The International Steam Pages

Topographical Award Winner

Robert Hall muses on Norwegian Byways. There is a map at the end.

In the cod-science-fiction multi-media epic by the late brilliant Douglas Adams, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, there is a minor character who is a planet-builder by trade, and who has received an award for his great imagination and ingenuity in coming up with Norway. I share Adams’s admiration for the country’s geographical wonders and amazingly intricate fjord coastline, and “thuswise” concerning its natural delights re vegetation and wildlife; just wish that I could feel anything like the same, for Norway as a railway country. I must confess to finding it a bit boring in that capacity. Have always reckoned “mainland” Norway ample to contend with in its own right; Spitsbergen (Svalbard) and other “furthest-north” isles and industrial railways thereon, treated of by James Waite and Richard Bowen in these “pages”, remain completely outside of my ken.

I regret my prejudice, since most things about Norway and its people seem to me highly likeable. It largely stems from my great fondness for scenes featuring railway diversity, with different companies / administrations / outfits coexisting. In some countries of Europe such conditions long persisted – did so in Norway’s neighbours Sweden and Denmark, “in hearts and spades”. I find Norway a little off-putting, thanks to the impression received that from a definitely early date (State takeover of remaining significant private lines, in 1883), railway enterprise and development there, happened under one State system (the NSB) – long-lasting independence allowed only to a very few, and very marginal, lines.

There is one decidedly interesting thing about Norway in a railway context, for this author anyway: its unique feature among continental European countries, of having been the theatre for – starting in the early days of railway development -- a “battle of the gauges” comparable in scale to that between 7 feet, and 4 feet eight-and-a-half inches (1435mm), in Britain. Norway’s rival contenders were 1435mm and 1067mm (3ft. 6in.), and the “war” here (or at least its aftermath) lasted a good deal longer than that in Britain. In an earlier article, I mused about the seeming oddity of several countries in Northern Europe taking a liking to the 3ft 6in. gauge – a British “Imperial” measurement, widely used in certain parts of Britain’s overseas domains. Have since come by the surprising and to me rather delightful information, that it was Norway that played the pioneering role in adopting this gauge for public railways, and popularising it elsewhere.

Norway’s first public railway, from Oslo 69km north-east to Eidsvoll – built under the personal supervision of Robert Stephenson – was opened in 1854, on the 1435mm gauge. Norwegian engineers and railway promoters, perturbed at the very high cost of building this “wide-gauge” line to high British construction standards, through Norway’s rugged terrain, argued for a narrower, less expensive, national standard gauge. After a considerable amount of back-and-forth – with a gauge of 3ft 4in (1016mm) being mooted at one stage – 3ft 6in (1067mm) was decided on, strongly supported by the director of the state railways’ management board, Carl Abraham Pihl. Norway’s first 1067mm gauge lines were opened in the early 1860s.

While “Continentals” adopting an Imperial-measures gauge, with an odd and non-obvious metric width, may at first sight seem strange; the impression is received that some 150 years ago, the polarisation now seen (“Britain = Imperial, Europe = metric”) had not yet become so strongly entrenched. Assorted gauges which seem weird in metric terms, in fact represent such-and-such a Continental country’s equivalent of however many “feet” or fractions thereof (for instance, Sweden’s 891mm gauge, which is three Swedish feet). This whole thing would seem to have become more black-and-white over the intervening “century and some”.

Pihl or his fellow-state-railway-managers cannot be credited with the actual invention of the 1067mm gauge, which as at the mid-19th century had long been known in Britain on horse-worked industrial lines, particularly in Wales and on the Welsh borders. One wonders whether a British observer or consultant at the Norwegians’ deliberations over gauge, might have suggested “this one which we have on horse tramways back home”. However, essentially there is universal recognition that Norway was the first country to use this gauge on a public common-carrier railway. Oddly – in the light of the great use which the gauge later saw in Britain’s empire – its occurrence on public lines in the British Isles was vanishingly rare. One of the very few instances of such, is still active today: the 8km-long Snaefell Mountain Railway on the Isle of Man. 

At all events – Norway qualifies as the first country to open a public 1067mm gauge railway. Pihl was a keen “evangelist” for this economical gauge, toward countries abroad beset by difficult terrain / sparse population and limited resources – whence its adoption at the southern end of Africa, in parts of Australia, in New Zealand, and (to a limited extent) in British North America. Japan also chose this gauge when inaugurating her rail system; likewise the Netherlands, for many lines in their colonies in the East Indies (now Indonesia).

