The International Steam Pages
The Island Railways North of Europe
Richard Bowen writes and account of his trip. See also James
Waite's account of his more recent visit to the most northerly railway on
Zemlya Frantsa Iosifa, GUS (Franz Josef Land)
Bukhta Tikhaya, Ostrov Gukera
After several scientific expeditions used the area, the Russians (who gained control in 1926) established a permanent base before the last war and only shortly before 1993 ceased to keep staff there. However, two modern buildings can be hired out to interested bodies even now.
An older hanger exists, with two Russian tractors in attendance (one by Stalinski). From this a 600-mm line descends to the sea and was used to bring in stores, and, rumour has it, to tow a seaplane out of the sea - the hanger supports this theory. Unfortunately the hanger is full of a huge ice block 30m x 30m x 10m so one cannot see if there is anything at the upper end of the line, other than a winch
Mys Flora, Ostrov Nortbrok
Behind (northwards from) the shore the cliffs rise up to c. 360m. About halfway up (180m) is a band of coal; this was mined by a party led by Ziegler which had to overwinter (twice) 190305 unexpectedly after their ship sank in Teplitz Bay by Rudolph Island (some 200 km away). I suspect that they moved here as this is the point, at which most expeditions call, or have to pass.
I was not able to determine which part had been mined though there appeared to be coal just below the lava at about the right height. This band of coal extends over a considerable horizontal distance. An Austrian group there also reports finding no traces of the area used. The likelihood of there ever having been a railway is low.
Around 35 mines have operated in this Archipelago, some for ores and minerals, the majority for coal. Less than a century of exploitation has resulted in a complex story. It started with several small operations, but gradually these have merged, closed or transferred to become a smaller number now.
With the Treaty of Svalbard, ratified in 1925, the sovereignty of the archipelago passed to Norway but all signatories obtained equal rights to establish mining claims.
In 1927 a survey of the active claims was made, the list is copied below and references made to it in the text, using its reference numbers where appropriate. Not all claims led to exploitation and the installation of a railway.
Northern Exploration Company, New London or Camp Mansfield, Blomstrandhalvøya
The site is located on the northern side of Kongsfjord.
This, one of three sites opened by this company which was formed in 1910. It was employing 40 workers by 1911. The product was marble slabs. A 2-foot gauge railway was constructed between the quarry and quay. The operation did not last long as the product cracked and broke when transported to warmer climes. This site was closed in 1913 and the equipment moved to Bellsund, which in its turn closed in 1919.
The company ceased production in 1926, became insolvent in 1929 and was taken over by the Norwegian government in 1932.
We saw the site but did not land.
King's Bay Kull Kompani A/S, Ny Ålesund
Set up in 1916 in the Kongsfjorden this company, which still exists, founded the village and mine (ref. 18)
The coal seams here are twisted and below sea level. Methane gathers easily and there have been several accidents that culminated in the closure of the mine in 1962. Since then the majority of the external rails have been lifted (leaving the sleepers) and the mine entrances sealed. The settlement remains as a scientific centre and the company operates the village and organises flights to it.
The map accompanying the claims shows the railway running from two points on the shore in a S-curve to a reversing point at one mine entrance almost due south of the pier and from there to another entrance to the west. This is pretty much what exists today, though I failed to reach the second entrance. There is now a cableway up the hill (Zeppelinfjellet) behind the village and a satellite antenna. Another map seen shows three mines and the cableway, but not the railway.
One locomotive - and a train of five wagons - is preserved in an Arctic tern colony by the pier. Two flat trucks stand on the track in the village. There is a museum; three steam locomotives and two steam cranes can be identified in the photographs on show there. The locomotives appear to be a 2-6-0T, a 2-4-0T and a 0-4-0T; almost certainly (a), (b) and (d) in the list below.
Some of the locomotives were built as 891 mm or three Swedish feet, and others as 900-mm. The track now is fairly unevenly laid and it is possible to measure 891 mm and 914 mm (three British feet), but 900-mm is very common. Perhaps the system started as suitable for 891 mm machines and later accepted 900-mm locomotives without problem. It is not known if the nominal gauge was changed.
