Norway’s southern railway struggles to win back passengers
Norway’s most southern railway line, the Sørlandsbanen running from Oslo via Kristiansand to Stavanger, has not seen all its passengers return after the pandemic. Some even fear that the line is losing out to roads and might no longer exist in 10 years: researcher and frequent traveller on the line Anders Langeland said this to Norwegian public broadcaster NRK.
In the last ten years, there was a steady flow of passengers on the Sørlandsbanen, with a slow increase of 900 thousand in 2012 to just over a million travellers in 2019. However, since the pandemic, traffic has not recovered yet, figures from Statistics Norway show. When the pandemic broke out in 2020, traffic on Sørbanen dropped considerably. At its worst, in 2021, only 350,000 took the train. But also last year, the figure only increased to 680,000 travellers, meaning around a third of passengers did not return as of yet. The operator on the southern line is the British company Go Ahead, which has operated Sørtoget since it took over operations from Vy in 2019. It did not comment on the decline in traffic figures to NRK.
Langeland, a retired researcher of transport and railways at the University of Stavanger for over 20 years, says the track is in poor condition with an average speed of around 70 kilometres per hour. Modern trains usually go three times as fast. “With ever-improving roads and no investment in the train, this railway line will die within 10 years”, said Langeland.
The beginning of the end?
Indeed, the journey time by car has become very much shorter with increasingly connected motorways along the Sørland coast, according to Silvia Johann Olsen from the Institute of Transport Economics. “For many, it will then be tempting to choose a car or bus over the train”, she told NRK.
Last month, The Norwegian Railway Directorate announced it will cut train stops on the Sørlandsbanen. This means fewer stops at the stations in Audnedal, Vegårshei and Gjerstad. The head of the Norwegian Railway Forum South (Jernbaneforum Sør), Rune Hagestrand believes this could be the beginning of the end for the section. “The train loses the competition against the road. The easiest way for the authorities to cut travel time is to cut stations”, he said on the news. The interest organisation was established in 1992 by the county municipalities: Vestfold, Telemark, Aust-Agder, Vest-Agder and Rogaland and aims to push forward the development of a modern, continuous double-track railway on the entire section Oslo – Stavanger, including a connection of the Sørlandsbanen and the Vestfoldbanen.
A way to improve the current situation, and perhaps win travellers back is often referred to as the “Genistreken”: a connection with the Vestfold Railway. The benefit is one hour shorter travel time. The price tag put on it is 22 billion, and the plans have been discussed back and forth for over 30 years. In autumn, for the first time, no money was set aside for this in the proposal for the national budget. The land plots have been reserved for a while in case it gets built, but now some landowners want the municipality to lift the restrictions as nothing has happened in the last 30 years.
Although these plans do not seem closer in any way, the Norwegian State Secretary of Transport, Cecilie Knibe Kroglund, has a positive outlook on the Sørlandsbanen as it currently is: “ We have seen a positive development in passenger numbers so far this year. An extensive renewal of the catenary on the stretch is underway. Track renewal, work with flood protection, drainage and renewal of tunnels are also planned”, Kroglund said to the broadcaster.