As rail construction in Norway burgeoned in the 1870s and 1880s, it was virtually only lines in the country’s east and south-east, connecting with Sweden’s 1435mm main-line network, that were built to 1435mm gauge: elsewhere, 1067mm was supreme. In the councils of the state railways, there was from the first, a strong party of 1435mm proponents (chief among those, one Frederik Størmer); but until late in the 19th century, Pihl and the 1067mm gauge carried the day, against decades-long fierce opposition – seemingly both sides enjoyed the scrap, and enlisted foreign experts in support of their respective positions.

Earlier on, the 1067mm cause was helped by the circumstance that in the light of the country’s difficult terrain and small population, for a long while it was not thought likely that an integrated rail system country-wide, would ever come into being – “gauge disharmony” was not seen as a big problem. As time went on, optimism increased regarding a system covering the whole country, and it was came to be reckoned possible, to build on the 1435mm gauge to the same basic specifications as the 1067mm, for the same cost. The turning-point is seen as being with the Norwegian parliament’s decreeing in 1894 that the northward main line (Nordlandsbanen) parallel with the coast north of Trondheim, should be built to 1435mm; and likewise in 1898, the “final stroke”, re 1435mm for the new Oslo -- Bergen main line. Pihl died in 1897; in his final years he was gracious in defeat -- he recognised that the narrower gauge had become outdated, but maintained that at the outset, it had been a choice between building narrow and cheap, or not building at all. (The abovementioned Nordlandsbanen, by the way, takes off from the line between Trondheim and the Swedish border, at the junction of Hell – a name which has always caused hilarity among English-speaking visitors.)

However, mopping-up operations after the standard-gauge victory carried on for a long, long time. The 1067mm gauge’s basic all-time peak was (sources disagree a little) in the region of 1050 – 1100km, around 1900. Amazingly, total wiping-out of the gauge in NSB commercial service took sixty-plus years. Different countries have different ways of doing things, and varying constraints – but this very leisurely making-of-an-end, has to seem a little odd. Still -- when I start paying the NSB’s bills, they will no doubt start worrying about what I think of how they conduct their affairs. Gauge-widening went at a fairly gentle pace until about 1930, after which it accelerated dramatically.

Isolated 1067mm lines running out of Bergen were standard-gauged in the making of the main line from Oslo, completed in 1909. After that, relatively unhurried widening of lines south-west of the capital was proceeded with. The 400-odd km from Hamar north of Oslo, northward via Røros to Trondheim on the coast, was spanned by a 1067mm gauge route opened around 1880 – Trondheim was the northernmost point reached by the NSB 1067mm gauge. An alternative 1435mm gauge Oslo -- Trondheim route, the Dovre main line -- slightly shorter but traversing more difficult country – was opened in 1921, with mixed-gauge over the last 50km from Støren to Trondheim. Conversion of the narrow-gauge Røros route began in the 1930s, and was completed in 1941 under German occupation (one cannot help imagining thoughts expressed on the part of the occupying power, to the effect of “got to gee these slow buggers up with their gauge-changing”). A definitely positive event (at least, for the progress-minded) during those tragic years, was the completion of the 1435mm main line linking Oslo with Stavanger, last section opened 1944. This development included, however, the widening and partial incorporation in the “main”, of the hitherto isolated 1067mm gauge line from Stavanger to Egersund and Flekkefjord.

At the end of World War II, there remained to NSB only three 1067mm gauge sections, two of which were standard-gauged before the 1940s expired. These two were Åmli – Treungen, widened in 1946, 32km long (line abandoned in 1967); and the 117km Vestfold secondary main line, from Drammen to Larvik on the western side of the Oslo Fjord, converted in 1949. An odd turn of circumstances caused the Vestfold line in its pre-widening character, to be heard of far beyond railway enthusiast circles. Erik Hesselberg, a participant in Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 “Kon-Tiki” expedition – by raft of balsa logs from South America to Polynesia, to add evidence for the possibility of such trans-Pacific contact in ancient times – wrote a book for children about the expedition, “Kon-Tiki and I”, with delightful cartoon-style illustrations of his own doing. This work was published in Norwegian in 1949, and subsequently translated into many languages – my childhood home had an English-language copy (alas, no longer in the family). The author hailed from the Vestfold area, and early in the book, included some background material about it; including a mention of the line concerned, with a drawing of an ancient-looking train, its loco with a marvellously “Wild-West” aspect. The text ran something like: “This is the Vestfold Railway. When my father was a little boy, it looked like this. When I was a little boy, it still looked like this. When I last saw it a year or so ago, it still looked like this. For a long time, they have been talking about changing it to broad [sic] gauge.” Sadly, concurrently with the publication of the book, “they” at long last made good on their threat...

