More heavy cargo clogs the roads

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More heavy goods transport in Norway is ending up on the roads, and less on the rail network, despite the current government’s pledge to increase rail freight transport. Chronic underinvestment in rail infrastructure is going to mean even longer traffic pile-ups on the roads, say critics.

Rail cargo terminal at Alnabru in Oslo. Transport of cargp by train has decreased every year since 2008. PHOTO: Jernbaneverket/Øystein Grue

Rail cargo terminal at Alnabru in Oslo. Transport of cargp by train has decreased every year since 2008. PHOTO: Jernbaneverket/Øystein Grue

“It took a red-green (coalition) government to take the life out of rail freight transport,” Erling Sæther, director of business policy at the Norwegian Logistics and Freight Association (NHO Logistikk og Transport, NHOLT) told newspaper Aftenposten.

Despite the current government promise to get heavy cargo off the roads and onto the railroad, and to create a sustainable transport system, it instead seems the opposite has occurred. Reports last week also claimed that new government funding for the railroad has been spent on administration and planning for new projects, while critical maintenance budgets have been slashed.

A million metric tons of freight transport have moved over from the railways since 2008, equivalent to 600,000 containers, or 300,000 more heavy goods vehicles on the roads, according to NHOLT’s own estimates. With goods transport in Norway set to increase by 35 to 40 percent in the period up to 2040, the increase is unsustainable in the long term, as well as creating long traffic queues on the roads now.

In the government’s last National Transport Plan in 2010, politicians promised to invest heavily in the rail network, and double its capacity for freight trains. According to Sæther, however, “nothing has been done in the last few years to increase the stability of the railways.” He points out that until 2008, rail freight transport was a success in Norway, increasing every year, but since then it has been on a steady decline.

In the draft of the government’s latest National Transport Plan, expected to be approved in Parliament, they pledge  “a bare NOK 400 million” (around 70 million USD) towards concrete measures to increase rail stability and punctuality. “That isn’t even enough for two crossing loops,” he said. Crossing loops (kryssingsspor) enable trains proceeding in opposite directions to pass each other without having to stop on a single-track stretch of line (with appropriate signalling.) They are one of the investments that are important for increasing freight train capacity, along with low terminal costs.

State railroad Jernbaneverket, in charge of tracks and rail infrastructure, says the figures in the new plan, for the period 2014-2023, are not yet set in stone. “The biggest investment in the railway comes in the last six years of the plan. In the first four years, there isn’t money to increase capacity particularly, but there is funding to increase punctuality,” Thor Erik Skarpen, public relations manager at Jernbankeverket, told Aftenposten.

Rail transport is much more energy efficient and environmentally friendly than road transport, with less accidents, lower greenhouse gas emissions, land use and environmental noise. But in recent years it has been plagued by heavy delays and lack of confidence in Norway.

The government has received repeated criticism for not repairing infrastructure and cutting budgets for much-needed maintenance, while spending increasing amounts of money on administration. Train commuters in the Oslo area, where most of the country’s population live and work, are particularly frustrated, as they can face daily delays and have to squeeze their way into increasingly packed and unreliable trains.

Views and News from Norway/Elizabeth Lindsay

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