Trust Arktikugol, Pyramiden
This is situated on the inner reaches of Billefjorden on a northern branch of the Isfjord (ref. 23).
The Swedes started the mine. It became part of "Spetsbergen Svenska Kolfält" in 1917 and was sold firstly to the Russians in 1926 (Russky Grumant) and then in 1931 to its present owners.
Coal production continued here till 1998/9. It is reported that horses were used up till 1955 and battery locomotives since. A visitor in February 1999 reported that the Russians were waiting for a ship to call and remove the last coal. On closure all usable material was transferred to the Barentsburg mine of Trust Arktigukol, which then became the furthest north railway with locomotives.
The Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate Limited, Brucebyen, Billefjord
Opposite Pyramiden across the fjord are the remains of a mine (tunnel entrance, rails and building). This was one of the concessions following the explorations of Bruce. (ref. 14). Prospecting started in 1919, but the company lost interest towards the end of the 1920s. There is a great deal of coal, but rather deep. A railway was constructed and the majority still (2008) remains among the four huts that constitute the site. It runs down a slipway in the fjord.
This site was not visited. The gauge has been measured as 450 mm. Considering the Scottish origin of the site, this is probably 18 inches (457 mm). This was a gauge that was in use in armament factories at the time.
See "Industrial Heritage in the Arctic: Research and Training in Svalbard: August 2004: Final Report 2006" pages 64-69.
The above picture, courtesy of James Waite
The Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate Limited, Tempelfjord
In the most easterly part of Isfjord are the remains of a mine (rails, funicular and mine entrance) (ref. 14).
This site was not visited.
Spitzbergen Coal & Trading Co., Advent City, Revneset
This site lies on the opposite side of the Adventfjorden (a southern branch of the Isfjord) from Longyearbyen and much nearer the open sea. Originally owned by the "Bergen Spitzbergen Kolgrube Kompani", it was sold to the above Sheffield company in 1906. Production ceased shortly afterwards, and the equipment was transferred to Hjorthamn.
This site was not visited. The mine was connected to the shore by an inclined (railway) plane: some of this remains.
The mine was operated by the "Spitsbergen Coal and Trading Company Ltd" 1904-8, and then by "A/S De Norske Kulfeter Spitsbergen" 1917-21 (ref. 17, where it is shown as bankrupt). This was followed by experimental mining till 1960. It had a 2 ft or 600-mm line 4.4 km long and access to the mine was by funicular from the valley floor.
The site is visible from Longyearbyen, but I did not visit it.
Store Norske Spitzbergen Kullkompani A/S, Longyearbyen
By far the largest of the settlements is Longyearbyen with about 20 km of road between the extremities, both N S and E – W. The most significant mining operation was located here (ref. 30-32
After some very small workings in the area, the "TrondheimSpitsbergen Kullkompani" was founded in 1901. A sellout to the Americans started in 1904, culminating in the formation of the Arctic Coal Company in 1906 with J. M. Longyear as president. The company set up Longyear City, the present Longyearbyen, on the west side of Adventfjorden. The operation was transferred to the present company, which was set up by the Norwegians in 1916.
A feature of these workings is that after a mine was opened it had a fixed working life, by the time that it closed another was in production, and so on.
The mines ceased production between 194146 as a result of World War II and, in common with those at Sveagruva, were shelled by the warships Tirpitz and Scharnhorst in September 1943.
A visitor in the winter of 1950 recalls one of the mines still burning from this attack and the rattling of the aerial ropeways as being straight out of Danté´s Inferno.
Most, if not all, of the mines had a mancarrying funicular connection to the valley floor as well as an aerial ropeway to take the coal away from the mine locations some 200 m up the side of the valley. I was not able to determine if rail was still used in the two working mines. The books noted below contain the following, sometimes slightly different, information:
The 1927 map (above) shows two cableways, the longer one running from Hotellneset to what is presumably Gruve 2 (no names given). This is crossed by one from Gruve 1 to the shore in Longyearbyen.
Map C9 1:10000 of 1950 shows a 5 or 6--km long cableway serving Gruve 1 and Gruve 2, from a junction at about the same point that the 1927 map has the two lines crossing. In other words the short spur to the loading point in Longyearbyen has gone.
On the 1981 edition of the 1:10000 map the major cableway has been replaced by a 10 km long line to Gruve 6 at Tridalshytta and a short line 12 km inland from Longyearbyen at a spot marked as Gruve Kol, presumably Gruve 7.
On the visit in 1993 the remains of the aerial ropeways, linking the mines to the pier dominated the area. They joined at "Taubanesentralen" and we were told that they had closed in 1987. They were partially dismantled in 1988. All coal is now taken by lorry to Hotellneset for sorting and transfer to freighters.
At the first Svalbard Museum in Longyearbyen in 1993 there was one of the earlier American locomotives. The gauge could not be readily determined, but in view of the origin of the locomotive a gauge of 3 foot (914 mm) is likely. Certainly locomotives delivered in 1957 and 1969 were to that gauge. However the literature gives also both 891 mm (three Swedish feet) and 900 mm.
Probably 3 foot (914 mm)
The last railway closed by Autumn 1996 and by 1999 locomotives had been brought out and were stored in the open.
Trust Arktikugol, Grumantbyen
The mine was operated by the "Anglo Russian Grumant Company" from 1920-26 (ref. 26), who passed it to "Sojusljesprom" in 1931. The present owners operated it from 1932-41 and again 1947-61.
The mine despatched its coal from Colesbukta, to which it was connected by railway. This settlement is now closed.
We passed and saw no sign of activity, or railway.
Trust Arktikugol, Barentsburg
The site lies in the Grønfjorden near the mouth of the Isfjorden (ref. 16). Experimental mining started in 1900. The "N.V. Nederlandsche Spitzbergen Compagnie (Nespico)" operated here 1921-32 and sold out to the Russians, who operated the mine 1932-41 and again from 1947. It is reported that the use of rail ceased in mines 1 and 5 during the mid 1980s. Now (1993) road trucks bring coal from a mine (Finneset) about 2-km south while the miners go to work at another site 2-km north. In 1993 there was an active railway behind the pier lying between the two sites. Additionally the principal mine entrance lies above the settlement and there is a ventilation drift with a 600-mm access incline to the north. My interpretation is that in 1993 the majority of the coal was moved by conveyor and lorry, but that supplies for maintenance were taken in by rail. However, some coal would appear to come out that way, later I found that this was for local consumption (power station).
The railway in the settlement runs (1993) in a covered way (bar one level crossing in the open). There is a pitprop yard at the south end and workshops at the north, while a drift comes in midway, which is the area of the principal installations. Coal can be tipped and conveyed to the stock-pile at that point. A battery charging point is adjacent.
Locomotives seen were:
The locomotives normally run as permanently coupled pairs, but it would not be too difficult to separate them and maybe this is what happened to number 12.
The light is not too good within the shelter but the plate on locomotive 14 appeared to be: STEKT 0B03 CEKUИЯ BTOРA
In 2001 it was reported that:
"At Barentsburg there are about 2km of surface lines and 20km of underground lines. There are 2.5km at Level -260m (below sea level). Gauge is 600-mm, main lines have 24kg/m rails, there are two battery electric locomotives of type 7ARV (battery 90TZN) and 8 diesel locomotives of type AM8 (8-ton). Both are of Ukrainian model. There are also about 400 wagons of type OVG1.3 (1.3 cubic meter capacity). Daily output of the railway is 100 tons of coal from the mine to the power station, plus other transports. Coal to be sent away from Svalbard is taken out by conveyor belt system. There are also two cable-worked lines, one for personnel and the other for works material. Their normal output is 100 wagon movements daily."
The site is located on the south side of the Isfjord where it runs into the Atlantic.