The very last line was that from Grovane to Byglandsfjord, 67km, known as the Setesdalbanen. This one originally ran a further 11km southward from Grovane, to the port of Kristiansand. In 1938, that stretch of line was standard-gauged as part of the work on the incipient Oslo – Stavanger main line. Due north from Grovane remained 1067mm, though, until the line’s abandonment in 1962. It is hard not to suspect that a degree of sentimentality (not, of course, officially admitted-to) among some in high office in the NSB, might have led to this final 1067mm survivor being left alone, until railway-type Darwinism pronounced the inescapable verdict on it. Diesel railcars were introduced for passenger services on this line as far back as the 1930s; but steam in the form of an assorted bunch of 2-6-2Ts and 2-4-2Ts, with impressive spark-arrester chimneys, remained in use to the end, for the daily mixed train and additional freight.

An 8km fragment of the Setesdalbanen, at its southern end, has been saved in preservation, with active steam – James Waite detailedly describes it in the “pages”. A tiny piece of Norway’s once great 1067mm gauge kilometrage thus survives – unlike in Sweden next door, which also used the gauge, though on a far lesser scale. The Setesdalbanen has on its premises a couple of ex-Swedish class Z4p 1067mm four-wheel diesel locos. The poor things have at least here, a stretch of track on which they may run – something denied to them in their homeland.

I should find the Norwegian railway scene more “enthusing and engaging” than I do: still, hobbies are a place where one may indulge oneself in prejudice and bigotry, and cause much less hurt thereby than “IRL”. On “fun-or-otherwise railway countries” – I have always put Norway pretty much on a par with Switzerland: railways performing amazing and impressive mountain-crossing acrobatic and scenic feats – but otherwise, a bit dull. Feel this way about Switzerland, mostly because it effectively electrified everything very long ago (which if you are Switzerland, is a highly rational and sensible course to follow). Norway did not do that at all; but it still mostly fails to “tick my boxes”. And I can’t really buy the “still building railways while others were abandoning them” thing, sometimes uttered in praise of Norway; I find that something of an over-simplification.

Like its neighbouring Scandinavian countries, Norway discovered early on, the merits of diesel railmotors for passenger services. Nonetheless, steam on NSB remained prominent until quite late in the day – progressively “fading away” over the 1960s, but surviving in regular use (albeit in small quantities) until, it is thought, 1970 or ’71. H.A. Vallance’s book “Railway Holiday in Northern Norway and Sweden”, recounting a tour in summer 1963, tells of his witnessing NSB steam, of a variety of classes, in service on some half-dozen occasions in his travels in Norway – including a chance 32km run on a steam-hauled passenger train, in his itinerary. He remarks also, on many steam locos noticed in a plant near Olso, in the course of being scrapped. (Considerably more steam encounters, than he tells of in the Swedish “leg” of his travels.) Vallance makes clear in his book, that his tour was not focused on steam-questing; his main interests in the book seem in fact to be, scenery and landscape, and interaction with chance-met folk – “his book, his preferences”.

Norwegian conditions, with lengthy runs and many long and steep gradients, caused big steam locos on the 1435mm gauge, to make sense. The latter generations of long-distance passenger power were eight-coupled types: the class 26c and 31b 4-8-0s, and the 1940s-built 2-8-4s of class 49c. A considerable number of German wartime “austerity” 2-10-0s, German class 52 (“Kriegsloks”) came after WWII to the NSB, which classified them 63a.

The 49c class, huge locos, were probably the Norwegian locomotive type which became best-known outside of Norway. They performed especially prominently on the “new”, standard-gauge from the first, Dovre main line Oslo – Trondheim, acquiring the nickname “Dovregubben”, which I have seen translated both as “Dovre Boy” and “Dovre Giant”. One is preserved in the national railway museum at Hamar. In his “On the Old Lines”, Peter Allen includes a photograph of a 49c on a train at Trondheim. While acknowledging the class’s tractive power, Allen expresses a dislike of them, considering them (and most other Norwegian steam locos) ugly in appearance. In this book, Allen comes across as hard to please where locomotive visual appeal is concerned, with very idiosyncratic notions about the issue. Class 49c’s rather rare 2-8-4 wheel arrangement would from the first, have been unlikely to find favour with him – he confesses to a “thing” about liking locos to have a leading bogie, or at least to be “symmetrical” wheels-wise (2-6-2, 2-8-2): and to more trailing wheels than leading wheels, appearing to him as back-to-front and wrong. Well, whatever turns you on, or doesn’t...

