THE LONG COAST (9)
"THE FLÅMSBANA (continued)"
The Vestlandsbane would have served the coastal districts of Sogn og Fjordane and Møre og Romsdal Fylkes (provinces), reducing the need for frequent passenger steamer services along the treacherous stretches of exposed coast between Bergen and Trondheim. But the main concern in the Sognefjord district was for easier communications with Oslo. The traditional route to the east from Indre Sogn was along the old post road over Fillefjell (today’s E 18). In anticipation of the construction of the Bergensbane, between 1894 and1894 the 21-hairpin Myrdalssvingene was built, rising from Kårdal at the head of Flåmsdalen to the future location of Myrdal station. Following completion of the railway Flåm gained in importance over Gudvangen in neighbouring Nærøyfjorden as a calling-place for local steamers and cruise ships. The Fretheim Hotel was built, and excursions by cariole were organised to the Myrdalssvingene and the spectacular cascade known as Kjosfossen. There was a sign at the bottom of the hairpins urging travellers to walk their horses up the hill, rather than ride them.
To link Indre Sogn with the Bergensbane the choice thus lay between Gudvangen to Voss (50 km with a steep climb to the 370 m Stalheim pass) and Flåm to Myrdal (about 15 km as the crow flies, with an 866 m climb). Between 1893 and 1903 both the Gudvangen and Flåm options were surveyed, cable car, tramway, and rack and adhesion railways of 1067 and 1435 mm gauge all being considered, together with steam, diesel and electric traction possibilities. On 10 July 1908 Myrdal to Flåm as a 1,067 mm gauge rack line was included in the National Railway Plan; in 1916 it was decided to go for adhesion and 1435 mm gauge, and an estimated construction cost of NOK 5.47 million was calculated. In 1923 the definitive project was published, though the cost, thanks to wartime inflation, was now put at NOK 14.44 million, including electrification at 15 kV AC 16.7 Hz.
Work started the same year, construction being supervised by the engineer Peder Lahlum, who was superseded in 1935 by A. Kielland. But the brief postwar economic boom was now over and Norway was being troubled by waves of strikes. Progress was slow, with between 120 and 280 navvies engaged on the job, numbers varying according to the state of the economy. Of the 20 tunnels, explosives were used in just two – Vatnahalsen and Nåli. Where boring by hand was involved, such was the hardness of the rock that the average advance was just two metres per week. Between Myrdal and Bakli a number of avalanche and landslide shelters were also necessary, while at this end of the line much of the early work to stabilise rock faces above tunnel portals and open stretches of line involved the navvies harnessed to ropes strung along the mountainside. As the trackbed advanced it became possible to erect scaffolding for this precarious and vertiginous task. Two men lost their lives in accidents in 1925 and 1938, and many suffered from silicosis for the rest of their lives. Spoil from the tunnels was used to create huge embankments, thus eliminating the need for viaducts. Watercourses were channelled under these embankments in long culverts. Only one river bridge was necessary, at the lower end of the line.
When Norway was invaded by the Germans on the night of 8/9 April 1940 there remained 5 km of track to be laid. The occupying forces ordered completion as soon as possible, and the first commercial train, a freight, departed from Flåm at 10.00 on 1 August 1940, hauled by Class 25d 0-6-0T 425, transferred from Bergen depot. Passenger services started up on 10 February 1941, taking 1h05 descending and 1h20 ascending; maximum line speed was (and still is) 40 km/h. Water was taken at Berekvam ascending, and services were operated using Class 25d machines 228, 424. 425 and 455, three of which had extra braking systems installed. Meanwhile, catenary was erected and a power station was built adjacent to Kjosfossen, the spectacular waterfall near the upper end of the line. This building was blown up by a resistance group and it was not until 24 November 1944, with the Germans on the retreat in the north of the country, that the overhead wire was energised for the first time. Various construction activities continued until 1949, by which time the railway had consumed 6,165,350 man-hours of work.
"Local Branch Line to Tourist Attraction"
Steam continued to reign until 1947 when NSB took delivery of three specially built Class EI.9 electrics, 9.2062 to 9.2064, from Thunes. These 48-tonne Bo-Bo machines had a maximum speed of just 60 km/h, and were equipped with pneumatic, rheostatic and rail brakes, with electrical equipment manufactured by Norsk Elektrisk & Brown Boveri and Per Kure. They were the motive power mainstay on the line until 1984, when they were replaced by three NEBB-built Class E1.11s (derived from SBB’s Class Ae 4/4s), duly modified to cope with the line’s fearsome gradients. A similarly adapted Class 69 EMU, of the type used on local services out of Bergen to Voss and Myrdal, appeared on the branch occasionally. 2063 is now plinthed at Flåm, while 2064 is based at the Rjukanbane museum.
