Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a travel issue. important – and what it means to you.
Thousands of birch trees (perhaps millions) prove hypnotic as they glide through train windows. Sometimes they were jostled out of view by rows of pine trees. Occasionally the view opens to reveal a lake. The monochromatic surface, moody as lead, reflects the cloud-covered sky. The color is provided by the cottages and farms scattered next to the railway line, uniformly painted in “falu red” – a rust-toned paint that seems to be a national obligation in Sweden. .
Shades of gray fade on the eastern edge, where the sun is looking to open up a gap near the horizon. To the west, a huge rock (“mountain” would honor its sloping silhouette) is covered with snow even on the first Saturday in June. The deep north of the earth is like another world.
An hour ago, our smart Norrtåg tram – the 6:34 a.m. train from Boden to Kiruna – crossed the Arctic Circle, drawn towards the Pole by a magnet. And when I say “ours,” I can tell exactly who is on the train next to me. Charlotte, my wife and companion; Ann-Christin, the train manager; and David, the boatman.
Today in the UK, many passengers are without trains because of the latest strike by train drivers belonging to the Aslef union. In the north of Sweden, the problem is that the trains have no passengers. Charlotte and I are on an Interrail adventure, with the international “Iron Ore” route from Luleå to Narvik in Norway being one of the highlights planned. This line bisects Scandinavia, connecting the Baltic with the North Atlantic Ocean. It was originally built to transport precious iron ore from the mine in Kiruna – the largest in the world – to the ice-free port of Narvik, and was later extended through the Swedish Norrland.
We arrived at Luleå station, next to the Gulf of Bothnia, at 5 a.m. to board the train that the essential Interrail app promises would be a train to Narvik in Norway. The screens in the unstaffed but warm lounge showed it had been replaced by a bus at 5:13am, which itself was cancelled.
Luleå is the largest settlement at the head of the Gulf of Bothnia, which you can think of as the armpit between most of Scandinavia and Eurasia. The list of “things to do in Luleå at 5 a.m. Saturday when you’ve checked out of your now-locked hotel” isn’t too long. Happily, before we needed to settle for empty reality, Ann-Christin arrived in her polite VY (Swedish Railways) uniform.
She was running the train to Kiruna, she told us. The short-term notice of railway engineering meant that the Iron Ore line was closed between Luleå and the small town of Boden, 30 miles from the line. But a train is waiting there, and a bus will soon come to carry the train manager and us.
Coach arrived on time and bright yellow. Stafan, the driver, made the comment as he diligently did the job of replacing the tracks: driving along the lanes to stations with no one waiting. It’s dark but bearable in the middle of winter, he says: the sky will clear around 10 a.m. and provide a light that closely resembles daylight until after 2 p.m. Oh, and those flashing “bus lights” along the highway? They told the bus drivers not to bother turning onto the main road. If any passengers want to pick up, they will press a button in the shelter at the nearby bus stop.
The beautiful Norrtåg train: Scandinavian sleek, 200 km/h (125 mph, as fast as any UK intercity train), with around 200 seats. Thus, each has 100 seats for Charlotte and me: like the Royal Train, but only second class. Ann-Christin runs the buffet, an impressive event featuring fresh coffee and reindeer sandwiches. The grid and wifi I’m using are stronger than the average UK train. And the elemental views are glorious.
The train stopped on the way several times. With no other transport available, driver David held us ahead of time and allowed us to wander around for a few minutes. In the village of Murjek, the station is open – with a “take one and leave one” library, microwaves and comfortable seats reserved for no one.
“Build it and they will come” is a common phrase. “Run and the passengers will surely come” seems to be the motto of Swedish Railways. I hope you can be inspired to catch the last train going north. Ann-Christin, David and you deserve it.