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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Outrage grows over railroad fiasco

Officials at Norway’s state-owned and much criticized train system are facing more public outrage in the New Year, after they had to shut down their long-awaited, expensive and brand-new rail line Follobanen. No one knows when the line, formally opened by King Harald just before the Christmas holidays, can reopen.

The 20-kilometer-long tunnel built over the past decade to serve Follobanen is supposed to allow trains to travel at speeds up to 200kph, cutting commute time between Oslo and Ski from 22 to 11 minutes. Instead the tunnel has been closed and the new Follobanen is shut down because of a faulty electrical system. PHOTO: Bane NOR/Nicolas Tourrenc

“Closing  Follobanen just a few days after it opened is one of the worst things that could happen,” admits Stine Undrum, one of several directors of Bane NOR, the state agency in charge of railroad infrastructure in Norway. They haven’t been able to figure out the source of overheating and smoke in a technical facility at the station in Ski, south of Oslo.

Newspaper Aftenposten reported Monday that there now appears to have been a construction error that’s left the line’s electrical system unable to service full, high-speed operation of the trains running on it. The first overheating occurred on December 19 and a second on December 23, prompting the shutdown. Bane NOR has acknowledged that the problem is more serious than first expected, and that it didn’t arise during test-runs of the system.

Undrum and her colleagues now face a torrent of criticism, with local politicians and media commentators calling the shutdown “tragic” and “a catastrophe.” Bane NOR also faces a government inquiry: “The is not good enough,” claimed Transport Minister Jon-Ivar Nygård of the Labour Party. He was back on national radio confronting Bane NOR officials himself early Monday morning while reporters confronted him.

Bane NOR is one of several state-owned firms created as part of reforms meant to improve the country’s outdated and long-ailing train system, which now divides responsibility for the rail network, tracks and tunnels, and actual train operations. Passengers, however, routinely face unreliable service and now, the shutdown of the Follobanen line meant to cut commute time between Oslo and suburban Ski in half and spur more development of the Follo region.

Follobanen’s new tunnel system runs under the Ekeberg plateau in Oslo and south to Ski. The red lines show the double-track directly to Ski, while the blue line is for local trains on Østfoldbanen. ILLUSTRATION: Bane NOR

Bane NOR spent around a decade and nearly NOK 37 billion of taxpayers’ money on the much-hyped Follobanen, which runs through the new Blixtunnel that’s the longest train tunnel in the Nordic countries at around 20 kilometers. Undrum said she and the construction and development arm of Bane NOR that she leads (Utbygging) worked all through the Christmas and New Year holidays in an effort to correct the problem, to no avail. Now the line is likely to remain inoperable through January.

“We just can’t understand how a project that cost NOK 37 billion (USD 3.7 billion) can break down after a few (seven) days of operation,” fumed the mayor of the Nordre Follo region, Hanne Opdan, also of the Labour Party. “It raises questions about whether splitting up NSB (the former national train and rail agency) was the right way to develop and operate the train system in Norway.”

It also raises questions about Bane NOR itself, which has been accused of poor maintenance for years, and how it oversaw work carried out by contractor AGJV and subcontractors including Cowi, Elecnor and Sintef. Undrum claims she and her colleagues “closely followed up the work done on Follobanen. We’re now conducting a thorough review of the entire system and equipment.”

Olav Skinnes, in charge of transport for all of Viken County, is not reassured, and has suggested that all of Bane NOR’s top officials should consider resigning their posts and multi-million-kroner salaries. “This is tragic and shouldn’t have been possible,” Skinnes told reporters last week. “It’s also so embarrassing that management should make serious evaluations about whether some of them should find new jobs.”

Commuters and other passengers, meanwhile, face weeks of route disruption and delays. Vy, the controversially renamed NSB in charge of train operations, was once again substituting some trains with bus service and passengers were stuck in long lines caused by train cancellations and a route system in which the number of departures was cut in half.

“We are so sorry for what’s happened and over how it affects our faithful passengers,” Undrum said. “We’re working as quickly as we can, and we won’t give up until we find the error and traffic starts running as it should.”

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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