In the first peacetime year, 1945, 51,000 passengers were carried – more than double the number predicted at the planning stage in the early 1920s. A decade later there were 119,522 users of the line, many of them tourists. Local pressure prompted NSB to offer through sleeping cars between Oslo and Flåm from 1958; these were discontinued in 1997. During the 1960s a concerted effort was made to encourage tourists to use the railway; a public address system was installed in the carriages and in 1968 a platform was built on the viaduct spanning Kjosfossen, so that passengers could alight and photograph the falls. Another photo stop was made at Hylla, where there is a long, north-facing gap in the wall of Vatnahalsen tunnel, though here photos have to be taken through the train windows! The February 1969 timetable offered five train pairs daily, with an extra late afternoon one on Fridays and Saturdays, while in July 1985 there were seven pairs of trains (plus the Friday and Saturday early evening pair), taking between 50 and 55 minutes descending and between 40 and 51 minutes ascending. During the E1.9 era one locomotive was sufficient for the winter timetable, while in summer two were necessary, trains crossing at Berekvam.
By the 1970s the Flåmsbana was an integral part of the Vestland tourist circuit. One of the most popular ‘packages’ was – and still is – the ’Norway in a Nutshell’ tour, involving a bus journey from Voss to Stalheim and Gudvangen, a Fylkesbaatane car ferry thence down Nærøyfjorden to ’Midtfjords’, another ferry up Aurlandsfjorden to Flåm, then train back to Voss via Myrdal. ’Midtfjords’, the exact location of which is imprecise and varies from day to day according to wind and weather conditions, is where Sognefjorden and Aurlandsfjorden meet. Here passengers, cars and freight are transferred between one vessel and another by means of gangways and ramps, and in the past it was not uncommon to find three ferries or steamers moored alongside one another here! Of course various other options existed – for instance, one could travel from Bergen to Flåm by express-boat or motorship, and return by rail, or vice versa.
By the early 1970s Flåm was accessible by road – but only from Aurland and the east (Hagafoss on the No. 7 trunk road from Oslo to Bergen). It was not until 1992 that the road was extended west, mainly in tunnel, via Langhuso in Undredalen to Gudvangen, thus creating the first ever (and so far only) ferry-free highway between Bergen and Oslo (the No. 7 road is broken by Eidfjorden in Indre Hardanger). By then, though, the Flåmsbana, whose survival in the 1960s and 1970s had been somewhat precarious, was well established as a tourist attraction. Vociferous local campaigning ensured that services were maintained throughout the year, and not just in summer, as NSB had proposed during the difficult years of the 1980s, when traffic stagnated around the 200,000 passengers per annum mark. Nevertheless, local opinion was that NSB was still not doing all it could to promote the line, and on 1 January 1998 marketing and commercial activities were transferred to a privately owned concern, Flåm Utvikling, while NSB remained responsible for staffing and operating the trains and Jernbaneverket continued as infrastructure manager. That same year the ageing Class E1.11s were replaced by modern Class E1.17 electrics, part of a batch built between 1981 and 1987 by Henschel and based on DB’s Class 120s, but lacking sufficient power for passenger and heavy freight work on the Bergensbane. 12 second class open saloon carriages were acquired from NSB, and the latter’s red livery was replaced by the much earlier one of green. The rolling stock, built in the late 1960s, is of a design which in those days established Norway as a European leader in rail travel comfort, featuring reclining and rotating armchair seats, panoramic windows with slide-down opening upper sections (ideal for photography), and ample legroom, even when the seat units are arranged in bays. Flåm Utvikling’s brief covers not only the railway itself, but the whole Flåmsdalen and Aurlandsdalen district, and its goal is to transform this into one of the leading tourist destinations in the whole country. Passenger numbers on the line rose from 253,980 in 1990 to 374,738 in 2000 and 582,286 in 2007!
Flåm village itself has developed considerably over the past couple of decades. The station complex was expanded in 1992, while a Documentation Centre and museum was created in the original station building to house exhibits, photographs and documents relating not only to the railway but also to daily life in Flåmsdalen. A cruise liner terminal was built in 1999; in 2007 128 vessels called there.
