A train on single track in Norway

“No” to rail operators and traffic jams: Norway’s serious problem of capacity

A train on single track in Norway Kabelleger / David Gubler via bahnbilder.ch/picture/28085

Several of Norway’s railway lines are completely full, leading to traffic jams on the tracks and train delays, Bane NOR said in a statement last week. Norway’s mostly single track rails have almost no capacity left, and the rail infrastructure manager already has to say no to railway operators who want to run more trains.  How can a modal shift to rail to reduce transport emissions be realised when there is no space? 

Bane NOR responded to an incident last week, where a power problem between Oslo and Skøyen caused major problems for the travellers. “The situation can be compared to how a queue quickly forms when a car’s engine stops during rush hour. The difference is that 95 percent of the Norwegian railway network is single-track”, says Kristina Bolstad Picard, communications manager for Operations and Technology at Bane NOR in a statement.

1,290 kilometres of track between Lysaker and Bodø light up red on the Norwegian map. There is no room here for more departures with either people or goods, says Bane NOR. In recent years, the number of trains on the line has increased. “Today, the passenger and freight trains run in a queue on what is essentially miles of single-track railway. This leads to longer journey times and more delays.”

The lines marked ‘red’ by the Norwegian railway manager are Lysaker-Oslo-Trondheim, Trondheim-Bodø and Oslo-Kongsvinger. The lines marked orange, approaching their capacity limit, are Stavanger-Egersund, Drammen-Kongsberg and Oslo-Roa on the Gjøvik line. Bane NOR also admits that the current punctuality target of 90 percent of passenger train departures having to be on time, is no longer realistic. “Even on days when we do not have storms or faults in the traffic, punctuality is below the target on the stretches with bursting capacity. The reason is the traffic jams”, says Bolstad Picard.

“In recent years, we have had a strong increase in the number of departures with passenger trains and more freight traffic on the railway”, says the communications manager. “It is important for the climate and society that more transport is moved from the roads to the rail corridor. But paradoxically, it also makes the train service less reliable because delays increase”.

No room for modal shift?

The packed Norwegian rails do not only impact the current service quality, it also casts a shadow on the future transport in the country and the possibility to reduce emissions. The share of rail in passenger transport in Norway is just 3 per cent, calculated by RailTech using data from the national statistical institute of Norway. For freight traffic, 5 per cent goes via the railways.

In passenger transport, the vast majority of kilometres are made by car. Also domestic air travel represents a good chunk. Oslo-Trondheim and Oslo-Bergen were respectively the fourth and fifth busiest air routes in the whole of Europe last year, according to Eurostat data. The total aviation emissions per Norwegian are also approximately twice as large in terms of CO₂ as both Sweden, Germany and France, according to researchers of Norway’s NTNU university, though this includes international air travel.

In order to reach Norway’s climate goal of reducing emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030, the railways could play an important role. In a study of the Norwegian Institute of Transport Economics (TØI), researchers calculated future transport volumes and CO2 emissions in two “climate path scenarios” (including biofuel blending, price levels for fuel, road tolls, and increased ticket prices for flying). The researchers calculated a strong expected percentage growth for rail, for freight as much as 80 per cent in one scenario to more than 100 per cent, and for passenger transport an increase of around 20 to around 50 per cent until 2030. This is due to increased costs for road and air traffic due to higher fuel prices and general CO2 taxes.

However, in the study no assessments of any capacity challenges associated with such a strong increase of rail transport is made, which leaves the question of whether there would even be space for this increase. With several lines already being full and more reaching their limit, this is uncertain at best.

The solution: more double track

Bane NOR states that it plans and implements many measures to strengthen the infrastructure. “But if the politicians want a proper capacity boost, the solution is simple, but expensive. Then there must be an investment in a larger development of crossing tracks, and in particular on the sections which are currently blown up”, says Bolstad Picard of Bane NOR.

With the expected future increase of demand for train traffic, the question is whether just small sections of double track so trains can cross each other is enough. RailTech has reached out to Bane NOR, who referred to the Norwegian Railway Directorate for questions regarding the matter. The Norwegian Railway Directorate did not respond as of yet.

There are some projects in Norway to increase double track railways, such as near Bergen, approved last year, a double track upgrade for a tunnel, and the new Folloban railway, which was recently opened. And the issue of increasing limited capacity with double track is not only on the mind of Norway. In Finland, which also has mainly single track rails, the infrastructure agency studied the development needs of the north-south railway between Tampere and Oulu back in 2021. According to the study, constructing double tracks was the best option to increase capacity for passenger and freight traffic. The downside was the expensive price tag of around 1.3 billion euros. Following the study outcome in principal, the Finnish Railways Agency decided to go for two small sections double track expansion, and add several traffic locations where trains can pass eachother. For some other sections, the study recommended it was only necessary after 2050.

However, fact is that Norway’s lines have a very high percentage of double track, also compared to other Nordic countries. While Norway has a 95 per cent share of single tracks, in Sweden this is 79 per cent, and in Finland 88 per cent (calculated using 2021 UIC statistics). In other European countries, the rate of double tracks or more is often higher. In Germany, 44 per cent is single track, in France 38 and in Spain 61 per cent.

As the Norwegian Institute of Transport Economics (TØI) puts it in their report, “It will be very difficult to achieve a climate target whereby emissions from the entire transport sector in 2030 will be 55 per cent lower than in 1990”, and for a shift to rail to reduce emissions, more capacity is needed.

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Author: Esther Geerts

Former Editor RailTech.com

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