“We’re very sorry,” the chief executive of Norway’s state railway NSB claimed after he was called into the office of Transport Minister Ketil Solvik-Olsen this week. Solvik-Olsen wanted an explanation for a recent wave of train cancellations, delays and overcrowing on those still running, but no quick solutions were forthcoming.
NSB boss Geir Isaksen was apologetic after the meeting on Wednesday, and after admitting that in management’s eagerness to cut costs and staffing, they created a personnel crisis that’s severely cutting into train operations. There’s now an acute shortage of both equipment and crews to run scheduled routes, leading to the cancellations and inadequate capacity especially during the commuter rush.
Just hours after Isaksen’s meeting with Solvik-Olsen, problems cropped up again. A scheduled commuter train from Oslo to Ski pulled into the National Theater station on time, but lacked the extra carriage needed to accommodate all the rush-hour passengers. There was standing room only even before it arrived at the next, much larger Oslo Central Station, leading to a crush of passengers trying to squeeze on board.
The doors couldn’t close and conductors pleaded with commuters over the train’s public address sytem to give up their efforts and wait for the next train. “If there’s no more room for passengers to stand, we’re full, and have to leave now,” the conductor’s voice intoned. The doors finally closed and the overcrowded train full of weary commuters started heading south, leaving many others stranded on the platform.
“This is typical,” said one woman who’d been standing with her eyes closed, pinned into the narrow aisle between the seats. Heavy winter clothing and Norwegians’ customary use of backpacks added to the feeling of overcrowding. “We’re supposed to have two extended carriages on this route,” she added, “but there’s only one again.”
Isaksen told newspaper Aftenposten the staffing situation is so unpredictable, though, that NSB has opted against offering bus transport in addition to the trains still running. “In the situation we’re in now, it’s very ‘off and on,'” Isaksen claimed. “We don’t think ‘bus for train’ chartering is a good alternative right now, so we’re just operating with all the (trains) we have.”
NSB is instead offering more overtime for staff willing to work extra to offset the personnel shortage. That’s not a long-term solution, however, especially when safety issues are at stake. “NSB has to solve this problem,” Solvik-Olsen exclaimed after the meeting, which was closed to press coverage. “Passengers must have train service they can rely on.”
Isaksen is acutely aware that the problems have cropped up right in the middle of the coldest winter in Southern Norway for years. “We can only apologize deeply for the situation,” Isaksen told state broadcaster NRK. “We’re very sorry and are trying to do everything we can to improve this now.”
He said NSB is hiring again, but then new employees need to be trained. “We’re asking folks to work overtime and we’re hiring all locomotive engineers and conductors available,” Isaksen told NRK. “We had an ambition to make our operations more efficient, and didn’t replace people when they retired. We were a bit too ambitious and have now landed in a situation where we need people.”
He added that 40 newly trained engineers and conductors will be ready for duty starting in May. Solvik-Olsen said he was satisfied with Wednesday’s meeting and believes NSB realizes the seriousness of the situation. “NSB has experienced good growth in customer satisfaction,” he noted, until this winter’s problems. He said he still has confidence in Isaksen, at least for now.
Labour unions representing NSB workders already on board aren’t happy, though, and claimed they’d warned against NSB’s staffing policies. “I think we’re going to have another crisis in a year or two,” Rolf Ringdal, leader of the Lokmannsforbundet, told NRK. That’s also when railroad agency Bane Nor controversially wants to cut back on major expansion plans, to avoid too much disruption because of track repairs and construction.