The International Steam Pages

Swedish Rhapsody

Robert Hall writes of the (mainly narrow gauge) surviving railway byways of Sweden... Visit reports are available from James Waite and Keith Chambers, either through specific links below or via the European Narrow Gauge page on this site and there is a location map at the end, using the numbers from the main text.

The majority of Britain’s railway enthusiasts have never been focused on foreign parts. And among the eccentric fairly-few of that company who have taken an interest in “abroad”, there appears on the whole, to have been quite a degree of neglect of Sweden. I have largely acted likewise re that country; but experience stirrings of guilt, in the light of indications that it has been, in the past at all events, a place of considerable railway interest. Would ascribe “non-isolationist” gricing Brits’ general dismissal of Sweden to its being basically seen as geographically out of the way, and a long way away, and with an uninviting climate and short summers; and to steam having been essentially “dethroned” there, a good deal earlier than in Britain.

At its railway peak, Sweden – especially the country’s more populous and people-friendly southern half – was very well-endowed with railways, main-line and lesser. It was also, rail-wise, a wonderfully quirky and varied place, especially with regard to gauges: could have vied with Spain for the title of Europe’s most gauge-diverse country; and this in the sphere of public railways only, disregarding the “industrial” realm.

Readers will be expecting me to bring in Bryan Morgan, sooner or later – it might as well be “sooner”. Morgan was a man for depth rather than breadth; he writes extensively in “The End Of The Line”, of a relative few countries of “core” Western Europe, and – whether from admitted-to prejudice, or realistically knowing his limits – opts out from involvement with various “fringe” ones. In the book’s “Envoi”, he tells of slight first-hand experience of Scandinavian countries, but does not go into detail. Of Sweden, he mentions that the country’s railways once “boasted eleven separate gauges, including such fantastic breadths as 802, 891 and 1093 mm – figures which make no sense in any measure and have not even an HCF ('highest common factor' for non-mathematicians RD), figures which suggest that somebody just bought some rails, spiked them down amid the fearful forests, and then got out the ruler”. Morgan – never conspicuously “Mr. Numerate” – was a bit off about 891mm at any rate – the gauge equals three Swedish feet. Other sources give, in addition to those cited by Morgan , 600mm, 643mm, 693mm, 760mm, 1067mm (3ft 6in), and 1217mm gauges. Sweden’s standard gauge is the “European” one of 1435mm. Some of the abovementioned gauges are “conventional” and found elsewhere too; a few are indeed suggestive of the chap with the gear first, and the ruler second...

The narrow gauge in Sweden has at all events, a highly respectable pedigree: the country’s very first railways – adopting steam traction from the early 1850s – were narrow-gauge mineral lines, some favouring the gauge of 1188mm or four Swedish feet. Although to my best understanding, the extreme diversity of gauges lasted until as relatively recently as the early 1950s, that state of affairs has since then ceased to be. Effectively, all railways now active in Sweden are 1435mm; 891mm (“Swedish three-foot”, always the country’s most widespread narrow gauge); or 600mm, to my mind perpetuated in a rather artificial way.

In addition to the gauge situation; Sweden was seemingly a “halfway house” between Britain (everything long totally private-enterprise), and the majority of continental Europe (state control from the start, over at least the major rail arteries). Up to the late 1930s, approximately half of Sweden’s rail kilometrage belonged to the State Railways (SJ) -- mostly 1435mm standard gauge, but with narrow-gauge sections; the rest was private, largely narrow gauge, but some 1435mm. This changed from the late 30s on; thenceforth, the very great bulk of kilometrage was quite soon nationalised and brought into the SJ, but a small minority remained in private hands. Much formerly private narrow gauge which became SJ property in the “great nationalisation drive” of the World War II era, was sooner or later converted to 1435mm gauge, or abandoned; but a considerable quantity of 891mm gauge trackage long survived as such, in SJ ownership -- in some cases, for fifty-odd years (in fact SJ still operates one 891mm system, 65km in length – as covered further on under “[7] – Uppsala – Länna Järnväg”).

