UPDATED: A majority in Parliament has overruled the Norwegian government and voted Tuesday to start working on an extension of the Nordlandsbanen train line to Tromsø. Transport Minister Knut Arild Hareide called the vote “irresponsible” because of the huge costs involved.
Plans now call, however, for a new train line to run from Fauske (just east of Bodø) north to Narvik, Bardufoss and Tromsø. The new Nord-Norgebanen would extend the current Nordlandsbanen that runs from Trondheim north over the mountains of Saltfjellet and ends in Bodø.
A passenger train line deeper into the Arctic has been debated and sought for more than 100 years, but even the most professional and impartial transport experts claim it won’t be economically viable. That’s mostly why Hareide and the rest of Norway’s Conservatives-led government dropped plans for the new Arctic train line from its budgets and long-term transport plans.
He’s still against the project, calling Parliament’s approval on Tuesday “completely irresponsible” and even “unrealistic.” He claims that the current estimated costs of up to NOK 120 billion (USD 14.4 billion) for the 375-kilometer-long rail line are probably too low. He also worries that the northern train line project through difficult terrain and areas of rough weather would divert funding from other transport projects that would serve far more people.
“If we go ahead with a rail line to Northern Norway, we’ll have to halt improvements on the InterCity line (linking Oslo with Skien, Halden, Lillehammer and Hønefoss), Trønderbanen (in Trøndelag) or train lines in Western Norway,” Hareide told state broadcaster NRK on Tuesday. “If Northern Norway gets NOK 120 billion, will they use all the money on this project or on transport throughout all of Northern Norway?” Hareide claims the train line would jeopardize funding for other important road projects, for example, and Norway’s northernmost area of Finnmark wouldn’t directly benefit from it. Rail enthusiasts there have long been calling for another train line that would connect Kirkenes and its harbour with Finland and Russia.
The opposition Socialist Left (SV) and Center parties, joined by the government’s own former partner, the Progress Party, nonetheless put forth a proposal to start work on the project and won support from Labour, the Reds and the Greens. That means Hareide has no choice but to launch the project.
Labour MP Cecilie Myrseth from the Labour Party also denied the rail project would threaten other transport projects, calling that a “divide and conquer” tactic by Hareide. She stressed that the Parliament is “listening” to the demand for a train line in Northern Norway.
Reds leader Bjørnar Moxnes claimed that Hareide was the one who was acting irresponsibly, by continuing to prefer “expensive and climate-unfriendly motorways.” MP Torgeir Knag Fylkesnes of SV further claimed that the project would provide new opportunities for business and the public. It could become popular with tourists, too.
Support in Northern Norway itself, however, was not unanimous. Some fear it will mean the end for free-grazing reindeer and wildlife, which already are often run over by trains on the Nordlandsbanen route. “This is not good news for us,” Per Mathis Oskal, leader of the Hjerttind reindeer grazing district in Troms.
Others worried that construction of the rail lines would damage the environment, as have wind power turbines, expansion of power lines and real estate development. “Nord-Norgebanen will amount to the biggest attack on nature ever in Sami areas,” Silje Karine Muotka, a member of the Sami Parliament, told NRK.