The 1067mm gauge essentially disappeared long enough ago, for pictures of its steam motive power to be rather rarely come upon. Allen and Whitehouse’s “Narrow Gauge Railways of Europe” includes for the sake of nostalgia, a picture of a train on the Vestfold line just before gauge conversion, with a tender loco (2-8-0?), intriguingly gadget-bedecked and looking to be of around turn-of-twentieth-century vintage. And, once again, James Waite’s Setesdalbanen piece, with references and pictures re assorted, basically small, extant 1067mm steam locos, “in working order, and static”.

NSB ultimately took keenly to electrification of its chief main lines; but relatively late compared to a good many European countries. At the present day, 64% of NSB’s system is electric – big transport arteries only, and nothing electric north of Trondheim (save for the line far, far to the north, coming in for a short distance from Sweden in the interests of exporting Swedish iron ore from Narvik – a very special case).

There are altogether some two dozen 1435mm gauge steam locos preserved in Norway, some in working order. Occasional steam specials run on lines of the NSB system; including, with some regularity in recent summers, at the seaward end of the very spectacular Dombås – Åndalsnes branch.

Norway’s “chief and finest” self-contained 1435mm gauge preserved line is by general consensus the Krøderbanen, a 26km-long ex-NSB branch situated some 50km north-west of Oslo, running from Vikersund to Krøderen. The line opened on 1067mm gauge, but was widened early on; lost its passenger service more than fifty years ago, but freight continued to run until 1985. The Krøderbanen has a couple of class 21b 2-6-0s and a class 24b 2-8-0, plus a couple of very small tank locos; also diesel railcars. The line basically runs at weekends for the very short Scandinavian summer season – in essence, end of June to end of August. Workings are shared about equally between steam traction, and railcar.

Norway had a small number of individual and non-rank-and-file railways, for long outside of NSB’s remit. Will tackle first – frankly, for me in a context of “get it out of the way” – the 750mm gauge Urskog – Hølandsbanen, at one time running for 57km south-south-east from Sørumsand a little way east of Oslo on the main line to Sweden. Private line until taken over by NSB around the end of WWII. Abandoned in 1960, all-steam to the last, 4km at the “junction” end now running under preservation -- no doubt very charming, but to me always (including pre-preservation) – and I really couldn’t explain why – “one big yawn”.  James, as with this piece of his, clearly finds this line more attractive than I do, so “over to him” – apologies for my aversion to it, but as said earlier, “hobbies are a bigotry-friendly zone”.

Norway had a tiny sampling, on truly-private railways, of other narrow gauges known elsewhere in the world, amongst the almost overwhelming 1435-or-1067 scene. Its other representative of 750mm besides the Urskog – Hølandsbanen, was the 26km Nesttun – Os line near Bergen, abandoned in 1935 (a terrible year worldwide, for closures of light railways and “odd” railways generally). I know nothing more whatsoever about this line, but would wish further knowledge (seem to recall that there was published some time, an English-language booklet about it).

Norway’s only representative of the metre gauge is the Thamshavnbanen – still with us, in a “preserved” form. A little way west of Trondheim, always physically isolated, originally running for 25km to convey mineral ore from mines at Løkken, to wharves at Thamshavn on the Trondheim Fjord. The railway has been electric since its opening in 1908 – thought to be the world’s oldest operating high-voltage AC line. It had a passenger service until 1963 – Vallance laments having been just too late to experience this, on his “Railway Holiday” visit in that year, though he had travelled on the line in a previous Norwegian sojourn. From the late 1970s, regular mineral traffic on the line ceased, but the owners kept it in place on a “care and maintenance” basis. Over the majority of the (spectacular) route, from Løkken to Fannrem, preserved passenger workings are thought to run on summer Sundays, and some midweek days in July. Duties believed shared between loco-hauled passenger stock, and an electric railcar.