All (plus fair steam-loco variety, as covered below) must have been a wonderful scene, for at least approximately as long as that in Britain was in its different way, wonderful; but few British enthusiasts had the opportunity and inclination to go to Sweden -- and no doubt, the reverse of that situation held true. Swedish steam began to leave centre-stage, very much earlier than was the case in Britain. This inescapably made sense for a country with no coal or oil of its own, and with plentiful capacity for generating hydro-electric power. Electrification of main lines was well into its stride considerably before World War II, and the process continued over the succeeding years. In his “On The Old Lines”, Peter Allen observes that as at 1957, 87% of the traffic on the State Railways (which by then operated 93% of the total rail route length in the country) was electric-hauled; and that at that date, diesel railmotors were operating the great majority of passenger services on non-electrified branches. Nonetheless, steam in tiny quantities continued in regular commercial use on various gauges, some way into the 1960s. H.A. Vallance, in one of the “Railway Holiday” book series, tells of an extensive tour by rail in mostly northern Sweden (all on 1435mm gauge) in 1963, on which he observed a total of one steam loco at work, shunting freight wagons; and two in steam on shed.

Furthermore, defence-conscious Sweden long kept a large strategic reserve of modern 1435mm gauge steam locos in working order, against the possibility of war or other catastrophe; this remained the case, after everyday commercial-service steam was effectively finished. Test workings by the mothballed locos, and actual train-haulage by them of military equipment, took place chiefly in the winter; I have seen pictures of such action between 1967 and 1970, taken by hardy photographers who plainly defied both the chill of midwinter, and the threat of being apprehended on suspicion of spying. The end of the Cold War led to the winding-up quite soon thereafter, of the steam strategic reserve; but some of the locos concerned, in excellent running order, went into preservation as working machines.

The author of this piece is self-confessedly hard to please, and own first-hand experience of Sweden admitted as being some three hours in Göteborg, on a brief cruise from Britain. While mindful of this; am unable to avoid feeling the current Swedish railway preservation scene to be, from what I learn of it, a little saddening and limited. Attempting to “get real”: paraphrasing Morgan’s thoughts concerning a different land, it is mainly in comparison with the richness that there was in the railways’ heyday, and the large size of the country; that the present appears disappointing. And it should be kept in mind that Sweden’s population is about one-seventh of that of the UK; and that Sweden lacks the long-standing large railway-enthusiast “community” which our own country enjoys (this last is my own “take”; if mistaken, I would be pleased to be set right).

I – admitting to prejudice – would reckon that Sweden nowadays contains maybe eight worthwhile preserved lines, nearly all narrow-gauge; plus others which I would rate in themselves, pifflingly small-scale, but of some interest concerning associations with better times in the past. I would not presume to try to “upstage” the fine accounts of several of these lines, including much historical detail, by James Waite and Keith Chambers on this site’s European Narrow Gauge Steam Page; see restricting self here re the as-covered-above venues, to little more than enumerating them and marking them on the accompanying map (numbers by reference to line in text, correspond with those on map). It is worth noting that with the brevity of the northern summer, the operating season for most Swedish preserved lines, is short – mid-June to mid-September at best. 

A contrast between the Swedish, and British, preservation scenes; the great majority of Swedish self-contained preserved lines, are narrow-gauge. Furthermore, such self-contained 1435mm gauge preservation venues as there have been, would appear to be undergoing evil days at present – apparently at odds with “the powers that be”, with a couple of lines that have run in past years, out of action because of revoking of their official permission to operate. One such, is the undertaking based on Nora, some 200km west of Stockholm: two lines, totalling 24km, looking rather promising from the map; and, I understand, very historic. The only self-contained 1435mm preserved operation thought active at the time of writing, is near the southernmost tip of Sweden – the first item thus, on the working-northward list below, of preserved lines.

Sweden has an impressive array of (mostly relatively modern) preserved 1435mm gauge steam locomotives, in working order, which perform on frequent specials on the national rail system. Many of these are based at the National Railway Museum at Gävle, some 150km north-west of Stockholm – which also features numerous older machines, usually in static condition. (For what it’s worth, I have read recommendations against visiting Gävle museum in July – which month seems favoured for the permanent and more knowledgeable staff to take their holidays; and it appears that access to all the museum’s premises cannot be guaranteed in July.) “One-off” steam specials over an essentially modern-traction system are a thing which, in any country , totally fails to tick my personal boxes and does not inspire enthusiasm in me; perhaps a prejudiced and negative attitude which I should seek to adjust.

The later generations of Swedish steam (largely built in Sweden) give the impression of having been fairly homogeneous – and thus, in fact, “across the board” over 1435mm, 1067mm, and 891mm gauges. A preponderance of the 4-6-0, 0-8-0, and 2-8-0 wheel arrangements; and with tank locos, 2-6-2T and 2-6-4T. The SJ’s impressive post-World-War-I class F four-cylinder compound 4-6-2s were mostly sold to the Danish railways in 1937, having been ousted from express work in their own country by rapidly advancing electrification. Sweden appears basically not to have “done” 2-8-2 tender locos, or ten-coupled machines. There are and have been oddities as well; locos built in earlier times, and some unusual “moderns”. The Trafikaktiebolaget Grängesberg – Oxelösund Järnvägar (TGOJ), a private-till-a-very-late date trunk line with heavy iron-ore traffic – electrified in the early 1950s – had in its steam days three massive 2-8-0 steam turbine locos, all of which survive; one, no. 71, essentially in working order and used on specials (thought to be “stopped for repairs” at the time of writing). Grängesberg, about 200km west-north-west of Stockholm, has its own railway museum, devoted mainly to ex-TGOJ steam power, including the turbine locos. TGOJ’s main line is still in use for freight under SJ, though the ore traffic is no more.

Swedish steam locos tend to sport assorted variations on the spark-arrester theme, the most characteristic of the country being the “turbine spark arrester”: an arrangement of a tall chimney with at its base, a bulbous cylindrical fitment housing the turbine apparatus concerned.

Will lay out the list of Sweden’s preserved lines worthy of attention in this author’s opinion, in order roughly south-to-north on Sweden’s mainland. Lines which are described substantially on the site’s European Narrow Gauge Steam Page, will be marked with an * after the line’s allotted number. The only self-contained 1435mm gauge venue believed currently active, is [1] Skånska Järnvägar from Brösarp to St. Olof, 13km. This line’s operational steam allocation would appear currently to feature SJ class E2 2-8-0, and class S 2-6-2T.

The first narrow-gauge venue in the list, [2*] Smalspårsjärnvågen Västervik – Hultsfred, has associations with what is or was arguably the gricing location in Sweden best-known to foreign enthusiasts, namely Växjö – in times past one of the world’s three-gauge stations, with intriguing permutations and combinations of the gauges: 1435mm, 1067mm, and 891mm. The three different widths originally belonged to respective independent companies, but all is thought to have come into the embrace of SJ during the late 1930s / 1940s. The standard gauge is still present; by the mid-1960s at the latest, 1067mm was no more. The 891mm route from Växjö via Hultsfred to Västervik on the east coast, 160km-plus long, was abandoned by SJ in 1984, but reopened throughout a couple of years later, by an enthusiast undertaking which had hopes of operating commercial, as well as tourist, services. Regrettably, such ambitious plans for resurrecting lines which have closed, seldom fare well in any country; the venture proved uneconomic, and was able to run the line end-to-end for only a few years. 

There followed a period of ups-and-downs and changes of management, with different portions of the route operational at different times; things would appear to have, hopefully, stabilised for the present, with the SVH operating regularly-scheduled railcar services in summer between Västervik and Hultsfred (60km, the undertaking proudly proclaiming itself as “Scandinavia’s longest narrow-gauge railway”), and steam workings on a few summer weekends, the 25-odd kilometres between Västervik and Ankarsrum. There is a facility by which rail-pedal-cycles can be hired on the first 11km south-west from Hultsfred, as far as Hesjön; beyond there to Växjö is disused, and at the Växjö end certainly, the track is lifted.

The next on the list geographically, the Ohs Bruks Järnväg [3], is 600mm gauge. Sweden had a one- time maximum of seven public, with passenger service, lines on this gauge; but mortality on these set in early – the end of the last one (in this case, standard-gauging) taking place in 1955. Basically, a situation too early for the working-preservation era to have brought salvation to any line in these parts. Nonetheless, a remarkable quantity of locomotives and rolling stock survived from the vanished 600mm railways; and in the fullness of time, two preserved-line venues on a scale IMO worth noticing, came about. The 15km Ohs Bruks, mentioned here, is a former industrial line (Ohs Bruk to the standard gauge at Bor) serving a paper mill, closed in that role in 1967; was rescued by preservationists, who reopened it in stages 1970 – 74, for passenger working. Its 600mm opposite number in preservation, the Östra Södermanlands Järnväg (see below), was laid anew on abandoned standard-gauge branch routes; the two lines analogous in British terms, to the Leighton Buzzard, and the Bala Lake or Brecon Mountain, respectively. I tend to be a Scrooge about such matters, and to feel that “if it’s not a once-public n/g line that genuinely lasted to be rescued by preservationists, I rate it low, and would as soon see the locos preserved in purely static mode”; but that’s personal preference and prejudice, and I wish joy of the Ohs Bruks and the ÖSJ to all who are so made as to be able to take pleasure in them.

From what I understand, the Ohs Bruks Järnväg gives a pleasant run – there is something of a tendency for workings to terminate at Gimarp, about two-thirds of the way up the line, rather than to run to Ohs Bruk terminus. The railway has four or five steam locos (basically from other sources than one-time Swedish public lines) and numerous internal-combustion ditto; best possible efforts are made to have the line’s workings for the public, steam-hauled.

Some way north-westward, one comes to no. [4*], the 891mm Anten – Gräfsnäs Järnväg: a physically-isolated 11km remnant of a one-time 891mm route between Göteborg and Skara (part of the kilometrage of an 891mm gauge private system taken over by SJ in 1948). This venue – in attractive scenery, but inevitably a snippet of line running “from nowhere to nowhere” – is one of Sweden’s better-known preservation ventures; also one of its oldest, having first run under preservation aegis in 1971.

The 891mm Skara – Lundsbrunns Järnvägar [5*] some 70km away, comprises another 11-km stretch of the same one-time narrow-gauge “complex”.

The Östra Södermanlands Järnväg [6*] is, I think, almost universally recognised as Sweden’s premier 600mm gauge line; the Ohs Bruks seeming, despite its undoubted charm, a rough-and-ready backwoods undertaking in comparison. It would be impertinent of me to trespass reiteratively, on James Waite’s superb account on the “Page”, of the ÖSJ. Will just say that the line has a total kilometrage of 11; two separate “legs”, laid on the trackbeds of two former 1435mm gauge branches: Läggesta (main-line junction) to Mariefred, 3km (the railway’s original section, inaugurated on the 600mm gauge in 1968); and Läggesta to Taxinge , 8km, opened 2011. The railway is well-endowed with material from Sweden’s one-time public 600mm gauge lines, including steam locos from four of them.

The ÖSJ is located about 50km west of Stockholm, adjacent to Lake Mälaren which lies west of the capital. The railway can, indeed, be reached by veteran steamship, as a day-trip from Stockholm.

The university and cathedral city of Uppsala some 70km north-west of Stockholm, one of Sweden’s tourist jewels, also boasts the 891mm gauge Uppsala – Länna Järnväg [7*] – a preserved remaining part of the one-time Roslagsbanan, a more-than-300km network on the 891mm gauge running north from Stockholm. The ULJ runs east from Uppsala to the former junction of Faringe – 32km, a very respectable route length in the context of Swedish preservation, where the lines are usually short.

65km of the old Roslagsbanan still run in SJ ownership on the 891mm gauge (Sweden’s last commercial narrow-gauge operation) – electric, furnishing commuter services out of Stockholm north-east to Kårsta, Österskär and Näsbypark.

Somewhat further north – about 60km north-west of Gävle – is the 6km, 891mm gauge Jädraås – Tallås Järnväg [8*]: a preserved remnant, running between Jädraås and Svartbäcken, of the one-time (common-carrier, and privately owned to the last) Dala – Ockelbo – Norrsundet line. Has active, a pair of this line’s 0-6-6-0 Mallets; a loco variety known in Sweden only here, and on the 600mm gauge (the Östra Södermanlands Järnväg has a couple). To the best of my (very far from exhaustive) knowledge, narrow-gauge Mallets were the only articulated steam locos ever to see use in Sweden.

A little nostalgia / entertainment, as opposed to serious way-pointing. Gotland, Sweden’s largest island – 140 by 35km -- was reckoned in the palmy days, a supreme slice of 891mm gauge heaven. Its fine little system all on that gauge, covering most parts of the island, used a marvellously archaic and diverse assortment of locomotives and stock; and presented a Swedish version of Britain’s Isle-of-Wight-or-Man-type craziness, in that the trackage was divided amongst several different railway companies. The British railway author C. Hamilton Ellis visited Gotland in summer 1939, shortly before the outbreak of World War II; he experienced, revelled in, and was amazed by the above-described (all-steam) scene, and subsequently wrote of it in Britain’s “Railway Magazine”. One particular oddity which took his fancy was the island’s smallest and shortest company, the Visby – Västerhejde, running for 8km between those two points. This line’s passenger service, which he sampled, was worked by a tiny vertical-boiler steam railcar. Odd little steam railcars would appear to be a Swedish speciality – the Jädraås -- Tallås has one too.

