Managers of Norway’s railroad system, led by Bane NOR boss Gorm Frimannslund, are under fire after the government ordered an external probe into why their brand-new and expensive rail line Follobanen remains inoperable. Transport Minister Jon-Ivar Nygård went so far as to say he’s “worried” about how Frimannslund and his colleagues ran the NOK 37 billion project.
Nygård had called in leaders of not only the state railroad agency Bane NOR but also his own ministry’s administrative arm (Jernbanedirektoratet) and Norway’s railroad regulatory authority (Statens jernbanetilsyn) for an emergency meeting at his office on Tuesday afternoon. The meeting followed problems that forced the shutdown of Follobanen just before the Christmas- and New Year’s holidays after only seven days of operation.
Bane NOR bears the most responsibility, and media including newspaper Aftenposten described its CEO Frimannslund as being “called in on the carpet.” It’s since emerged that his management team, allegedly unknown to him, had been warned about risks tied to the opening of Follobanen.
Its sudden closure was literally sparked by two incidents of overheating in an electrical facility. Newspaper Aftenposten is among media reporting on Wednesday how the rail’s electrical system itself was “under dimensioned” and thus lacks capacity to run trains at the high speeds (up to 200kph/120mph) expected.
It’s also emerged that consulting firm Norconsult raised questions about the capacity of the system last autumn, a few months before Follobanen’s scheduled opening. Despite Norconsult’s concerns, subcontractor Cowi reportedly prevailed with its solution to the problem presented to Bane NOR management. Follobanen thus opened on schedule, with King Harald present for ceremonies on December 12, only to have to shut down on December 19, and again on December 23. The closure was described as “indefinite” just before New Year, prompting the government to act.
Frimannslund has since admitted that he wasn’t even aware of Norconsult’s ominous evaluation “until recently.” He told Aftenposten that it’s all “very technical and detailed” and that Bane NOR is now filing a claim against another contractor involved, Acciona Gjella (AGJV). “This should have been dimensioned correctly,” he said, in terms of how electricity flows through the system.
Bane NOR’s CEO claimed his management “made thorough evaluations underway” even though no full-scale testing of the system was conducted before operations began in December. “Now we see that we should have made further evaluations,” Frimannslund told Aftenposten. Asked where responsibility lies, Frimannslund admitted that “I have the overall responsibility for what happen in Bane NOR. It rests on my shoulders.”
Transport Minister Nygård ultimately ordered an external investigation into how the Follobanen project has been run. That follows his emergency meeting late Tuesday with Frimannslund, other Bane NOR leaders, the railroad directorate and railroad regulators.
Nygård candidly told reporters at a press conference right after the meeting that new information had “come forth (during the meeting) that worries me. There has been uncertainty around the solution chosen” regarding the electrical flow and its grounding.
“I’m worried because what Bane NOR told us at the meeting is that there have been other professional milieux that have reported they were uncertain over whether the system chosen was good enough,” Nygård said. Now the minister from the Labour Party believes it’s clear that the system ultimately approved “was not good enough.”
Asked why Bane NOR opted to open Follobanen regardless of the warnings, Nygård said that’s what he hopes the external investigation will uncover. “It’s Bane NOR that must answer for how they have evaluated the risk, but I’m uneasy and worried that there’s been a risk tied to the project.”
Nygård doesn’t think passengers were in any danger during the seven days Follobanen ran. He also said Bane NOR now has a plan for repairs and enhancements that should allow Follobanen to reopen by the end of January: “We can’t have infrastructure costing NOK 37 billion (USD 3.7 billion) that can’t be put into use. This has to get fixed.”
Nygård’s boss, Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, clearly agrees, telling newspaper VG that “this has to get cleaned up.” Less than a month ago, Støre sat across from Bane NOR’s CEO Frimannslund on the royally celebrated launch of Follobanen, while Frimannslund himself sat next to King Harald V. Now he’s at the center of one of the biggest public embarrassments in Norwegian transport history.
Frimannslund apologized for all the trouble on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK)’s national nightly newscast Tuesday, and claimed that he “welcomes” the external investigation. He agreed that it’s “worrisome … that we started up (a system) and then it doesn’t function and has to be redesigned. Therefore I’m also glad that the transport minister is so clear that he wants an external evaluation, gladly an investigation of what happened.”
Meanwhile, the state directorate in charge of preparedness, DSB, has also demanded a report from Bane NOR regarding the rail line’s problems. “We have also been in contact with (state railroad regulators) to coordinate the follow-up of this incident,” DSB director Johan Marius Ly told TV2.
It’s far from the first time that railroad infrastructure breaks down in Norway, and train service then grinds to a halt. The former state railway NSB was broken up years ago and the rail and train system now consists of a vast array of state entities in charge of various aspects, each led by highly paid managers and often blaming each other when things go wrong.
NSB was even controversially renamed Vy a few years ago, with Vy now operating various train lines in competition with foreign operators like Sweden’s SJ and the UK’s Go Ahead. When they suffer signal failure or rail trouble like that facing Follobanen, they can blame Bane NOR, which is also often criticized for poor maintenance. The constant problems with Norwegian trains have also spoiled efforts to make train travel more attractive and offer a reliable alternative to vehicles or airlines.
Passengers are left suffering the most. Among them this week was commuter Melissa Andersen, who had looked forward to the opening of the new Follobanen, only to find it unreliable as well.
“I hope things start working soon,” Andersen told NRK on Tuesday, “but my faith (in Bane NOR’s new start-up plan) isn’t exactly in place right now.”