Norway’s much-criticized state railway, recently ridiculed when it changed its name to Vy, has now lost the rights to run seven train lines including the main line between Oslo and Trondheim (Dovrebanen) and the country’s most northerly line (Nordlandsbanen). Sweden’s SJ Norge won the new state contract to take over responsibility for passenger transport, also on five connecting lines.
SJ (Sveriges Jernbane) currently runs three lines into Norway, between Stockholm and Oslo, Gothenburg and Halden and Stockholm and Narvik. Norway’s railroad directorate, charged with carrying out new competitive bidding ushered in by the conservative Norwegian government coalition, determined that both Norway’s Vy (formerly NSB) and SJ Norge offered similar quality but SJ Norge’s bid for an eight-year operating contract beginning next year was 27 percent lower than Vy’s.
“Price and quality were the deciding factors,” said Svein Horrisland, communications chief for Norway’s Jernbanedirektoratet. It’s been in charge of ending NSB/Vy’s former monopoly on state train lines and putting them up for bid.
Critics have blasted ‘Great Train Robbery’
SJ stated in a press release Monday that it could show it was “a modern train company” that’s “far ahead” in providing “new solutions for better customer service.” Its goal, it stated, is to “simplify and improve the entire trip” for those who choose to take the train instead of “other alternatives” like flying. SJ’s chief executive Crister Fritzson said the company would also offer Vy’s employees “to join us on our train travel development.”
SJ bills itself as “tying Scandinavia together” with its network of train lines and 4,600 employees who serve around 140,000 passengers a day from 284 train stations.
Late last year the British railway firm Go Ahead won the competition to operate passenger trains on Sørlandsbanen, the line running between Oslo and Stavanger via Kristiansand. That caught lots of criticism, because of negative reports about Go Ahead‘s service in Britain, and led some to call the route allocation “The Great Train Robbery.”
Now Norway’s still-state-owned railway that controversially changed its name to Vy earlier this year has lost the rights to run more lines. In addition to the long-distance lines from Oslo to Trondheim and on to Bodø, SJ Norge will take over Rørosbanen, Trønderbanen, Meråkerbanen, Saltenpendelen and the line running through Romsdalen towards Åndalsnes (Raumabanen).
Vy will be left, for the time being, with commuter service around Oslo and Bergensbanen, the main line over the mountains between Oslo and Bergen. The government’s railroad and railway reform program means the former Norges Statsbane (NSB) is losing a considerable portion of its passenger portfolio.
That’ doesn’t sit well with critics of the reforms and new competitive “modernization,” including former NSB boss Osmund Ueland. “There’s competitive hysteria among the politicians,” the now-retired Ueland told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Monday. “Even in my time the politicians were keen on putting lines out to bid, and they haven’t come to grips with the most important thing, that the trains run fast, often and on time.”
Horrisland of the railroad directorate wouldn’t identify other bidders for the lines apart from Vy. “There were several, and it was a real competition,” he told NRK. The goal, he said, is to have “better train service.”
Employees at Vy noted that the trains used on most of the lines are old and demand a lot of maintenance, while also expressing concerns that foreign train operators will take over, and may usher in lower pay and benefits. Horrisland, however, said all existing Vy employees will be welcome to be part of the transition and will retain “the same pay and working conditions that they have today.” The takeover will be effective from June 2020.