Between Geilo and Ustaoset / Bergen Line, Norway / February 2016
On traversing Norway by train in winter, snow removal, the marvels of railroad infrastructure, and the Bergen Line.
If you find yourself in Oslo wishing to get to Bergen, there are two main ways to do so: about an hour-long flight, or a nearly seven-hour journey by train on the Bergensbanen (Bergen Line). There is also a tour we didn’t take, called “Norway in a Nutshell,” which starts in Oslo and ends in Bergen and entails riding the Bergen Line for a large portion of it (followed by another train and then a boat). The “Nutshell” derives from the fact that the journey encompasses the greatest-hits of Norwegian scenery – alpine landscapes, snowy mountain passes, shimmering lakes, towering fjords. I’m sure whatever company runs it has pounced all over the copyright, but the name could just as easily be a tagline for the Bergen Line. The seven-hour whistle-stop tour is perfectly sized to leave you itching to get out and explore every inch of the country.
A few Bergen Line trains leave Oslo’s Central Station each day, but given the highlight is the scenery, we opted for the earliest departure with maximum daylight hours. If you pony up a bit more kroner you can even upgrade to the Komfort class, which (aside from additional legroom) has the main selling point of offering unlimited coffee and tea to survive being awake before the sun rises.1 Our train was fairly crowded for the hour and the weekday, primarily with tourists wielding serious cameras and excitedly chatting in non-Scandinavian languages. It seems the reputation of the line precedes it.
As Bergen and Oslo are Norway’s largest cities, situated roughly across the country from each other, it is only natural to connect them via an east-west rail link. Given the inhospitable terrain to be traversed, though, doing so required a miraculous feat of engineering. Over a hundred years ago, when the line progressed from being a figment of a forest manager’s imagination to an actual, funded construction project, the Bergen Line was the most ambitious railway project ever undertaken in Norway. Building it took decades and thousands of laborers, and the line opened for uninterrupted operation in 1909. To quantify the scale of the endeavour, here are some stats: the line begins and ends at roughly sea level, but twenty percent is high mountain landscape, much of it the Handangervidda, a mountainous plateau which is the largest of its kind in Europe. The highest station on the Bergen Line is Finse, which is 1,222m above sea level; for context this is only slightly lower than the highest point in the entire United Kingdom.2 At such an altitude, there is an astonishing quantity of snow, and areas are so remote that it can be crazy expensive to clear it, or simply impossible.3 The main solution which has emerged is to simply shield the track from the elements. The line now consists of about 300 miles with nearly 200 tunnels, 300 bridges, and 18 miles of snowsheds.
When you are riding the line, you mostly experience these important practicalities as unwanted obstructions to the view. Countless times I was fumbling with my camera to capture a stunning vista, and just as I clicked a picture we ducked into a tunnel or snowshed. Why make a route through solid granite? Are all these shelters really necessary? Well, yes, it turns out. You can almost picture a motivational poster in a high school guidance counsellor’s office with the caption: when faced with a mountain, it’s always quicker to go through it than around it. Out in the open, though, the views will continue to take your breath away. I almost made us miss our train by insisting on stopping to buy a very hefty volume which I thought a necessary pre-journey purchase. I didn’t open the book once. Every time I made a move to crack the cover the scenery would change.
The train begins by creeping through a tunnel underneath Oslo, emerging in the outskirts of the city and directly into mountainous splendour, all rigid, tall evergreens and glassy lakes. It feels like a land of giants, the mountains easily seen as huddling shoulders, the fog at their peaks masking a series of heads in the clouds. Periodically, the train brays like a donkey, alerting the giants of its passage through the landscape. Gradually, snow appears, patchy at first. The peaks become more jagged, the snow starts to accumulate. By the time we stopped at Geilo, a popular ski resort town, the snow was everywhere, pristine and untouched in all directions.
Shortly thereafter, we entered a complete whiteout. Every so often you might spot a rock or the tip of a snowed-in house, but otherwise the landscape was complete, unadulterated white in all directions. Sky, land, everything. With no cues at all as to depth it felt like living in a two-dimensional pencil drawing. Or blindness. It produces an almost unbearable loneliness to gaze upon such a barren, bleak landscape so inhospitable to human life.4 When we reached Finse station, it looked like the North Pole of my imagination: one wind-battered building in the grips of a full-on snow storm, zero humans, and a sign covered in menacing icicles. Needless to say, no one got on or off there.
From that point, the train rapidly descended towards sea level. The snow lessened, the skies turned a vivid blue, and brightly-painted houses started to appear as cheerful little reminders of human civilization. We rolled into Bergen right on time – a marvel considering our journey had seemingly included stops on several different planets on the way.
AND . . .