High-speed trains ‘may be profitable’

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Pressure is growing in favour of building new high-speed train lines around Norway, and a long-awaited report released Wednesday didn’t put the brakes on support. The report concluded a high-speed network could be profitable, at least from an operational standpoint.

The Airport Express Train running between Oslo and the main airport at Gardermoen is the closest thing Norway now has to a high-speed train line. PHOTO: Views and News

That would only happen, though, if debt is forgiven, and the investment needed to build high-speed trains (called lyntog) is formidable indeed. It’s estimated at so many hundreds of billions of Norwegian kroner that full development would cost as much as an entire annual national budget. Some opponents thus have branded the high-speed train initiative as “a fantasy project.”

A state commission charged with studying the feasibility of high speed trains in Norway nonetheless concluded that it’s “fully possible” to build and operate them despite Norway’s mountainous topography (often used as an excuse for Norway’s poor highway system) and that the market for them could be large. Many Norwegians presumably would rather take a train than fly, and less airline travel would reduce carbon emissions.

It was almost ironic that the evaluation of a high-speed train project came on the same day that local airline Norwegian Air announced the largest aircraft order in European history. Norwegian’s bullish expansion plans would seem at odds with any state plans to invest heavily in high-speed trains aimed at competing directly with the airlines, possibly at the cost of airport expansion.

‘Improvements to existing lines needed first’
Others doubt a high-speed train network will ever materialize, and it’s not imminent at any rate. The former state railway boss, the head of Norway’s consumer advocacy council and a few politicians also argue that no high-speed project should commence before work is completed on improvements to, and expansion of, the existing rail network.

“It is critical that we put a priority on (current) transportation needs in Østlandet (eastern Norway, especially the Oslo metropolitan area and nearby cities),” Anne Haabeth Rygg of the consumer council Forbrukerrådet told newspaper Dagsavisen. “A well-functioning inter-city triangle (involving Lillehammer, Skien and Halden, with Oslo in the middle) must be in place, in order to later improve and extend longer high-speed lines.” She’s most concerned that daily commuters first get the relief they need, before funds are diverted elsewhere.

The most likely high-speed lines would link Oslo with Kristiansand and Stavanger, with Bergen and with Trondheim. Also on the drawing board are high-speed lines between Oslo and Gothenburg and Stockholm, also between Bergen, Haugesund and Stavanger on the west coast.

‘Extension of improvements’
The feasibility study, handed over to Transport Minister Magnhild Meltveit Kleppa and to state railroad Jernbaneverket, envisions a high-speed network as an “extension” of improvements to the Lillehammer-Oslo, Halden-Oslo and Skien-Oslo lines. “There are no conflicts between developing an Inter-city network with speeds of 250 kilometers an hour, and eventually developing that to 330 kilometers an hour,” according to the report.

It will now be read and evaluated at a variety of seminars and other meetings, including some later this week. “The government is in favour of (improving) the trains,” declared Kleppa after receiving the report. “There’s no doubt the railroad needs a lift.”

Just how much of a lift will likely be the subject of debate for years. The opposition Progress Party was quick to mention that a pricetag amounting to NOK 200,000 (USD 30,000) per Norwegian is way too high, and “final proof” that a high-speed network in Norway is a “fantasy project not rooted in reality.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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