The International Steam Pages

The Railways of Spitsbergen

James Waite reports on a July 2008 journey. See also Richard Bowen's notes on these and other northerly railways.

Ny Ålesund in Spitsbergen, Svalbard is the world's most northerly settlement inhabited all the year round. It is in the northwest of the island at a latitude of about 79 degrees. There are many “most northerlies” here including the post office, the North Pole Hotel, a disused colliery and the world’s most northerly train. 

The colliery and village were founded in 1917 by a company based in Ålesund on the west coast of Norway, hence the name which is Norwegian for New Ålesund. The mines were about 1km inland from the coast and were connected to the jetty at the harbour by a 900mm gauge railway.

The surviving loco is no. 2, a 900mm gauge Borsig 0-4-0T, works number 7095 of 1909. It sits on a length of the old track next to the harbour with its train of old coal wagons . All around the village there are sleeper tracks leading to the old colliery and there’s another surviving length of track with two more wagons in the village centre.

The village has a small museum with photos of the railway in its prime. There were at least four other locos. One was an OK 0-4-0T and there were two which came second-hand from Sweden. One was these was 2-6-0T "Haddebo", Nohab works number 56 of 1875. It was supplied new to the Pålsboda-Finspong Järnväg. The other was 2-4-0T "Roxen", Nohab works number 197 of 1885. It was supplied to the Finspong-Norsholm Järnväg where it worked with an identical sister loco "Glan", Nohab works number 198 of 1885. Both these railways later merged to become the Norra Östergötland Järnväg which sold the locos for use at Ny Ålesund. They are both believed to have been scrapped by 1934. There was also a later Swedish loco, an 0-6-0T named “Sten Sture”, Motala works no. 107/1890 and purchased in 1945 from the Vetlanda Järnväg. 

The Swedish locos were 891mm gauge. There has been speculation that maybe the Ny Ålesund line was also 891mm gauge but I measured the surviving track and it's definitely 900mm. Maybe these locos’ 891mm gauge was close enough! No 2 came second hand from Salangsverket in northern Norway. It arrived on 12th July 1917 and was the first loco on the line which perhaps explains why it was chosen for preservation. The O&K followed on 26th August 1917. The colliery closed in 1963 after a fatal explosion and most of the railway equipment was scrapped in 1970. More recently the village has been used as a scientific research centre. 

The flight to Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen's capital, was relatively straightforward, a SAS flight in a Boeing 737 from Oslo, about 3 hours flying time which arrived a few minutes before midnight. At this latitude, of course, there’s 24-hour daylight in July. We were greeted by thick cloud at the airport with a dramatic view below the cloud of the mountains to the east bathed in the midnight sunshine. 

Getting to Ny Ålesund was more complicated. The flights there from Longyearbyen are operated by the King's Bay Company, the old coalmining concern which now provides support services for the scientific community. We were due to show up at the airport at 10.10 to catch the plane and were collected from our guesthouse by a Finnish taxi-driver who was on a prolonged holiday in Longyearbyen and was plying his trade there to help pay for it. He was surprised to learn where we were going and said that the King’s Bay Company discourage visits by tourists because of the potential for interference with the scientific research projects. For this reason they won’t normally won't allow tourists to fly with them and he hadn’t yet met anyone who had made it there. Fortunately they must have regarded looking at their loco as an acceptable reason to visit and agreed to sell us tickets for their plane. Maybe the director at Ny Ålesund is a railfan! They also made us most welcome once we had arrived and offered us lunch and coffee in their reception building. 

The plane, a Dornier twin-prop, sat 15 people altogether and all our fellow passengers were scientists except for one lady who was an artist and was going to stay there at the North Pole Hotel for several weeks to paint the Arctic autumn. The weather was bleak but this perhaps was appropriate to the Arctic location. We had the place to ourselves - apart from an Arctic fox who decided we were his friends. We spent 3 hours there and it was very atmospheric watching the clouds and mist swirl around. There’s a large glacier immediately opposite the village on the other side of the fjord an even larger one about 10 km inland which dominates the view to the east. 

Ny Ålesund must be one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world. Eleven countries now run research stations in Ny Ålesund, the most recent arrivals being the Indians who opened their station in May 2008 in the old village school. It’s identifiable from the small bronze plaque showing Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god, by the front door, and more prominently by the bikes parked outside with luggage trailers attached – a familiar sight in the streets of India’s cities but not so in the Arctic! Just beyond the King’s Bay reception building is the Chinese station with two large oriental dragons (or are they lions?) who guard the front door and stare out over the fjord. The summertime population of the village is now more than 150. In winter this shrinks to just 25 or so who live there all the year round.