A tiny number of 1067mm gauge public lines were independent for their entire life-span. All closed the greater part of a century ago, except for the 40-odd-km Sulitjelmabanen, way up north beyond the Arctic Circle. Instituted primarily for mines-to-sea mineral traffic, but offering public passenger and freight services also, this line was opened in 1896 on 750mm gauge; but extended a little, and converted to 1067mm gauge, in 1915. It ran in isolation until the Nordland main line, gradually pushing northward from near Trondheim, reached the Sulitjelma area in 1956. A new stretch of some kilometres of the narrow-gauge line was inaugurated, to link with the freshly-opened 1435mm gauge route. In its final form, the n/g line ran from Finneid (“bottom” terminus) to Lomi (“top” ditto). The Sulitjelmabanen replaced steam traction with diesel around the late 1950s, after which the three return passenger workings per day were operated partly by railcar, partly by loco-hauled mixed trains. Vallance was able to “bag” this line in 1963, and in his book recounts enthusiastically, the highly scenic run to Lomi and back. The Sulitjelmabanen – Norway’s last common-carrier narrow gauge line – was abandoned in 1972. As recounted by James Waite in his Setesdalbanen piece, a number of vehicles which it had acquired from the Setesdalbanen after closure in 1962, were regained in 1972 by the Setesdal preservation concern; who also became the new owners of a Sulitjelmabanen diesel railcar.

The Sulitjelmabanen is gone for good; but a surprising number of Norway’s rather few odd and individual railways have managed, in one way or another, actually or potentially to survive. An instance of this is the Rjukanbanen, a little over 100km west of Oslo. A 1435mm gauge private line, physically isolated, it was opened in 1911 as part of an ambitious enterprise by the undertaking Norsk Hydro, which harnessed the big Rjukan waterfall to furnish electric power. The isolated line ran 20km, between Rjukan (and a little way west thereof) and Mael, on the shore of lake Tinnsjø. Rail ferries conveying goods wagons (and foot-passengers) were introduced along this lake, to Tinnoset at its southern end, whence a 1435mm gauge line operated by the same undertaking was inaugurated, running further south to connect with the NSB, and also with continuing water transport. Both lines were electric from the outset (early in the field with high-voltage electrification, 10,000V / 16-and-two-thirds Hz); that from Tinnoset to the NSB junction was itself taken over by the NSB in 1926. From the start of the venture, factories were established around Rjukan to make use of the power generated. The output of these, was largely fertilizer / nitrates, chiefly ammonia; but the lines also offered, from the start, a public common-carrier freight and passenger service.

Passenger services on the isolated Rjukan section ceased in 1970; freight continued for a couple more decades, finishing in 1991 when Norsk Hydro ceased fertilizer production at Rjukan. It is thought that around this time, NSB withdrew regular services on the linked branch to Tinnoset. Earnest attempts have been made over the past couple of decades, to preserve at least parts of this integrated power / transport system. There are “mixed messages”, some suggesting tracklifting of the Rjukan section and subsequent reinstatement, others denying this. A preservation outfit attempted to revive the isolated line, the rail-ferry scene, and the “mainland” line from Tinnoset. They achieved some sporadic activity in the first half of the 2000s, but ultimately funds ran out. As at the present time, Norway’s Directorate for Cultural Heritage is attempting to work together with local politicians and interest groups, to enlist support from UNESCO for bringing back this Rjukan complex into preserved action. While the outcome is for now uncertain, there are grounds for hope that this scene may in time be active once more.

The Rjukan transport complex became fleetingly known to a wide and general public, thanks to the 1965 film thriller “The Heroes of Telemark”, a rendering of the actions chiefly by the World War II Norwegian resistance, to thwart the German work on “heavy water” conducted near Rjukan, in efforts toward a German atomic bomb. While the deeds commemorated were, for certain, heroic; for this author, the film concerned is one of those Second World War cinematic epics whose impact is somewhat diminished by melodramatic over-the-top-ness. The actual locations – Mael, and a Lake Tinnsjø ferry – were used; but it would seem that realism in the railway sphere was forgone for the sake of impressing the audiences. On this always-electric railway, a couple of elderly NSB steam shunting tank locos were brought in to strut their stuff; one of them actually being embarked -- in steam – on the vital ferry which in the film, is sunk with its cargo of “nasties”. Locos in steam, riding on train ferries: for almost certain, not a thing known in real life. At least they were locomotives from the right nation – many films have featured worse blunders or deliberate “nonsenses” concerning railway detail.

Rob Dickinson