The Iron Ore Line: the train from Sweden to Norway

In March 2014, I went off on a whistlestop tour of Lapland; that is, I had about forty-eight hours in northern Sweden followed by about forty-eight hours in northern Norway, because I wanted to go to Lapland and for some reason, I was finding it difficult to access the more remote parts of northern Finland. I went to Kiruna, went snowshoeing, made a very brief visit to the Icehotel and then got on the train to Narvik. Regular readers of this blog may be becoming familiar with the fact that my train journeys don’t always go terribly well and this is no exception.

Except this was 100% not my fault. I arrived at the station in plenty of time. One of the interesting things about Kiruna is that it’s built literally and figuratively on an iron ore mine and year on year, they’re expanding the mine, to the point that it’s beginning to stretch under the town and put it in danger. So what the officials have decided to do is simply move the town. Stage one of this has already happened – they’ve moved the station. As of March 2014, it was nearly a mile and a half north of the town centre and I think they intend to move the town south, so maybe the station will move again in a couple of years.

Anyway, on sheet ice and with a suitcase, that mile and a half was a bit of a journey, so I took the free shuttle bus, got to the station in plenty of time and waited. Kiruna station has information boards in Swedish and I only know two Swedish words – fika, which is a kind of pleasant time with a hot drink and a snack, and järnvägsstation, railway station. Nonetheless, I was suspicious of the information given on the board about my train to Narvik and that was confirmed by an announcement, fortunately in English. There was not to be a train. There was to be a replacement bus.

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Well, so much for one of the most beautiful railway journeys in the world. It turned out that a freight train had derailed near Abisko, so they’d closed the whole line. I couldn’t see any reason why trains couldn’t run between Abisko and Narvik, where the line was surely clear but then I don’t run any railways. I got on the coach and it was packed. I was squished in a table with a dad and two young kids, all of us with too much luggage crammed in under our feet, on our laps, on the table, one of the kids was travelling backwards (this can sometimes be catastrophic but mercifully wasn’t that day) and I still had enough layers on to keep warm outside in the Lapland winter, which was far too hot in an overcrowded coach but there just wasn’t room to move enough to take any of them off.

An hour north of Kiruna, we stopped at Abisko, the national park, a relatively touristy place, even in winter apparently, to judge by the fact that three-quarters of the passengers disembarked. I promptly found myself a nice comfortable row of seats near the back where I could strip and spread out a bit.

About ten minutes out of Abisko, we glimpsed a traffic jam but that didn’t matter, we were turning left and going up the hill to a small station called Björkliden where no one got on or off. Then we wound our way back down to rejoin the E10. Except that where we’d glimpsed a traffic jam, there was now a fully-grown traffic jam and there was no way we could get out of the turning. All we could do was sit and wait and in the meantime, I very quickly grew incandescently furious. I’d been looking forward to a beautiful train trip for months and I was stuck on a bus in the fog. Quite thick fog. We soon established that a storm was coming in, so they’d closed the road – yes, with all the traffic still on it. Well done, Sweden. Oh, how I cursed Scandinavian efficiency. I started to worry about how long we’d be there. Would we have to turn round and go back to Kiruna? What if I missed my flight home from Narvik? Would we just go back to Abisko? Was there anywhere to stay in Abisko? I don’t really do spontaneous. I like to at least have a framework and while we sat there for two hours, my framework fell completely apart.

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It’s a mercy I didn’t speak any Swedish. The driver muttered in Swedish every now and then and after two hours, the engine went on and everyone cheered and I, still furious muttered “Oh great, but where are we going?” I’d been joined at the back of the bus by some ridiculous boy in a sleeveless top (I’d been in five layers for three days and I was already furious; I automatically hated him for being dressed so stupidly) who wanted to steal my space and watch a film on his laptop and he took pity on me, having not known I was oblivious to the other little catastrophe. The bus had actually broken down and that was why the driver had been stopping and starting the engine for the last hour. The bus hadn’t wanted to start in the morning but they’d sent it on this little jaunt over the mountain anyway and it had broken down in the middle of a storm. It had got so bad that the bus company had intended to send another, but in a jam like this, it would never have got to us.

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After two and a half hours, we got moving at last, in single-file convoy led by some kind of safety vehicle, like the slowest Formula One race in history. It took us over an hour to get to Riksgränsen, the next town, nineteen miles away and even then, we still didn’t go back to the traditional two-way traffic method of getting around. No, we continued in our single-file convoy all the way to the Norwegian border, where we sat motionless for no apparent reason for twenty-five minutes. I was furious, remember, and as we’d been moving – if extremely slowly – for quite some time, I just broke when we stopped again. I seem to remember hiding behind my hat and just crying from frustration and misery and fear. It was about quarter past eight in the evening; it had been dark for hours and the train I should have got would have arrived at Narvik at about six o’clock. Meanwhile, I was stuck at the border and had no idea how much further it was.

It was quite a bit further. We edged upwards, the road bordered by high walls of snow and at long, long last, at gone nine o’clock, we got our first glimpse of our destination on the horizon. We met the E6 and for the first time, we were on a proper road, for the first time we’d made it above first gear. All the same, it was half past nine at night by the time I arrived, on my own, in a strange place, in pitch blackness, delivered to an abandoned station with a suitcase and no idea where I was going. God bless the Shell petrol station, where the staff were not all perturbed by a frozen, sweaty tearful terrified furious tourist pleading for directions. They had a pad of tear-off maps, they drew my route on it for me and I set off into the night, to climb through a city that was steeper than I’d expected, to get to the hotel I’d chosen for its proximity to the station – that was a mistake and it was my fault but silver linings and all that, it was very, very convenient for the cable car up the mountain the next day, when I awoke to a clear blue sky and a horizon ringed with pristine white mountains.

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