All too soon it was time to catch the plane back but not before we had photographed each other in front of the North Pole Hotel!

Longyearbyen is a cosmopolitan town as well, thanks to the Spitsbergen Treaty of 1920, the only one of the post-World War I Versailles treaties which still has much practical effect today. The treaty awarded sovereignty over the islands to Norway but gave the citizens of all the countries which signed the treaty the unrestricted right to live and work there. We were surprised to find that the fire safety notices in our guesthouse were printed in English, Norwegian and….Thai! Thailand is one of the signatories to the treaty and the Thais now form the largest foreign community in Longyearbyen. After they have worked in Spitsbergen for a few years they become entitled to residence in Norway which, in turn, gives them access to the EU. Russia is another signatory and for many years their mining towns at Barentsburg and Pyramiden had larger populations than Longyearbyen. 

We visited Pyramiden which was abandoned in 1998 though most of the buildings are intact and the town is presided over by the world's most northerly bust of Lenin. Barentsburg is still very much alive. The mine there is home to Spitsbergen's last working railway. Other railways, all narrow gauge, which are still in situ though out of use include a line about two miles in length along the cliffs between Colesbukta and Grumant which was also built by the Russians and short lines at an old gypsum mine at Skansbukta and, at 450mm gauge the narrowest of all, at Brucebyen, the site of exploratory pits on the opposite side of the fjord from Pyramiden which were never worked commercially. Just over the fjord from Ny Ålesund is Ny London, the site of an unsuccessful British marble quarry. A few narrow gauge wagons survive there along with some vertical-boilered steam cranes and the boiler of a portable steam engine. 200km south of the main archipelago is the small island of Bjornoya or Bear Island in English. There was an unsuccessful coal mine at Tunheim in the north east of the island and the partial remains of two 0-4-0T's are still there. However, they have decomposed so badly that it is hard to visualise now how they must have looked when they were complete. There's no public transport to Bjornoya and getting to see them must present one of the gricing world's more difficult challenges! 

Longyearbyen still retains the character of a coal mining town. It was founded by John Longyear, an American, in the early 1900’s. Only one mine there still operates but disused mines, along with many of their buildings, stand all around the town. The coal was transported to the port by a series of cableways. Most of the wooden support pylons are still in situ. The cableways joined up at an impressive structure at the edge of the town which also survives and part of the final length of cableway from there to the port has been preserved complete with its cables and buckets. Most of the mines used underground railways. The earliest of these appears to have been 2 feet gauge though later 3 feet gauge was used. A 3 feet gauge overhead wire loco and several wagons are preserved outside the old museum building in Longyearbyen.

One relic of Spitsbergen’s mining past is the universal requirement to take off your shoes before entering any building and leave them in a shoe rack at the entrance. This had unfortunate consequences for a young Finnish lady at our guesthouse (whose boyfriend, coincidentally, is a railfan) as her walking boots were stolen overnight from the shoe rack and she had to complete her holiday in her wellieboots. Longyearbyen is now rapidly outgrowing its industrial past. The museum (a must-see with excellent displays though there's nothing which is directly rail-related) has relocated to new purpose-built premises which it shares with the Norwegian Polar Institute and Svalbard University. All around snowmobiles were parked – they’re no use in midsummer but for most of the year they’re an indispensable means of getting around town. 

Svalbard has three native mammals, the Arctic fox, the Svalbard reindeer, stockier than its mainland consins and, most spectacularly, the polar bear. Most of the bears live in the east of the archipelago where the climate way from the Gulf Stream is much cooler and ice lasts all the year round. However, they can roam all over the archipelago - one was sighted from Ny Ålesund a few days after we were there. Travel outside the few inhabited settlements is forbidden without a gun and the knowledge of how to use it in the event of a bear attack. Signs at the edges of the settlements provide prominent reminders of this!

I’m very grateful to Herdis Lien and her staff at the Svalbard Museum for their help and support and to Dr. Roland Bol of Uppsala and Kurt Möller of Stockholm for information about the Swedish locos at Ny Ålesund. Andreas Umbreit’s excellent guidebook to Spitsbergen published by Bradt Travel Guides (ISBN 10:1 84162 092 0) is a mine of useful information and must rank as one of the best guidebooks ever written. Mr. Umbreit was also most helpful in giving me additional information based on his observations of some of the abandoned railways. Finally a big thank you must go to Oddvar Midtkandal, the director of the King’s Bay Company, for allowing us to visit Ny Ålesund and his colleagues at their reception building for making us so welcome while we were there.

Rob Dickinson