"Visiting the Line"
There are separate low, mid and high season timetables nowadays. In 2008, up to 3 May, there were departures from Myrdal at 09.55, 13.00, 16.00 and 17.55, and from Flåm at 09.00, 11.30, 14.50 and 17.00, journey time varying between 40 and 50 minutes. From 4 May to 14 June frequencies were doubled (from Myrdal at 09.59, 11.15, 13.02, 14.38, 15.59, 17.15, 18.29 and 20.55, from Flåm at 08.50, 10.05, 11.20, 13.10, 14.45, 16.05, 17.25 and 19.45), while between 15 June and 28 September there were up to 10 train pairs (from Myrdal at 09.39, 10.55, 12.11, 13.27, 14.43, 15.59, 17.15, 18.29, 19.41 and 20.55, from Flåm at 08.35, 09.45, 11.00, 12.20, 13.35, 14.50, 16.05, 17.25, 18.35 and 19.45, with the 19.41 ex-Myrdal and 18.35 ex-Flåm only running until 31 August). After 29 September (by which time the weather up at Myrdal is becoming decidedly wintry) the four train pairs service is resumed. By most European standards fares are high – NOK 210 single and NOK 310 return, with reductions for groups of at least ten passengers (10% in the mid- and high season, 25% in the low season). Through booking to and from stations on the ordinary NSB network is possible, while most major rail passes (such as InterRail) attract a 30% discount on the single fare. Full details can be found on www.flamsbana.no. The museum and documentation centre at Flåm has its own website at www.flamsbana-museet.no.
One of the most breathtaking views of Flåmsdalen and Vatnahalsen is that from the Bergensbane when approaching Myrdal from the east, but you have to be alert to appreciate it, since it comes in a very short gap between the tunnels and snowsheds! In fact, for the energetic traveller, the best way of enjoying the scenery at the upper end of the valley is to descend the Myrdalssvingene on foot, and join a train at one of the lower intermediate stations, such as Berekvam or Dalsbotn. Refreshments can be obtained at Myrdal station and at the Vatnahalsen Hotel at the start of the descent. This is, of course, the best way of obtaining photos of the trains on the few sections of open track between the snowsheds and tunnels!
One highlight of the train journey itself is the stop inside Vatnahalsen tunnel at the point where the wall on the north side was removed and the overhanging roof shored up by timber posts. From here it is possible to see the line in the vicinity of Nåli tunnel, several hundred metres below. The other undoubted highlight is Kjosfossen, where the viewing platform is situated directly in front of the cascade – photography can be a bit tricky in the morning on sunny days. Just before the train enters Nåli tunnel the view back up the valley encompasses both the formidable Myrdalssvingene and the railway on four levels, together with the buildings of Myrdal station and the snowsheds of the Bergensbane. At Kårdal there is a mountain goat farm – the 300 or so creatures attract a good deal of attention from camera-toting tourists. Below Dalsbotn the view westwards encompasses the 140 metre high Rjoandefoss, which descends the mountainside in one sheer leap (thus proving that water is more athletic than mountain goats). The hamlet of Håreina is worth a visit, since this is where Flåm stave church – dating from 1667 – is situated. Adjacent to the building is a monument to the poet Per Sivle, who was born here. And the view northwards up Aurlandsfjorden from the quayside at Flåm, especially on a cloudless summer day, is out of this world!
"Getting There – and Staying There"
For planning your journey in advance, there is the www.rutebok.no website, available in German and English as well as in Norwegian. This offers a straightforward origin/destination journey planner (all modes of transport), a personal timetable planner (the results downloadable as pdfs to your e-mail address), plus a host of other useful pieces of travel information, including some hotels. Rutebok for Norge started life in 1869 as Norges Kommunikasjoner, was published weekly between 1880 and 1932, later fortnightly, monthly and then seasonally (four editions a year). It covers all modes of transport and the paper version is now published by Norsk Reiseinformasjon of Karl Johans gate 12A, 0154 Oslo, (Tel. 00 47 22 47 73 40, Fax 00 47 22 47 73 69, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org). Your best bet is to order a copy by post. A tip when feeding place names into the on-line Rutebok travel planner – always use the Norwegian letters ø, æ and å, and not o, ae and a! Information on overnight accommodation – hotels, pensions, youth hostels and camp sites – can be gleaned from the comprehensive Reiselivsbasen website (rlb.no/overnatting/kommune – type Reiselivsbasen into Google to get started; the two provinces you will be interested in are Hordaland and Sogn og Fjordane). There is an English version, too.
