s city government, all from the Conservative and Progress Parties. They tied a symbolic knot of streamers featuring the Swedish and Norwegian flag colors and shook hands with Christer Fritzson, the Swedish chief executive of SJ who rode the rails from his country’s capital to Oslo in just four-and-a-half hours.

That’s more than an hour-and-a-half shorter than the six-hours plus that earlier, more conventional train routes have taken between Stockholm and Oslo. The new, shorter trip makes SJ’s train line competitive with the airlines’ service to the two cities, since it takes at least a half-hour to get from both cities’ downtown areas, followed by the time spent at check-in and security control and then at the gate. Then comes the roughly hour-long flight, followed by the time spent at the airport on the other end and another ride into downtown. All told, it takes at least three if not closer to four hours to travel between downtown Oslo and Stockholm by air, compared to the four-and-a-half hours on the train.

SJ's X--2000 "snabbtåg" (express trains) are billed as their fastest and most comfortable, and will serve the new line between Stockholm and Oslo. PHOTO: SJ

SJ’s X–2000 “snabbtåg” (express trains) are billed as their fastest and most comfortable, and will serve the new line between Stockholm and Oslo. PHOTO: SJ

Price-wise the line is also challenging even some of the lowest airfares, with SJ ticket prices running around the equivalent of NOK 600 or less, and then come the savings of not having to spend money on ground transport between the airports and downtown. That can quickly add up to another NOK 400 or more each way on top of the airfare. One woman riding the fully booked SJ train set to return to Stockholm Monday afternoon told also told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that she simply found train travel less stressful than air travel, with no long lines at security, fewer baggage issues and fewer interruptions. She looked forward to read a book and do some work with much more legroom and even a meal (at extra cost) on the trip to Stockholm.

Fritzson of Sweden’s SJ (Statens Järnvägar), meanwhile, sees strong potential for grabbing a significant share of the large and growing market for travel between the two Scandinavian capitals. Newspaper Morgenbladet reported that there now are around 1.4 million airline passengers flying the same route every year, double the number before Norwegian Air launched its low-fare routes just over a decade ago. SJ hopes to attract at least 100,000 of them, doubling passenger traffic on the train route now.

Norway dropped earlier efforts
An earlier attempt at better, “express” service between Oslo and Stockholm, the so-called Lynx line that started in 2002, derailed after Norwegian Air launched its low-fare routes. Since then, train service on the route has been sporadic and taken much longer, at more than six hours each way. In 2012, a former transport minister in the Labour-led left-center government at the time, Marit Arnstad of the Center Party, dropped all plans for Norway’s own state railway NSB to launch an express route. She felt it was more important to concentrate on improving the Intercity service connecting Oslo with Norway’s own cities like Fredrikstad, Skien and Hamar.

Rasmus Hansson, leader of the environmentally oriented Greens party (Miljøpartiet De Grønne, MDG) told newspaper Aftenposten on Tuesday that Norway’s own troubled train service is the result of a string of previous governments’ failure to make train service a priority. The current conservative coalition is investing heavily in both rail and road transport, but there’s a lot of catching-up to do.

The Norwegian politicians assembled on the platform at Oslo’s central station had to concede the honors for the new initiative to their Swedish counterparts, not least since the entire project nearly derailed once again earlier this year because of some issues involving the Norwegian tracks just over the border around Kongsvinger. Transport Minister Ketil Solvik-Olsen stepped in and ordered the necessary improvements be made so that SJ’s express service could roll in.

‘Memorable day’
On Monday, Solvik-Olsen enthusiastically called the launch of the new Oslo-Stockholm line “a memorable day” for train travel between Norway and Sweden. “With more departures and the reduction in travel time … the new express train offer between Oslo and Stockholm is a major improvement for both business and leisure travelers,” Solvik-Olsen stated. He willingly conceded that the faster and more frequent service is a consequence of Sweden’s SJ (not Norway’s NSB) committing more modern trains that will make fewer stops along the route.

“Lots of passengers will value the possibility of avoiding check-in, security control and having to change modes of travel to get from one capital to the other,” Solvik-Olsen added. Service will also be better for those traveling to and from the fewer stops along the route, such as Karlstad.

The Norwegian transport officials have cooperated with their Swedish counterparts and Solvik-Olsen hinted that more projects may emerge, such as better service between Oslo and Gothenborg and better connections to Sweden in Trøndelag and Nordland. The new Oslo-Stockholm route is starting with three daily departures in each direction, according to Norway’s transport ministry, instead of the current two. Many trains appeared to be fully booked already this week, with the SJ website’s reservations page then offering rail service via Gothenborg instead.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund