UPDATED: The reopening of what was supposed to be a new high-speed commuter line in the Oslo area (Follobanen) has been delayed for the fourth time. Now Norway’s most expensive transport project ever won’t be operable until mid-February at the earliest, and problems on other lines have set off a new state inquiry.
Bane NOR, the state agency in charge of Norway’s rail system, has been publicly shamed over what’s been called a billion-kroner scandal that should have consequences for the highly paid state bureaucrats in charge. Instead Bane NOR leader Gorm Frimannslund claims he and his colleagues “feel very certain that we now know the reason” behind all the problems that led to overheating and fires in electrical equipment.
“We’re not ready to present (the reason) today,” Frimannslund said on Thursday, “but it won’t be long until it’s completely clear for us.” More testing at high speeds, which wasn’t carried out before Follobanen’s ceremonial but doomed opening in December, is also needed.
“We can’t offer any guarantees, but there is high probability the line will open February 12,” Frimannslund said. “I know we said that about February 1, but now we have a good time-plan and good margins, so we see it as probable.” His credibility has been called into question, though, and both he and other rail and train officials face official investigations.
A rash of trouble on other lines and inside tunnels, meanwhile, has also frustrated passengers and alarmed state regulators. Bane NOR is responsible for railroad infrastructure in Norway, while the former state train agency NSB (now called Vy) runs various lines along with commercial competitors.
Now the state rail and train regulator Jernbanetilsynet has launched an inquiry into the problems around both Follobanen and a serious incident inside the long tunnel called Romeriksporten that serves lines northeast from Oslo and the high-speed Airport Express Train (Flytoget) to and from Norway’s gateway airport, OSL Gardermoen. Power failures inside the tunnel between Oslo and Lillestrøm have also led to lengthy delays and stranded passengers, including signal errors that closed Romeriksporten once again on Friday morning, causing problems for passengers with flights to catch. They were warned of delays throughout the day, just as weekend travel was supposed to take off.
The regulators are especially worried about an alleged lack of adequate maintenance and preparedness when things go wrong. The state agency in charge of overall train service for the government transport ministry, Jernbanedirektoratet, has also called in top officials from Bane NOR and Vy to a meeting and plans several more, to put more pressure on them to improve service and reliability.
“The most important thing now is that Bane NOR’s plan is realistic and that we don’t end up in a situation where we have to reduce transport options because of unforeseen delays,” state rail and train director Knut Sletta told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Thursday. Both he and his boss, Transport Minister Jon-Ivar Nygård of the Labour Party, are disappointed and dissatisfied with Bane NOR.
“This isn’t good enough for the passengers,” Nygård told NRK and other media. “It’s clear that Bane NOR has been too optimistic about the reopening of Follobanen, and raised hopes that now are shown to not be realistic. That’s unfortunate.”
All the train trouble is particularly embarrassing for Norwegian officials who’ve hailed badly needed railroad investment as “green projects” that can reduce carbon emissions. While train service is quick and reliable in countries from Japan to India and elsewhere in Europe, Norway’s train system has been troubled for decades and often unreliable.
All the state agencies set up to oversee it, however, have also blurred responsibility and allowed those running them to blame one another when trains are frequently cancelled or delayed. An array of different operators on various lines, meant to improve competition and comply with European free trade rules, has also made it complicated and often expensive to travel, for example from Fredrikstad to Trondheim, because of the various operators involved and lack of ticket coordination.
The Follobanen trouble has made it especially difficult for the thousands of Norwegians living and commuting in the Østfold region south and east of Oslo that extends to the Fredrikstad area. “This is so unfortunate,” Hanne Opdan, the mayor Nordre Follo, told NRK. “The most important thing now is that the plan is put into action so that train travelers can have predictable service.”