We joined the train driver and crew at work on the beautiful Flåm railway. Text: Mikael Lunde
Five facts about the fjords
2. The fjords are often described as “nature’s own work of art”, formed when the glaciers retreated and seawater flooded the U-shaped valleys.
3. Gudvangen and Geiranger, the two innermost villages of the Nærøyfjord and the Geirangerfjord, are among the most popular cruise ship ports in Scandinavia.
4. Thanks to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and air currents caused by the Coriolis effect, Norwegian fjords enjoy a relatively mild climate and remain virtually ice-free.
5. The fjords are often very deep. The Sognefjord is the deepest as it drops 1,308 metres below sea level.
“This was my after-school activity. I’d sit here in the engine until my father got off work”, says Thor Are Mølster. We’re in the locomotive of the Flåm Railway climbing from the Aurlandsfjord and up to Myrdal 867 metres above.
The railway is short, but it’s a crucial 20 kilometres – they connect the fjords to the main Bergen line crossing the mountains.
Snow-capped peaks rise far above the tracks, splashing waterfalls clinging to their sides. They feed the rapid river running down the valley. Near the tail end of summer, it is still lush and green. Some of Norway’s most magnificent fjord landscapes are on display.
Following in his father’s footsteps driving the train, after 34 years in charge, Mølster still isn’t blind to the beauty of this vista.
“Especially on a clear spring day, when there’s still a lot of snow on the mountaintops, I don’t think there’s any place in the world that is more beautiful”, he says. Mølster is echoed by his conductor, Knut Erik Seierslund, inside the train. “I love it; I see something new every day. And I never get tired of the view”, he says – not quite content though and merely looking at it. “I’ve been to almost every one of these peaks, on either side of the valley.”
Learn to speak “Fjord”
Do you speak fjord? Pick up some local terminology that will be useful on your visit to the Norwegian fjords.
Foss – waterfall
Fjordarm – fjord arm
Ferge – ferry
Isbre – glacier
Morfologi – meltdown of glaciers creating fjords
Svele – blini (a compact, thick pancake)
Vik – cove
Fjordterskel – shallow fjord entrance
Tåke – fog
Brudeferden i Hardanger – famous painting representing a wedding entourage in a rowboat, painted in 1848 by artists Hans Gude and Adolph Tidemand.
Havn – harbour
Steeped in history
The two active trains at the Flåm Railway carry passengers, largely tourists with a return ticket, up and down the mountain from six in the morning till ten at night. They take about 500 people, and it’s mid-season, which means that most departures are fully booked.
Back when Mølster’s father worked at “Flåmsbana” – indeed, as late as in the 1990s – the situation was different. The train was carrying goods. Its construction was approved by the Norwegian government as early as 1908 when they built the Bergen Railway across the mountains from Oslo. “They wanted to connect that line with the Sognefjord”, Mølster explains. Yet this was a huge task, and construction didn’t actually begin until 1923.
There were no roads, and there was a need for mail, goods, and construction equipment to reach the fjord – the longest and deepest in the country, reaching more than 160 kilometres inland from the west coast.
Countless small hamlets, villages and towns dot its shores, and the Flåm Railway was the key to connecting them to the rest of the country. Flåm station is located right next to the ferry dock. The mountains rising from the fjord are incredibly steep. Even though taking the easier route through the Flåm valley, the railway climbs up to one metre in altitude for every 18 metres of tracks. “That’s why this was such a momentous feat of engineering”, says the train driver. “It might not be as impressive today, but they obviously didn’t have modern equipment then, so most of the work had to be done by hand.”
The people of Sogn are known for being stubborn and resolute – a prerequisite when building something as impressive as “Flåmsbana”. There are 20 tunnels, with a total length of 5.7 kilometres through the hills and mountains. That is almost a third of the entire length of the line, at 20 kilometres.
Though Flåm is a scenic location, next to the world-famous Nærøyfjord and idyllic villages like Undredal (known for its delicious goat cheese), Mølster believes this place would only have been a shadow of what it is today without the railway. “Flåmsbana connects all life in these parts. Without it, the village would have withered away”, he says.
Far from disappearing, this tiny town now has one of the most active cruise ship ports in the country, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. A number of successful businesses have appeared as well – like the microbrewery Ægir that make some of the best craft beers in the country. They also run their own cosy and delicious restaurant just a stone’s throw away from the railway station. But the main attraction, of course, remains the scenery.
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