Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

The harbour front at Kirkenes could be transformed if the Norwegian port became a major transit point for freight to and from Russia. The key to this happening is getting Russian-gauge railway tracks to Kirkenes. But other ports in northern Norway are also developing similar plans. We look at the politics of laying tracks across frontiers.

article summary —

Railways, it is often said, are built on political will. There may be embankments and viaducts, but even the grandest feats of engineering need secure foundations in that most unstable of commodities — political will. Readers who have followed the debate in England about a possible new high-speed rail route from London to the Midlands and Yorkshire will be only too well aware that the debate is quickly developing into a grand contest over political will.

In areas which have strongly developed regional policies, political will is a plentiful commodity as one ventures towards the periphery of a country. Estonia’s recent move to extend passenger rail services beyond Orava to Koidula (in the far south-east of the country) was not prompted by great crowds in Koidula eager to catch the train. The Estonian census shows that the population of Koidula is just one. The new once-daily train to Koidula is more an expression of political will than anything else.

Railways, it is often said, are built on political will. There may be embankments and viaducts, but even the grandest feats of engineering need secure foundations in that most unstable of commodities — political will.

But this fragile commodity that underpins the development of national rail networks often dissipates entirely at frontiers. That is the issue which has bedevilled the development of railways to the ports of northern Norway.

Beyond the end of the rails

North of the 64th parallel, there is just one international passenger rail route (worldwide!), namely that which runs from Lulea on the coast of the Gulf of Bothnia via Kiruna in Swedish Lapland to the ice-free port of Narvik in northern Norway. It was opened before Norway secured its independence from Sweden in 1905. There was political will aplenty in Stockholm, with even some thought that the new line over the Arctic Circle to Narvik might dampen enthusiasm in the north for Norwegian independence. Swedish political will for the venture was fuelled by the massive iron ore reserves at Kiruna. If Norway and Sweden had dissolved their union a little earlier, it is possible that the rail route to Narvik would never have been built.

Now planners are speculating on new rail routes to ports in northern Norway, but it will depend on cross-border cooperation. Every afternoon, a passenger train leaves the Barents Sea port of Murmansk and travels west for seven hours through Russian wilderness as far as Nikel, just short of the border with neighbouring Norway. Just thirty kilometres of missing track separate the Murmansk-Nikel railway from the Norwegian port of Kirkenes. In a rare moment of cross-border political will, Russian experts in 2009 floated the idea of bridging the link from the Nikel railway to Kirkenes.


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About the authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.

This article was published in hidden europe 40.