“The way of the world” with these things, prevailed for certain on Gotland. The little Visby – Västerhejde line was abandoned the year after Ellis’s visit. Nationalisation, dieselisation, and further closures, took place over the following decades; the last-remaining routes, north and south from the island’s capital Visby, were abandoned in 1960. A very long time afterward, preservationists restored a station and a very short section of line (one kilometre and a bit, seemingly no extensions envisaged) at Dalhem, roughly in the middle of the island. This operation has several steam locos, some authentically ex-the Gotland lines; a few diesels; and at least a couple of truly ex-Gotland coaches. Frankly, the kind of preservation outfit which I abhor, and am caused to wish that the “perpetrators” had not bothered; but mentioning it gives an excuse for some dwelling on the bygone joys of Gotland.

Gotland has another preserved line of sorts, which your prejudiced author – with a gun to his head, and orders to “choose one, or else” – might prefer to the Dalhem set-up. It is part of a museum dedicated to the history of a limestone quarry at Bläse, at the island’s northernmost extremity. Included is the quarry’s 600mm gauge one-time industrial railway – long abandoned and dismantled, but reinstated by the “heritage” folk; running tourist trains – usually, it is gathered, steam-hauled. At least one gets here, a run of a little over 2km – victory length-wise, over the competition further south. Scanrailsoc’s “Directory of Preserved Narrow Gauge Railways in Sweden” gives, concerning this venue, what must be the most discouraging directions I have ever seen, for visitors without their own transport. Quoting: “Not very accessible by public transport: take bus no. 21 from Visby, alight at Rute, and walk 7 – 8km.”

The nearby island of Öland – “as long as Gotland, but thinner” – was also well-served by 891mm gauge lines in better times; but by my understanding, their “real railway” career came to an end about the same time as on Gotland, and no recognisable preservation doings have come to anything.

“In the great days of long ago”, as well as odd little narrow-gauge light lines, Sweden had their standard-gauge counterparts too. One such was the Göteborg – Särö, running 25km down the coast southward from the former to the latter – 1435mm gauge, privately owned throughout its existence. Allen saw it in 1949, and wrote of it in “On The Old Lines” – portrayal of a delectably eccentric standard-gauge light railway, all-steam with a variety of motive power ranging from the compound 4-4-2T giant of the line, to its “baby”, a 2-2-0T (shown in a photograph in the book) – described by the author as “about as substantial as a sewing-machine”. In 1954, the Göteborg – Särö was modernised with diesel railcars, which prolonged its life for a decade; it was abandoned at the end of 1965. As one so often feels – wonderful preservation-potential: in Britain it would likely have been seized on as such (though perhaps – in the light of various abortive British scenes – no guarantee of success, even there). In Sweden, anyway, “the hour had not yet struck”.

Further ruminating on just-too-early-for-possible-preservation: this author’s knowledge of Sweden’s railways has been until recently, fairly sketchy. Was surprised to discover how relatively long ago (mid-1960s) Sweden’s 1067mm gauge ceased to be. This gauge showing up in continental Europe, has always been an occasion of mild surprise for me; it did so, however, to a more-than-tiny extent in several northern European countries, including Sweden and neighbouring Norway (which inaugurated some main lines on the gauge, later converted to 1435mm.) Whether the idea was somehow got from Britain (where 1067mm / 3ft. 6in. has hardly ever been used at all), or from distant reaches of Britain’s empire where the gauge saw, and still sees, much use – at all events, this was how things unfolded. No weirder, I suppose, than the very widespread adoption of the metre gauge in Asian and East African parts of the British Empire.

My understanding is that the 1067mm gauge obtained chiefly in the far south of Sweden, where it was used on many secondary lines. Over the twenty-odd years subsequent to the big nationalisation “push” of the World War II era, everything on 1067mm (all nationalised by the late 1940s) was either converted to 1435mm, or closed – a little too early for active preservation to step in. A small handful of 1067mm steam and diesel locos have been preserved – but with nowhere in their own country, where they can run.

The numbers refer to those used in the main text.

Rob Dickinson