Idled trains spur commuter chaos

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It was extremely difficult for Oslo-area commuters who rely on local train service to get to work Monday morning. As a strike by locomotive engineers spurred more train cancellations, many passengers left stranded were also unable to get bus seats and had few other transport options.

There were plenty of idled trains at NSB's "parking lot" at Filipstad Monday morning. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

There were plenty of idled trains at NSB’s “parking lot” at Filipstad Monday morning. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

The sheer expense and congestion of trying to drive into Oslo was believed to prompt many to try working from home. Fleming Pedersen, who commutes into Oslo from Askim, was among those who met long lines at the local bus station as early as 6am. He didn’t get a seat on the first departure and opted to wait until the next, while joking to state broadcaster NRK that “we should all just go home and have a cup of coffee.”

The bus lines can’t boost their capacity to help transport stranded passengers, because that would be seen as a strike-busting effort. The Nettbuss line, moreover, is also owned by state railway NSB, whose locomotive engineers have walked off the job. It’s thus being especially careful about not doing anything to challenge what’s considered a legal labour conflict.

165 cancellations on one line alone
NSB was catching some criticism for deciding to cancel all its local train service on the heavily used Østfoldbanen line. The union representing the striking engineers claimed it wasn’t necessary, since not all engineers are called out on strike and can legally work as usual. NSB officials, however, responded that the strike had left many of its trains out of position. With so many engineers off the job in the Oslo area (109 based in Oslo, Lillestrøm, Moss and Ski), NSB argued it was not possible to run any reliable schedules for its passengers.

The strike is also affecting service in Trondheim, Kristiansand and Bergen, where more than half of the trains running between Voss and Arna have been cancelled. There are also fewer trains than normal on the popular line between Oslo and Bergen called Bergensbanen.

With no end in the sight to the strike, tens of thousands of commuters in the Oslo are were facing a rough week ahead. Traffic on the highways leading into Oslo was heavy from before dawn, especially on the E6 where tunnel rehabilitation was already causing delays and congestion.

Risky strike over principles
Newspaper editorials were urging an end to the strike, which is mainly over the union’s demand for a national training standard for all locomotive engineers and not because of conflicts over pay or benefits. At issue is job security for Norwegian locomotive engineers, if they suddenly find themselves facing competition from foreign engineers trained abroad.

Newspaper Dagsavisen noted that it’s “hardly coincidental” that the strike has been called now, just before railway reform in Norway is due to force NSB to compete against other train operators, also from abroad, for the right to run lines in the country. If NSB loses out, its locomotive engineers potentially would need to compete against the foreign operators’ personnel. Having a “national standard” in Norway would make it more difficult for locomotive engineers trained abroad to be able to work in Norway.

“It’s not surprising that resistance to (the prospect of foreign operators in Norway) is greatest from the powerful unions at an old company like NSB that has had a monopoly,” Dagsavisen wrote. While Norwegians often have sympathy for strikers, the locomotive engineers are now risking a loss of support when so many “innocent third parties” (commuters) are affected by their strike over principles that seem rooted in protectionism.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund