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Monday, October 2, 2023

Railroad boss quits after Follobanen scandal, and with 10 months’ pay

At least one head has rolled at Norway’s troubled train and railroad system, after the boss of railroad unit Bane NOR resigned with immediate effect on Tuesday. Gorm Frimannslund had been under fire for months, mostly because of huge budget overruns and scandalous delays on Bane NOR’s new high-speed Follobanen commuter line.

Crews scrambled in January and February to address the trouble along the brand new Follobanen commuter line between Oslo and Ski. The project already ranked as the most expensive transport project in Norwegian history. PHOTO: Bane NOR

The Follobanen line between Oslo and Ski finally started running last week, following 13 years of construction and then 10 more weeks of electrical trouble that shut it down less than a week after King Harald V had declared it open. The trouble began even while the monarch was on board December 12, affecting the parallel Østfoldbanen as well.

The new Follo line is only 22 kilometers long but it ended up costing NOK 36.8 billion (USD 3.5 billion), with more millions offered contractors to speed up work on its specially built tunnel, in the hopes it could open in December. It did, but had to close just eight days later because of serious electrical trouble that led to overheating and even set off a fire. The project, agreed to before Frimannslund took over the top post at Bane NOR in 2016, was meant to expand commuter capacity and cut commute time in half, if only by 11 minutes. Newspaper Aftenposten has called them”Norway’s most expensive minutes,” not least since Follobanen had already become the country’s most expensive transport project ever.

Public outrage peaked in early January, and it didn’t take long before calls went out to fire those responsible for the fiasco, not least Frimannslund. Not only was the expensive train line standing still, Aftenposten and other media were reporting how Frimannslund’s team had taken on questionable risk in an effort to avoid the embarrassing delays, and seemed more worried about their own reputation than safety, a claim they firmly denied.

Then came reports of disagreements with the line’s contractor, offers of extra money to get Follobanen finished more quickly and, not least, how the state-owned railway agency has had no less that 44 people working in its communications division but still spent millions hiring in consultants. In February, Aftenposten reported how Bane NOR’s large public relations staff felt they were under so much pressure that they were offered free massages at work and during work hours to relieve stress.

That set off more questions, also in Parliament, about how Norwegian’s tax kroner were being spent, especially when rail service has become so unreliable. Follobanen isn’t the only train line in Norway plagued by chronic delays, often because poor maintenance that leads to signal failure and other trouble, especially inside tunnels.

“Is Bane NOR being run by a stort of PR tyranny?” asked Geir Jørgensen, a Member of Parliament for the Reds Party. “Bane NOR seems to be copying the worst sides of private business and the PR business. How they’re viewed by the public seems more important than doing such a good job (providing more reliable service) that positive views would come on their own.”

Repair work on Follobanen went on day and night as Bane NOR officials desperately tried to get it running. PHOTO: Bane NOR/Alexander Haugdal

Questions had also arisen back in September 2020, when newspaper Dagsavisen reported on how Bane NOR’s management ranks had expanded following what became a highly controversial reform of Norway’s entire train system. What used to just be train operator NSB (Norges Statsbanen) and Jernbaneverket (in charge of rail infrastructure) had suddenly morphed into Vy (formerly NSB), Bane NOR and lots of other entities called Entur, Norske tog, Mantena and Spordrift, all allegedly overseen by the state agency Jernbanedirektoratet with, ultimately, political control in the hands of the Transport Ministry. The number of top bureaucrats had swelled from 30 to 59 since 2017 and they all were paid multi-million-kroner salaries. Geir Isaksen, former head of NSB/Vy, topped the list with pay and benefits worth NOK 5.2 million at the time, while leadership of the former Jernbaneverket (Bane NOR since 2017) rose from seven people who’d earned an average NOK 1-1.5 million to 10 people earning an average NOK 2.5 million, according to a study by the research group De Facto Kunnskapssenter and reported in Dagsavisen.

Frimannslund had promised fewer directors in his management group, but Bane NOR’s labour organizations claimed the opposite occurred. “They’re increasing at the top and cutting at the bottom,” Rune Dahlen of Norsk Jernbaneforbund told Dagsavisen. “If you add up all the people with ‘director’ or ‘underdirector’ titles, the number surpasses 100 by a good margin.”

At the same time, Bane NOR was being accused of poor maintenance on railroad lines and not least in tunnels, and still is. Train operator NSB/Vy and others often blame Bane NOR when passengers are stranded. De Facto itself cited a need for “future-oriented policy without pulverizing responsibility and resources.” Several have claimed that Norway’s rail transport reform (ushered in by the former Conservatives-led government in 2015) has made train service dysfunctional, resulting in far more highly paid bosses and poorer service.

Follobanen is just the latest scandal tied to Norway’s heavily bureaucratic and problem-plagued rail transport system, but the scale of it has landed both it and the ill-fated railway reforms at the top of the news lately. In early February, Aftenposten reported on a survey of Bane NOR personnel last fall that already revealed alarmingly low confidence in Bane NOR’s management. Fully 88 percent of Bane NOR’s roughly 3,400 employees responded, and only 11 percent of them gave top management good scores (of 4 or more on a scale of 1 to 5). The average score was 3.2, “markedly lower” than those given in other areas.

Questions were already swirling around over how long Gorm Frimannslund would remain chief of the state-owned railroad Bane NOR. He quit on Tuesday, clearly under pressure. PHOTO: Bane NOR/Anne Mette Storvik

“Personally I think it’s sad, but that’s where we are,” Frimannslund said at a meeting with employees just before Christmas. “It indicates we have a job to do when we score so low.” He claimed he hadn’t “evaluated his position” at the time, that is, whether he was willing to quit. By February things were getting worse and top politicians began suggesting that Frimannslund and his team should consider changing jobs. Neither Transport Minister Jon-Ivar Nygård nor Bane NOR’s board and its leader, Cato Hellesjø were willing to fire them, perhaps because it was most important to just get Follobanen running. Hellesjø told Aftenposten as late as last month that he “had faith that today’s leadership can lift us up. It’s important to retain competence in the company.”

Now that Follobanen is back in service, so far with only a few delays and trouble with a signal, Frimannslund’s time apparently was up. Hellesjø claimed in a press release on Tuesday that “Gorm Frimannslund is a great person whom I’ve valued cooperating with,” adding that Frimannslund “has led Bane NOR through demanding changes based on railroad reform that was approved in 2015.” He also credited Frimannslund with “laying the foundation for modernization and development” of the system. No specific reason was given for the decision that led to Frimannslund’s resignation. He’ll remain at Bane NOR’s “disposition” through January of 2024, Bane NOR announced, indicating Frimannslund will also remain on the payroll for at least another year.

Leaving with steady income
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported that Grimannslund had an annual salary of just over NOK 3 million in 2021. Under the terms of his contract, he had a right to receive up to 12 months of severance pay if asked to resign. Hellesjø told DN on Tuesday that he will remain formally employed by Bane NOR through next January, “and at my disposition.” That means he’ll get 10 months more of his salary, which Aftenposten reported is now around NOK 250,000 (USD 25,000) per month. That also angered some Members of Parliament, with MP Mona Fagerås of the Socialist Left Party (SV) telling Aftenposten that “these directors know how to take care of one another. How come he doesn’t just get three months’ pay like most others?”

Frimannslund didn’t respond directly to questions, but was quoted on Bane NOR’s own website as saying that Follobanen’s problems were the main reason for his resignation, “but there have been other issues over time that have been a burden for our owner (the state/taxpayers). Operating stability has been among them.” He also indicated that he hasn’t had full confidence from the state.

“After a demanding period on the railroad, it’s natural that the owner (the transport ministry and its current chief, Jon-Ivar Nygård) evaluates top leaders. After six years as chief it’s not unnatural to make a change either. Given the situation that Bane NOR is in, this is the best solution for the organization. It’s important that its chief has good support from the owner.”

Henning Bråtebæk is taking over as acting chief of Bane NOR. PHOTO: Spordrift/Nadia Frantsen

Replacing Frimannslund as acting chief of Bane NOR is Henning Bråtebæk, who’s been in charge of the Spordrift unit of the rail system that’s in charge of operation and maintenance. Spordrift has also been merged into Bane NOR itself, and maintenance is expected to get more attention. Bråtebæk spent 15 years at NSB and Bane NOR’s predecessor, Jernbaneverket, and 11 years at airports agency Avinor before taking over Spordrift four years ago.

Maintenance of Bane NOR’s infrastructure has been among its biggest problems, but Hellesjø said he believes Bråtebæk “will lead Bane NOR in an excellent manner. The board looks forward to cooperating with him and we are grateful that he took on the role as acting chief of Bane NOR.”

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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