Opposition fears great train robbery

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Norway’s train system continues to seem on the verge of derailment, and opposition politicians have little confidence the government will finally set things right. They’re disappointed by a status report from the Transport Minister and fear funding won’t materialize as promised, while one government party is proposing a new tax on airline travel to secure railroad investment.

It's been a rough winter for Norway's beleaguered train system. PHOTO: NSB

It’s been a terrible winter for train service all over the country, but especially in the most heavily populated area around Oslo. Commuters have constantly had to put up with delays, cancellations and breakdowns caused not just by bad weather but years of neglect.

Transport Minister Magnhild Meltveit Kleppa claims she and her left-center government colleagues are trying to get Norway’s train system back on track, but admitted in Parliament on Tuesday that things likely will get worse before they get better.

Kleppa said the nation’s railroad is “vulnerable after many years with deficient funding.” She said her predecessor from her own Center Party started tackling the problems back in 2005, “but change takes time.”

Kleppa claimed “we will see gradual improvements” to the current lack of punctuality. Only 60-70 percent of Norwegian trains have operated on time so far this year. Kleppa blamed the chronic train trouble on “a combination of poor maintenance and cold weather.”

‘Nothing new’
That’s not what commuters, long-distance travelers or opposition politicians wanted to hear. They fear the government is watering down a much hyped National Transport Plan, and that it won’t lead to needed improvements, because of a need or desire to use less of Norway’s oil revenues.

“There was nothing new here,” claimed the leader of the Parliament’s transport committee, Knut Arild Hareide of the Christian Democrats. “With the growth in funding the government is proposing, it will take several decades to get the railroad on track.”

Ingjerd Schou of the Conservatives said Kleppa’s report lacked vision and offered no new measures. Schou, it should be noted, is a former transport minister herself, and had her chance to improve the system. Most agree that a long succession of governments can be blamed for failing to devote enough attention to Norwegian trains.

Kleppa defended the current government’s efforts, saying that last year, the railroad (Jernbaneverket) “got more money than it managed to spend. In 2010, Jernbaneverket asked for NOK 470 million just for the Oslo area, and they have received it.”

Airline tax proposal unlikely to fly
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported on Wednesday, meanwhile, that Kleppa’s government colleagues in the Socialist Left (SV) party are proposing a new tax of NOK 100 on all airline seats between cities in southern Norway, with the money to be earmarked for trains.

SV’s says the tax would raise more needed funds for railroad improvements and make it more attractive to take the train instead of flying around southern Norway. SV also claims the tax would not violate government promises of no new taxes, because it’s an earmarked fee.

The government’s dominant Labour Party, however, is holding firm on no new taxes or fees, meaning the coalition government’s budget conference this weekend is bound to be noisy. The airlines immediately objected to SV’s proposed tax as well, with Norwegian Air’s boss calling it “meaningless” and SAS calling it “the wrong way to go.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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