A 300 m long manually operated line served the radio station from about 1933 till about 1960.
We did not visit the site and passed by too far away to distinguish any features.
Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani A/S, Sveagruva
The mine (ref. 24) is situated in the inner reaches of van Mijenfjorden and is about 35 km from the nearest outpost of Longyearbyen; some 51 km via the hiking trail. Operated by the Swedish "Aktiebolaget Spetsbergens Svenska Kolfält" 1916-21 and "Svenska Stenkols AB, Spetsbergen" 1921-25, this mine was sold to the Norwegians.
There was a fire in Mine 2 starting on 12 May 1925 and the mine was closed. At the end of May 1925, toxic gases were penetrating to Mine 1, lying 10 meters above Mine 2, and it too had to be closed. The fire was extinguished only in September, and the mine drift was "temporarily" closed for winter and only a small personnel of five was kept on site. The mines were not re-opened, but were guarded by a few men until 1934. In November 1933 "Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani" approached the "Nya Svenska Stenkols-aktiebolaget Spetsbergen" and bought the mines next year and reopened them in 1935.
It closed during World War II but reopened 1947 to close again from till-1969/70 and 1987-2000. The story in 1993 seemed to be that SNSK were once more investigating reopening the mine, possibly with a road from Longyearbyen. This was done and a (new) mine opened in 2000.
By 2002 it was reported that "Based on another mining settlement Sveagruve an adjacent mine Svea Nord is currently developing (coal mining is carried out by "Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani AS")".
This new mine closed temporarily for 8 months in 2005.
In 2008 a report said "The mines are now open and they are among the biggest producers in Europe (2.3 mill tons in 2006, 3.5 mill tons in 2007)".
During all the closed periods, the workings were maintained on a care and maintenance basis.
The old mine was some way from the beach, maps show quite a long railway. It is reported that steam locomotives were used on this.
We did not visit the site.
On the Internet in 2002 was a picture (above) showing the S10 locomotive frame and wheels and an air reservoir on the beach, the link is now dead (27th March 2012).
Northern Exploration Company, Camp Martin
Situated in van Mijenfjorden this was another site of Manfield's Northern Exploration Company, but it is not clear whether a railway was laid here.
This site was not visited.
This island is much narrower across than along. A narrow gauge, human-powered, line 300 metres long serves or served the radio or weather station on the island. The radio is on the east coast, on most maps a house is shown situated on the west coast some 800 metres away, it is not clear to which coast the line ran.
When we passed visibility was down to a few hundred metres and the sea was full of ice-flows. No observation was made.
Bjørnøya (Bear Island)
Bjørnøen A/S, Tonheim
German interests in 1917 set mine this up (ref. 16a). The railway opened 1919 and closed in 1925. Alistair Maclean dramatised it in the novel "Bear Island". We did not land there due to the weather conditions but saw some video made a month before. On the beach is one of the two locomotives that certainly made it there. A third one was intended, but may never have been delivered. The Bjørnoya 1:50000-map (D20) shows the railway as running from the coast at Sileodden roughly SE to two mines and with two short branches. The total length is about 1.5 km.
This site is about half way down the east coast while the scientific and meteorological base is on the north coast about 6.25 kilometres away.
The following page describes the cultural remains of this whole are in some detail and includes a picture of the locomotives - http://cms2.npolar.no/cruise/en/svalbard/cultural-remains.html (link dead).
A further description is on http://freepages.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~slowbell/trough18.htm - link broken 1st November 2018 - again with a link to pictures of the locomotives. See also http://latinitas.org/phototheca/ursorum97/index_en.html for an account of a visit here.
Acknowledgements are made to the National Trust of Scotland for organising the cruise that has led to these notes.
Report of the Commission concerning the claims to Land in Svalbard, De Norrske
Svalbardekspoisjoner, Oslo 1927
Recognised claims in Svalbard 1927.
Acknowledgements are made to the National Trust of Scotland for organising the cruise that has led to these notes.