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Monday, April 15, 2024

Future uncertain for popular ‘Flytoget,’ the Airport Express Train

UPDATED: Norway’s first high-speed train line has been running to and from the country’s gateway airport, Oslo Gardermoen, since it opened in 1998. Now its future is uncertain, a victim of politics and back-room pressure from labour organizations despite its popularity, reliability and success.

The Airport Express Train (Flytoget) to OSL Gardermoen has long topped customer satisfaction rankings, but its popularity and success aren’t saving it from political meddling and pressure from labour organizations. PHOTO: Samferdselsdepartement/Olav Heggø/Fotovisjon

“We are very surprised and disappointed over this,” said Nicolai Bryde, chief executive of Flytoget (Airport Express Train), after state railroad authority (Jernbanedirektoratet) suddenly proposed handing the concession for all passenger lines in southeastern Norway (Østlandet) to Vy, formerly the state-owned national train operator NSB. Vy employs around 3,600 labour union members, compared to Flytoget’s 147, reports newspaper Aftenposten. Major labour federations want to stengthen Vy and halt any further loss of routes to other players like Flytoget, even though it’s also state-owned.

Vy has earlier had to cede lines including Dovrebanen to Trondheim and Sørlandsbanen to Kristiansand and Stavanger to foreign operators under European competition law, and badly wanted to retain service around the Oslo area in Østlandet. It was potentially up against Flytoget, which was keen to expand its higher-end service and also run commuter lines west and perhaps south of Oslo.

Authorities had initially backed a proposal to split the area into regions called Østlandet 1 and Østlandet 2. Flytoget had been “invited” by the authorities to submit a proposal to operate more routes than just the line for airport passengers and employees between Drammen in the west and OSL Gardermoen in the northeast.

That set off protests from labour unions, who claimed Norway’s Labour-Center government had promised not to further split up what’s left of the former state railroad. Suddenly two government ministries run by Labour Party colleagues were also pitted against each other, since Flytoget is formally owned by the Business and Trade Ministry and Vy is owned by the Transport Ministry. The Transport Ministry, however, also is responsible for all rail line contracts, giving it the upper hand.

Transport Minister Jon-Ivar Nygård of the Labour Party and the directorate, which had been handed a mandate from the ministry in support of Vy, ultimately responded earlier this month by suddenly granting all routes in the area to Vy alone. The government also launched a process to evaluate a merger between Vy and Flytoget, after labour organizations, left-leaning politicians and newspaper Dagsavisen claimed there is no longer room for “exclusive” train service just for airline travelers. They also claimed that Vy had submitted an offer that would demand less government subsidy than the sum of Vy’s and Flytoget’s offers for two regions, but Flytoget wasn’t given a chance to submit its own bid.

Transport Minister Jon-Ivar Nygård is responsible for Norway’s long-troubled trains. PHOTO: Samferdselsdepartementet

That’s set off protests from opposition parties in Parliament and, not least Flytoget. Its leader Bryde told Aftenposten this week that he and his colleagues not only feel “deeply shocked” but also “cheated,” as part of “an act in which the winner was decided long ago, and in which the rules were changed along the way.”

Flytoget was launched, ironically enough, by an earlier Labour government as a climate-friendly means of traveling quickly to and from the new airport and discouraging use of private cars. Now Flytoget’s service seems too closely linked to politically incorrect air travel, at a time when capacity through train tunnels in the Oslo area is at the bursting point. Some off-peak departures of Flytoget also have empty seats and all devote space for luggage. Flytoget hasn’t been allowed to carry commuters except under special circumstances, and Vy’s commuter service has long been unreliable, also when it had a monopoly as NSB. Vy can often blame Bane NOR, which is in charge of railroad infrastructure in Norway that’s been poorly maintained for years, but not always.

“Today many trains are reserved for those flying off, while commuters are packed into trains and see half-full airport trains passing by,” Marius Holt, communications director for Vy, told newspaper Aftenposten. He earlier ran the anti-carbon emissions organization Zero and his comment angered his counterpart at Flytoget.

It’s beyond arrogance of Vy to simply try to shut down Flytoget,” retorted Ida Fottland. Vy, however, seems to have won, even though its track record for reliability is poor at best and its passengers chronically frustrated, while Flytoget has long topped lists measuring consumer satisfaction. Critics point to how it’s another example of how government officials did not choose the best option for passengers, but one that was most politically expedient. The railroad administrators at Jernbanedirektoratet had earlier written themselves that operations shared by both Vy and Flytoget would probably have been better than Vy operating alone, but Vy’s offer alone appeared cheaper than the estimated combined costs of operations for Vy and Flytoget.

Two lawyers specializing in public purchasing question the legality of the ministry’s maneuver and whether regulations against conflicts of interest have been broken. The ministry’s mandate to Jernbanedirektoratet was also kept secret: “When they choose to handle this as a competition, and keep the mandate secret, it’s a violation of rules,” lawyer Robert Myhre told Aftenposten. He thinks the ministry instructed the administrators “to give Vy a contract, whatever the costs may be.”

‘Excellent service’ loses out
Dagsavisen conceded that Flytoget “has built up the most popular train service in the country,” adding that “many are therefore reacting negatively to the signals that Flytoget is nearing the end of its journey. The company has undoubtedly done a good job with excellent service, frequent departures and spacious trains with plenty of room for passenger and their baggage.”

That has come, Dagsavisen claims, “at the expense of other capacity. It’s no longer defensible that airline passengers should have such priority. Flytoget’s time is over.”

Flytoget’s management has stressed that the popular high-speed train line still has a license to run its high-speed service between Drammen, Oslo, Lillestrøm and the airport until 2028, but after that, Flytoget seems likely to be shut down. It may even be shut down earlier, if the government merges Flytoget into Vy before then.

“We believe both the state and train passengers will now lose a long-awaited boost for Norwegian train travel,” Flytoget’s Bryde stated in a press release, referring to how Flytoget’s success could have been transferred to commuter lines. “Now we’ll study the decision from the authorities very closely.” It’s unclear whether they could mount a legal challenge over how the ministry handled what was supposed to be an open bid. There’s also a new Parliamentary election 2025, and given the unpopularity of the current Labour-Center government, voters and a Conservatives-run government may be able to halt or reverse the whole process.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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