Ryanair flies to Haugesund from London Stansted and Bremen; from Haugesund to Bergen there are express-boat and bus services (see Rutebok for details). Southern Norway is easily accessible by rail, bus and ferry from continental Europe (Rutebok covers international journeys, too, though mainly within Scandinavia). The DFDS Seaways ferry service from Newcastle to Stavanger, Haugesund and Bergen is infrequent in the low season, twice weekly in the summer.
"What Else is There to See and Do?"
Apart from a trip over the Bergensbane (the most scenic stretch by far is the western half, beyond Finse), there is a surprising range of rail- and water-based attractions in this part of Vestland, especially in summer. 18 km of the original Vossebane, abandoned when the long tunnel under Ulriken, between Bergen and Arna, was opened in 1964, have been restored as a heritage line, with steam and diesel traction. Trains run on Sundays in summer. In 2008 the operating season was from 8 June to 14 September, with departures from Midttun at 12.30 and 15.40 and from Garnes at 11.30 and 14.30, with a return fare of NOK 120. Bus services link Bergen city centre with Midttun and Garnes, and there is a frequent NSB rail service to Arna. More information from www.njk.no/vossebanen (Gamle Vossebanen, Postboks 638 Sentrum, 5807 Bergen, e-mail email@example.com).
Although a second generation tramway is now being built between Bergen city centre and Nesttun (until 30 September 1935 the junction for the 750 mm gauge railway to Os), it will soon be possible to relive the experience of a journey through part of the city on a tram of the first generation. Visit the website of Bergens Elektriske Sporveier (www.besporvei.net) to see the progress being made with construction of the demonstration line from Bergens Tekniske Museum to Engen along Olaf Ryes vei. Your postal contact address is Bergens Tekniske Museum, Thormølens gate 23, Postboks 812, 5807 Bergen.
No visit to Bergen would be complete without a trip up (or down) the Fløibane, which scales the wooded slopes of Fløyen, offering spectacular views over the harbour, Vågen, Puddefjorden, Byfjorden and Askøy. In July and August you can feast on the bilberries – huge, succulent ones – that grow alongside the paths that wind up the mountainside. The funicular operates throughout the year, from 07.30 in the mornings Mondays to Fridays, 08.00 on Saturdays and 09.00 on Sundays, until 23.00 in winter and midnight in summer. Departures are quarter-hourly between 10.00 and 20.30, otherwise half-hourly. In 2008 the single fare was NOK 35, double that for a return (it is well worth walking one way, though, for the scenery). More details at www.floibanen.no.
Now I did mention water-borne attractions earlier. Norway might have a population of just four million, but in spite of this she probably has more preserved steamships than any other European country, and quite a number of them can be found at work in Vestland. Most of the vessels have their own websites, sailings are restricted to the summer months, and in some instances are not very frequent. Choose from the following!
D/S Oster: Built in 1908 for Indre Nordhordlands Dampskibsselskab, celebrating her centenary in 2008, and considered by many in Bergen as epitomising the typical local steamer. The photo on the homepage of her website, www.oster.no, will make you drool . . .
D/S Stord and M/S Granvin: Built in 1913 and 1931 respectively for Hardanger Sunnhordlandske Dampskibbselskab. A pdf brochure detailing sailings from Bergen to Hardanger and Sunnhordland can be downloaded from www.fjordabaaten.no.
M/S Bruvik: Built in 1947 for Indre Nordhordland Dampbåtlag, operates daily from 1 July to 15 August on a service from Bergen (11.00) to Lysøen, with time in the latter village o visit the villa where the famous violinist and composer Ole Bull lived. The delightful website is www.ms-bruvik.no.
M/S Atløy: Built in 1931 for Fylkesbaatane i Sogn og Fjordane, and can often be found in summer operating between Gudvangen and Flåm. More details can be found on the www.fjordoppleving.no website.
D/S Stavenes: Built in 1904 for Fylkesbaatane i Sogn og Fjordane, ’starred’ in the early 1970s film Song of Norway (about the life of the Bergen composer Edvard Grieg), was subsequently ’exiled’ in North Wales for nearly 20 years, and finally returned to Vestland for a protracted restoration, which is now beginning to bear fruit. Check her progress on www.ds-stavenes.no.