The trains and tracks were the same, but British-owned railway company Go-Ahead Nordic made history over the weekend as the first foreign operator to start rolling on Norwegian rails. State officials and not least passengers hope it will lead to a new era of train travel in Norway after decades of disappointing service.
When Go-Ahead’s first departure rolled out of the train station in Stavanger on Sunday, both its local chief executive Cathrine Elgin and Transport Minister Jon Georg Dale were on board. “It’s fantastic to finally be underway,” Elgin told local newspaper Rogalands Avis. “We’ve been working for this for a long time and it’s a victory to be here.”
The actual train on which they were riding still looked like one of those run by Norway’s old state railway NSB (Norges Statsbaner), which controversially changed its name to Vy earlier this year. It lost the bidding that was ushered in as part of Norwegian railway reform to run the line between Stavanger and Oslo along with its regional lines to Arendal and Egersund. Go-Ahead plans to “re-profile” the trains it will be running, but as of now, the only major visible change from NSB/Vy’s service was the sight of mostly former NSB/Vy personnel wearing new uniforms, along with a new name painted on at least one of the trains: Sørtoget, instead of the old Sørlandsbanen.
Aiming for ‘more positive experiences’
“We do want to make changes in several areas,” Elgin claimed. “The travel experience should be different, and there should be more positive experiences.” Go-Ahead, which bills itself as Britain’s largest railway operator and the largest bus operator in London, has stated ambitions of attracting more customers who will be more satisfied with Go-Ahead’s service than they’ve been on the state-owned lines.
“We want passengers to consciously choose to take the train because it’s the best alternative (to flying or driving),” Elgin said. That’s also what Swedish railway SJ wants after winning the rights to run NSB/Vy’s old lines between Oslo, Trondheim and north to Bodø, with spur lines along the way. The newly renamed Vy lost that line, too, but did finally succeed in retaining operation of the veteran line between Oslo and Bergen (Bergensbanen). Vy also hopes to retain commuter operations in the Oslo metropolitan area.
It’s all part of a railway reform program meant to satisfy EU regulations and finally improve train service after years of neglect. Norwegian train passengers simply haven’t been able to fully rely on train service, with delays and cancellations common. Now, with the transport sector targeted for a major share of Norway’s emissions reductions, it’s become more of a political priority to provide better, more consistent train service if they hope to get Norwegians out of their cars and off planes.
Bringing in new players
“This has involved very long-term work … to bring in new players on Norwegian rails who will have to compete to attract more passengers,” Dale told Rogalands Avis. “It’s important that more people choose the train.”
Concerns have already arisen over coordination of routes and cooperation among the new train operators, not least when it comes to setting fares. Critics have noted that both Go-Ahead and SJ have faced complaints in their home countries, just like NSB/Vy has for years, while others speculate that fares may rise.
Vy, meanwhile, is fighting back with, among other things, new uniforms of its own and promises of better service on its remaining lines. Vy is already offering additional departures aimed at relieving overcrowding on key commuter routes, along with earlier and more frequent service to airports at Gardermoen and Torp in Sandefjord. Newspaper Aftenposten reported that an extra 7,000 seats were being made available around the Oslo area on Monday.
Bane Nor often the weak link
“Norway commits itself to trains,” read the title of a promotional insert in several major Norwegian newspapers over the weekend, published by the state railroad Jernbanedirektoratet, which is responsible for train service in Norway. There also been reorganization of various state entities responsible for operations and for the actual tracks and infrastructure on which the railways run (Bane Nor).
Railroad provider Bane Nor has been a weak link in the system, with seemingly constant breakdowns of signal- or other equipment, leading Aftenposten to editorialize last month that while “Vy is bad, Bane Nor is worse.” The paper cited how only 67 percent of train passengers in Norway were satisfied with train service in Norway, down from 74 percent just six months ago. Much of that was blamed on an unusually bad summer season with the worst lack of punctuality ever. Bane Nor was responsible for fully 62 percent of the delays, not NSB/Vy.
Newspaper Dagsavisen also reported in November how train passengers in Norway were more dissatisifed than ever. There’s no lack of demand for train travel in Norway, however, so providers have a strong motivation to finally offer quick, reliable and more comfortable service. Calls are also rising for construction of train lines north of Bodø through Troms and on to Finnmark. Various political parties claim they’ll make their positions known on an extension of Nordlandsbanen before the next parliamentary election in 2021.