Reform to put trains ‘on the right track’

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Norway’s state rail system is rolling through a tough week: Technical trouble halted service and resulted in major delays on Monday, just after state railway NSB also was confronted once again with its Nazi cooperation during World War II. Then, on Monday afternoon, the state owners of both NSB and railroad Jernbaneverket unveiled reforms that will remove NSB’s monopoly on most train lines and completely reorganize much of the Norwegian rail system’s operations and lines of responsibility.

Norway's rail system has finally attracted substantial state investment and now faces major reorganization. PHOTO: Samferdselsdepartement/Olav Heggø/Fotovisjon

Norway’s rail system has finally attracted substantial state investment and now faces major reorganization. PHOTO: Samferdselsdepartement/Olav Heggø/Fotovisjon

Transport Minister Ketil Solvik-Olsen is calling his latest reform effort “På rett spor,” literally “on the right track.” The trains clearly weren’t on track just hours before the reforms were formally launched. Technical trouble that once again stranded commuters and delayed countless other passengers was linked to an error in a program that’s used for communication among the trains and their leaders. It mostly affected train service in the Oslo and Hamar areas, but also caused problems in what NSB called “large parts of the country.” The error was eventually corrected but the system remained unstable throughout the day.

It’s that sort of instability, and unreliability, that Solvik-Olsen and his team want to do away with. He arrived at Oslo’s central station later on Monday afternoon with representatives from both government parties and their two support parties to introduce, among other things, a new train system “directorate” that will be charged with purchasing train services, streamlining the ticketing system and planning routes. That will no longer be handled by NSB itself. Instead, the state railway will have to compete with other suppliers of rail services and will lose its command over routes.

A new state-owned company will also be set up to assume responsibility for train line expansion, railroad real estate, maintenance and operations. Both maintenance work and route operations will be put out to bid through a public-private partnership. The overall rail system will remain wholly owned by the state, but NSB’s current operations, for example, will need to compete with other potential players for the rights to operate on various lines. Solvik-Olsen told newspaper Aftenposten that they may include such players as MTR of China, SJ of Sweden and Deutsche Bahn of Germany, along with Dutch and French train operators.

Transport Minister Ketil Solvik-Olsen is launching a major reorganization of Norway's rail system with the aim of getting more out of the state's investment in public transport. PHOTO: Samferdselsdepartementet

Transport Minister Ketil Solvik-Olsen is launching a major reorganization of Norway’s rail system with the aim of getting more out of the state’s investment in public transport. PHOTO: Samferdselsdepartementet

“The railroad’s role in the transportation system will be strengthened,” Solvik-Olsen claimed. Increased funding and “better organization,” he said, will provide a “central solution” for Norway’s transport needs in the future.

The transport minister was mostly keen to “better allocate responsibility,” which now is split between railway NSB, which operates the trains, and Jernbaneverket, which is responsible for railroad infrastructure. In addition come other state-owned entities like Rom Eiendom, which shares responsibility for railroad real estate with Jernbaneverket. “That creates unclear lines of responsibility, for example for real estate development at major transport hubs,” Solvik-Olsen said. “This reform will straighten up such situations.” He claimed he’d had “great, positive” involvement from rail system leaders in plotting out the reforms. They’re similar to those he recently rolled out in the road-building sector, aimed at better planning and more quickly carrying out major projects.

Reaction from railway and railroad unions, however, was swift and negative. They oppose attempts at privatization and worried the reorganization could affect their benefits and pensions built up over the years. The Labour Party also immediately announced its skepticism to the plan, although it will have support in Parliament. “We register that they’re rigging to privatize the rails,” Eirin Sund of Labour told newspaper Dagsavisen. “We are very critical about that.”

‘Dark chapters’ in NSB’s history
Meanwhile, NSB officials were also dealing this week with renewed allegations about their predecessors’ cooperation with Nazi German officials during their occupation of Norway during World War II. At that time, NSB and Jernbaneverket were still a single entity, and both worked with the occupiers’ forces and benefited from Nazi Germany’s investment in the railroad. That included expansion and construction of new lines like Nordlandsbanen between Trondheim and Bodø, which was built with slave labour. Soviet prisoners of war were among those who died of exhaustion, disease and starvation during the project. NSB also took part in transportation of Jewish citizens as they were being deported to concentration camps in 1942.

No one is holding today’s railroad executives responsible for the decisions made by those in charge between 1940 and 1945, but they are facing criticism for continuing to remain silent about it. None of either NSB’s nor Jernbaneverket top officials attended the opening last week of a new exhibit at Norway’s railroad museum (Norsk Jernbanemuseum) in Hamar about NSB’s activities during World War II.

“NSB must soon dare to confront its war history,” Bjørg Eva Aasen, exhibition leader at the museum, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). She noted that it contains little honour and that “after 70 years, it was about time” to portray it at the museum.

Much of the exhibit centers on the use of Soviet prisoners of war to build Nordlandsbanen, while NSB was also active in shipping Jewish prisoners from Trondheim to Oslo for deportation, and even complained when payment from the Nazis was late. Myriad other offenses and proof of railroad enrichment from Nazi cooperation are also on disply.

NSB’s communications director Åge-Christoffer Lundeby told NRK that it’s difficult to determine what was done voluntarily and as part of NSB’s business strategy, and what NSB officials may have felt forced to do at the time. Lundeby denied NSB sought to divert attention on its wartime past. “There are dark chapters in NSB’s history,” he admitted, and claimed NSB is open about that when asked. There was no explanation as to why neither NSB’s nor Jernbaneverket’s leaders attended last week’s museum opening.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund