Slice of Sweden

Rather than just a travel diary, as in the last two posts (London and Dublin), this post will look in more detail at the rail situation in Sweden in Winter 2019/20.

This blog had the pleasure of a quick look at the Stockholm-Gävle main line, the Tunnelbana (Metro), the City Tram (route 7), the mainline to Malmö/Copenhagen and finally the branchline to Kalmar.

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Even this short visit picks up so much of the variety of contemporary Swedish rail. Everything from the SJ premium passenger services; the Danish incursion of the Øresundståg; Stockholm’s famous underground services; the Arlanda Express to Stockholm’s main airport; the tramway heritage; regional rail operators; private mainline competitors; mainline freight and even a static preserved steam locomotive on an abandoned branchline (but in a handy location!)

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Wikipedia photo Arild Vågen

Sweden’s experience has produced many iconic railways and trains.

The Malmbana iron ore traffic from Kiruna across the Arctic Circle to Narvik in Norway would be the one most railfans would think of.

The X2000 tilting trains have travelled all over the world to some of the most famous railways outside Europe: Amtrak’s North East Corridor, the Kowloon Canton Railway in China, and of course, Sydney to Canberra.

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X2000 Copenhagen-bound at Stockholm Central Station

And Stockholm’s well-decorated Metro stations would only second to Moscow in renown for this feature.

Sweden’s rail experience can serve as an interesting comparison for the situation in Australia in that both are relatively lowly populated (in the single digit millions, rather than the common situation of the other large European countries in the 10s of millions) and their settlement patterns are generally NOT a large number of small cities, but a few large ones, and plenty of (in the case of Sweden) wide open spaces between them.

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That still leaves plenty of room for the ‘yes but’ crowd to argue the situations are not comparable, but will at least park the geographic issue for the moment. The remaining differences then come down to matters of politics and culture, which, long time readers will know, this blog does not count as acceptable reasons for different performance between the countries.

Much as one would say Finland’s educational performance is better than Australia’s – and this is also not acceptable, no matter what rationalisations you might come up with for the difference.

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About Swedish Rail

A rough outline of Swedish Rail includes:

  • mainline passenger services operated by the legacy national operator SJ (Statens Järnvägar) on the government owned but vertically separated rail network
  • Storstockholms Lokaltrafik (SL, the commuter rail system, operated by MTRC-HK and Arriva on the government network)
  • Other city and regional commuter and local rail operators in most provinces and provincial cities
  • Private sector mainline passenger operators such as Snalltaget
  • The Stockholm Metro (Tunnelbana)
  • Light rail services in Stockholm, Gothenburg and elsewhere
  • Danish services crossing the Öresund and operating in the south of Sweden, including the operator Øresundståg using Danish stock well into Sweden.
  • It is understood some Norwegian trains enter Sweden
  • The major freight operator Green Cargo

The mis-characterisation of Sweden as ‘socialist’ would completely overlook how Sweden has been a pioneer in removing the domination of the government rail operator and allowing private competition and regional operation, well ahead of other European countries including the UK. This will be examined below.

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Botniabanan with 250km/h capable X55s (this franchise is not operated by SJ, but the cars are similar). wikipedia photo

What could shock an Australian is just how significant the rail system is in Sweden, notwithstanding that on many other measures, such as size, population and settlement patterns, it looks a lot more like an Australian state than these large central and western European countries with their dense settlement.

This comparison of NSW and Sweden is helpful. While the vast majority of NSW is quite underpopulated, there is a belt that starts in the Illawarra and runs up the coast to north of Newcastle with a higher population density. Sweden is similar: populated mainly along the coasts, but with a belt that runs through the central lakes between Stockholm and Gothenburg.

NSW is not elongated like Sweden, but their area and populations are not too dissimilar, at 10 million versus 7.5 million (8 million with Canberra).

A stylised version of the rail map, from wikipedia, is very helpful to understand the topology of the network.Sweden_railways.png

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Stockholm Area – Heavy Rail

This beautiful city is smaller than Sydney but like Sydney situated on a harbour. The topography is flatter but still challenging for rail in that it is more archipelago than estuarine river valley. The mediaeval city centre, reminiscent of Venice, sits across several islands that have been joined up, while the suburban area sprawls across the ‘mainland’.

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In addition to the rich ferry network and inevitable buses, local rail transport is dominated by the Storstockholms Lokaltrafik (Greater Stockholm Local Transport) with their suburban commuter rail (Pendeltåg) and the Metro (Tunnelbana).

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Stockholm harbour ferries are very prosaic in appearance but lovely and warm and well-furnished inside compared with Sydney ferries.

The commuter rail has (according to wikipedia) been a local concern since the 1960s, and integrated with the bus, ferry and Tunnelbana from a planning and promotional thing. The use of private contractors dates from the 1990s, when such a thing started to appear also in the UK and in Melbourne.

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Tunnelbana at Stockholm Central (called T-Centralen for the metro platforms) operated by Hong Kong MTR.

Current rolling stock bodies remind in outward appearance of the Perth stock though were built in Kalmar by Bombardier. Fitout is very much for seated journeys and not crush loads.

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Current rolling stock interior

The underground network is extensive and being extended all the time. This blog  has theorised that rail networks that are constantly being extended, even if just short sections of 3 or 4 stations at a time, capture the benefits of scale and experience, allowing project teams to retain experienced staff and the lessons of earlier work.

SL Video about the extensions (in Swedish but easy to follow)

This is generally NOT the Australian approach, where many years have passed between Melbourne’s City Loop and the current underground project (though the Level Crossing Removal projects in some ways prove this point, with over 30 now complete in a 6 year period and a rhythm to them established).

Perhaps things are changing. We may see this phenomenon emerge in Sydney, where there is some continuity in the work from the first North Western section of the Sydney Metro, current work under central Sydney and a future Metro West section. Perth has visibly built on over 2 decades of projects, and more underway through the Metronet banner.

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The surface system is not so dramatic. This blog did not ride the medium distance suburban services as shown in the photo above, as more interesting adventures awaited. However, the premium Arlanda Express from Stockholm’s primary airport serves the same territory, albeit faster and using dedicated stock for the express journey.

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Arlanda Express at Arlanda Station

Just as there is little in the way of Hong Kong given away (besides the uniforms) by the Tunnelbana, there is not much to give away the familiar Australian owner of the Arlanda franchise – wait for it – the Macquarie Bank of infamy.

Until recently the suburban trains competed for capacity into Stockholm Central Station with the long distance trains. However a new underground tunnel with two stations was opened  in 2017 at the existing Stockholm Central (but called Stockholm City) and Odenplan Station. This latter is reassuringly Scandinavian to outsiders – the Oden in the name is exactly who you think it might be. Das_festliche_Jahr_img017_Wodan.jpg

Óðinn enthroned, presumably in Valhalla

Stockholm Central surface platforms are now only used by longer distance trains, mainly but not exclusively SJ.

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Suburban train on main approach to Stockholm Central, now able to use underground section. wikipedia photo Holger.Ellgaard

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Stockholm – Tramway

Stockholm followed the path of numerous European cities that got rid of their street trams with the notion that underground rail would replace them. The city also had some hybrid services – somewhat like an American interurban or Japanese street railway.

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Line 7 – in the darkness – around 3pm in the afternoon!

Since the revival of Light Rail Stockholm has recreated the Number 7 line to Djurgården (the former Royal Game Reserve – rather than Zoo which a German speaker might think). In contrast to Stockholm’s other light rail, this is much more a classic tramway.

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It is worked by modern trams but also heritage trams at the appropriate time. It passes much of the tourism zone of Stockholm – everything from ABBA to Aquavit to the Vasa warship museum.

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Longer distance commuting or short intercity – SJ to Gävle

Most of the Swedish mainline network is electrified, on the German high voltage AC standard. This blog took the opportunity to take a short run to Gävle and return and try out two types of rolling stock on the route – the X40 double deck commuter train and the long distance X3000 (X55) train that stops at Gävle on its way south from Sundsvall.

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The northern mainline has an interesting history. The route closely hugging the coast was not the preference of the Swedish Government when it was being planned. They instead built further inland, to avoid the chance of naval bombardment, leaving only the shorter section from Gävle and Sundsvall exposed on the coast. In the last decade, a new line called Botniabanan has opened from Sundsvall up the coast. Gävle is the junction for these two options, and a largeish city in its own right about 100km north of Stockholm.

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The X40 (Alstom Coradia) stock that shuttles to Gävle is double deck, of generous proportions, probably more so than Sydney types, although the new NIF cars may be comparable.

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They are comfortably fitted out and pleasingly decorated in the Scandy style, with wood panelling, group tables and glass partitions.

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Gävle is a major station but in the winter morning has not much of note to see other than snow.

The X55 (X3000) is the theoretical successor to the X2000s that are now approaching their 30th years. Theoretical, that is, because the X2000s are still running strong and have had a major refurbishment that is keeping them fresh and relevant into the 2020s.

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That refurb has delivered a modern, Scandinavian interior similar to the X55 which was delivered with it, hence apart from the X55’s exterior which is somewhat less pleasing than the smoother X2000, there is not much else to show for it.

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The buffet car, like the rest of the interior, is very cliched Scandy, with classic dishes though quite reasonably priced – for Scandinavia.

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Like much of Sweden, the self-serve ethos is strong,  Certainly the standards were very high, and the traveller feels like a valued customer, not an inconvenience like on Australian railways. These are trains for ‘normals’, not just welfare recipients.

And of course everything is organic and environmentally friendly (well! not really). Note the price below for the meatballs is 79 krona or around 11 AUD the date this photo was taken.

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Speeds are high, though slightly disappointing that they are not faster than the 200km/h established by the X2000s some time ago. The X55 cars are apparently capable of 250km/h and the Botniabana, which uses a variety of them, is rated at 250km/h but as yet this is not put into practice.

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X2000 to Alvesta and Copenhagen

Somewhat counter-intuitively SJ has not rostered its newest X55 (X3000) and related stock to the presumably premium routes to Malmö, Copenhagen and Gothenburg (Sweden’s 2nd largest city), but the refurbished X2000 class cars.

In practical terms it may not make much difference, as the maximum speed appears to be the same (200km/h) and as noted earlier, the fitouts are similar, though not the same. Note the X2000s have a locomotive and a driving trailer at the tail of the train, while the X55 is more a multiple unit train.

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Stockholm Central Station

First class to the junction station at Alvesta did not seem an unreasonable impost – around 80 AUD for a first class ticket from memory.

First class comes with a small number of trimmings – the seats are a bit more generous, and there is unlimited coffee and Lindt chocolates and breakfast is included. Power is available at your seat, although passengers need to be careful as the risk of an electric shock if your charge plug breaks is too real.

As with the Sundsvall route, there is a lovely buffet car to get food but also enjoy the passing scenery from the buffet stool.

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It is interesting that SJ, the government legacy operator, has stayed in the market as the ‘premium’ operator while others have come in offering the ‘value’ approach (of which more later). Perhaps the closest parallel to this is the aviation market, where a government operator or flag carrier might choose to keep premium traffic while the low cost carriers come in and pick up more price-sensitive demand.

The aviation parallel is apt because these trains are trying to compete with aviation. The journey time to Copenhagen is just too long at 5 hours to capture much of the aviation market however to Gothenburg it is within the zone.

Notwithstanding the longer journey times and that the trains are now somewhat slower than when they were introduced (due to their popularity) the trains are popular on these routes and given aviation a run for its money.

They certainly point the way to what could be done in the denser parts of Australia’s land transport demand – one wonders if a sensible network of similar trains to Newcastle, Canberra, Nowra and Lithgow could even now improve things for the fortunes of rail against road traffic. Presumably that thinking was behind the abortive mid 1990s visit of the X2000 to New South Wales, and the thinking behind so many announcements since then, including the current Faster Rail Authority.

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Diversion Time – The Greiner Government and Flirting with Scandinavia

The early 1990s were pretty lean times for Australian railways. In Victoria, readers will recall, the transition of the Cain/Kirner government (See here) to the Kennett government (see here) marked an end in new rolling stock investment and the closure of some country routes. The rolling stock that was new was clearly only a stop gap, such as the 7000 class Sprinters.

Nick Greiner had been elected somewhat earlier than this, in 1989, prior to the recession that marked the economic crisis in Victoria, and on the back of the very strong smell of corruption.

The previous premiers, Wran and Unsworth, had thrown money and publicity on rail, not all of it wisely spent. The Tangara order was the signature project of Unsworth’s time, milked for every vote they could get.

Tangara Ad December 16 1987 daily telegraph

Greiner used the new era of recession to impose some cost savings such as cancelling the Maldon-Dombarton project and other operational pressures on the railways. His Minister, Bruce Baird, made all the right noises, at least at the start, of being an economic dry and preferring road transport expenditure.

Yet Baird appeared, in some ways, a little bit out of the box, with some offerings that one would not have predicted at the outset of his government.

A fuller explanation awaits a future post on this blog, but to summarise, besides a quite sensible reorganisation of the system into Cityrail and Countrylink, with Cityrail covering an amazing 350 route kilometres north to south, the other interesting aspect was a quick flirt with Scandinavian rail.

This probably had more to do with the manufacturers, especially the purchaser of Comeng, first the Swedish ABB later Adtranz and now the Canadian firm Bombardier. Add into that the desire of Baird and his chief bureaucrat Ross Sayers (late of NZ rail) to do the inevitable overseas junket, and low-and-behold, an offer to bring some X2000 cars over to NSW.

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Screenshot of X2000 at Gosford with Countrylink lettering – see full youtube video from Locoman3801 here.

The cars worked a service additional to the one Countrylink was already running to Canberra – an exhibition service in all reality, and one that required a considerable amount of adjustment and expidited work to achieve.

Quoting the excellent paper by David Foldi, Project Manager, Countrylink Tilt Train Trial:

Top speed was limited to 160kph for Class one track with a 10% higher margin allowed for testing. This limit reflected the need to conserve the XPT Power Cars for the duration of the trial, the demands on the driver in the non-tilt power cars, track speeds and condition, passenger ride comfort, the limitations of level crossings, and signaling requirements.

During the demonstration tour speeds in excess of 170kph were recorded between Junee and Albury. High maximum speeds, however, are not the rationale for Tilt Trains. Time savings achieved resulted from the high increases of speeds through curves with examples of 90kph XPT speed posted curves being traversed at up to 130kph by the Tilt Train…

The external dimensions of the Swedish Car were to cause the greatest challenges during the tour. With a width of 3080mm and length of up to 24.95m (17.7m between bogie centres), the cars fell between the Medium and Wide Electric Rolling Stock profiles. A “lower bolster beam” projecting from the bogies centres caused additional clearance infringements.

The FreightRail Out of Gauge Section’s Profile Car traveled the State testing and retesting planned routes for the revenue service and state tour. Infringements were recorded and detailed survey commissioned for design analysis…

In revenue service, the Tilt Train covered some 75,000km carrying a total of 18,525
passengers in 57 days. A total of 4,944 passengers opted for Countrylink’s “Premium
Service” which provided meals and to-seat service as a trial for other Countrylink trains. The existing XPLORER timetable of 4hrs 7mins to Canberra was cut to a timetabled 3hrs 25mins and a best time of 3hrs 15mins. Remarkably this fastest time was achieved on 4/3/95, only 15 days after the arrival of the cars in Australia on 17/2/95. Curve speeds increases of up to 44% above XPT speed boards were achieved in regular service between Sydney and Canberra.

What would be the value, in other than votes, of such a tour? Sadly no such tilting train has since graced NSW rails, though QR has sent their one within a few km of the border on the Gold Coast line for testing. However it is likely that this test paved some of the way for the political class to once again see the value in country rail. QR since built their tilt train – who knows how much technical know-how or inspiration stemmed from the NSW visit.

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Photo by David Foldi of SJ X2000 set at Bellata on the Moree line. A more remote comparison with Sweden would be impossible to conceive, among the wheat, the heat and flies.

Sweden was not the only Scandinavian country flirted with by the Greiner Government. During this period, the Copenhagen S-Tog was seeking new double deck cars, and with recent experience with the Tangara, media stories were floated that they might try to ‘swap’ Australian-built designs for the IC3 then new in Denmark. More on the IC3 and the Danish intercity service will be discussed below.

Of course there is an irony in all this, an irony greater than Nick Greiner could ever have imagined. Elected to remove the stench of corruption of Wran, he ended up removed by ICAC for the crime of corruption.

But in this context, the irony was dragging the X2000 cars all over NSW, to Merrygoen and Narromine, had all the sad overtones of Nifty Neville just over 10 years earlier, dragging the XPT cars to places that would never see them in commercial service, if only to win elections.

A fuller post on Greiner (and Wran/Unsworth) Governments is needed but will need to wait for another day. Like Kennett, perhaps it can be said that they went in with the usual Liberal agenda of being ‘harsh’ on rail, but the caravan moves on, and they end by the end of their terms in places they never expected to be.

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The cheaper alternative – Snälltåget

A feature of EU transport law now is the emergence of low cost route-specific rail operators competing with legacy carriers on open-access networks. In addition to independent companies, some legacy carriers are also embarking on this strategy across other countries’ networks. Certainly players such as DB and ÖBB have been active, either under their own names or through new names.

In Sweden, open access has resulted in the Transdev’s brand called Snälltåget (if you don’t speak Swedish but do speak German, the meaning of this name should be fairly obvious) offering cheaper, but very conventional locomotive-hauled services on the main lines from Stockholm to Gothenburg, to the ski fields and to Denmark (and possibly onto Germany).

Snaelltoget Alvesta

As is quite evident from this blog’s own photo at Alvesta, this is a Siemens Vectron is a powerful beast at 6.4MW and with a top speed also of 200km/h. As such, while it looks like it would not be as spritely as the X2000, it is, and both await a proper high speed network from Stockholm to Gothenburg and Malmö before we will see much improvement in transit times.

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Diversion Time –  Privatisation, Competition and EU Rail Policy

Australians have lived through the experience of two separate, but somewhat related, neo-liberal experiments with rail management in the last 20-30 years.

To be clear, privatisation and competition are not the same thing, though both come from the same neo-liberal economic textbooks.

Privatisation assumes a stronger capacity for a private company to manage an operation like passenger rail because they are motivated by profit; have less restricted access to capital (though this capital may cost them more than it would have cost a government) and may have other areas of flexibility that a long standing government operation never would.

Governments may also be attracted to privatisation as a means of realising a sale, and obtaining a one-off monetary boost they can spend on other things.

Competition (above the railhead) has a separate mechanism, which is the assumption that multiple operators will always drive the market price of the service down, to the benefit of the consumer, over what a monopoly (government or private) would have. It will also see improvements in aspects of service quality that the monopoly operator might be blind to.

Both policies have experienced a lot of criticism over the years. The biggest of these, and the one that drives all the others, is lack of accountability.

The private operators are rarely completely responsible for any situation. Perhaps the only Australian passenger rail operator in complete control of its business is Skitube.

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The closest any railway in Australia comes to looking like Sweden – and the closest thing to full accountability for management decisions – Skitube at Bullocks Flat, NSW.

The rest have diluted accountabilities for their success or failure shared with a Government Minister. This Minister is spending as much of their time as possible trying to sheet the blame for performance issues to the private operator, while claiming the credit for the good. Recall the Late Lynne Kosky from this blog’s piece on the Bracks Government  – she specifically instructed that she didn’t want to know. 

The private operators in Australia may have no control (to varying extents) over their rolling stock selection, the track, signals and wiring, HR practices (often governed by the unions), fares or even which services they operate.

The other issues, which lead back to accountability are:

  • Lack of service integration, for example, having specific fares for an operator not for all journeys on the system;
  • bureaucratic rivalries;
  • Moral hazards (the private operators refuse to spend necessary monies or incur losses, knowing the government will rescue them or the situation)
  • Higher fares on discretionary services (look to the UK for this).

However to be fair, some of these problems were there, in plain view or in disguise, among the legacy government operators.

British Rail, famously, had a Western Region that behaved in all but name as if it was still the Great Western Railway, and Britain rarely had a policy of uniform rolling stock purchases around the country, with some Regions free to play a game of one-up-manship with other Regions.

Sweden, despite the mis-characterisation that applies outside it (particularly in the so-called United States of America) is far from socialist, and pioneered both modern privatisation of passenger rail services, and on-rail competition for them.

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SJ’s legacy freight operation became Green Cargo, but it is subject to competition from other operators across Europe.

Some of the competition was ‘managed’ competition, in the same way as the UK has franchised geographic monopolies, and for others it is genuine open-access competition, where the operator puts forward a proposal to take certain paths on the network but is then responsible for every other thing – operation, sales, rolling stock choice.

In fact in Sweden it is a layer-cake of horizontal and vertical fragmentation:

  • regionalisation of local services to local governments who can then franchise to private operators (including, bizarrely but not too dissimilar to Australia – the government operators of other countries);
  • on-rail competition for services such as trains to the ski-field at Åre or all the way to Germany where the operator is fully private, such as Transdev;
  • maintenance of SJ in government ownership, but only as a long distance operator for a premium, full service operation;
  • Interoperability with neighbouring networks in Norway and Denmark, in a diverse range of ways.

The EU competition in passenger rail and freight has served some of the same neo-liberal objectives of competition and choice, but also specific EU objectives such as:

  • promoting cross-border trade and commerce;
  • technical efficiency by consistent standards and minimal bureaucratic barriers;
  • market efficiency in ensuring the most efficient operators, regardless of nationality, prevail;
  • building scale economies to enable more effective competition with road transport;
  • regional development, for example, promoting rail transport in countries and regions with historically poor systems.

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ÖBB – the Austrian legacy rail operator – has gone rampant across Europe with its NightJet services – taking advantage of EU Competition Law. NightJet in Germany.

This topic can end up quite dry, and perhaps the best place for interested readers is this paper by Matthias Finger, Director of the Transport Area of the Florence School of Regulation (EUI) and Professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)

The European Commission still considers increased competition as the main tool to make railways more competitive and foster the modal shift from road to rail in both passenger and freight. Neither modal shift nor competition in railways has happened on a significant scale, even though both are not necessarily directly related. Indeed, modal shift (and in particular the reduction of the use of the private car) depends on many other things as well, including oil prices, the internalization of environmental externalities on road transport, emerging intermodal competition with bus transport and new forms of sharing mobility.

On the other hand, fostering competition in passenger rail transport – while still being a worthwhile goal, even though not necessarily the most effective weapon against the above trends – turns out to be more complicated than originally anticipated, owing in particular to the technological nature of railways with its heavy implications on both operations and financing. Let me finally mention that this discussion about furthering competition in railways comes after the adoption of the 4th Railway Package, following a lengthy process which has strained most involved parties. The uncontested success of this 4th Railway Package is its technical pillar aiming at harmonizing technical standards and thus at fostering technical interoperability without which no competition in railways is ever going to take place in Europe.

In terms of Sweden, it was clear that Sweden was already there in terms of allowing other operators, even other government operators, in to its rail market, presumably because, as the raging Stalinist Soviet administration that Sweden is, it was focused on outcomes for the consumer, not the operator.

This is consistent with other Swedish policies regarding labour and industry. For example, when Volvo realised that full manufacture of motor vehicles within Sweden was no longer competitive, their departure to other countries was not contested.

For Swedes, the goal was cheaper prices to the consumer, not job protection. To manage the labour displacement, they use welfare policies such as active retraining, very generous welfare payments, cheap or free education and so on.

Taxes on individuals are extremely high, but low on business, to keep within the country only the most efficient businesses, but ensure that citizens have a high standard of living – which was certainly evident to this blog in every aspect including the railways.

Sweden’s future rail operations may be more closely aligned with EU goals, not less, as two key features are added:

  • Full HSR, from near Stockholm to Gothenburg in the first instance, with part of that line also benefiting the Malmö/Copenhagen route. Later that route would be augmented with an HSR line down the peninsula. HSR would presumably be open access as with the current network, and might see the likes of SNCF or even Virgin have a go;
  • The Femern Belt tunnel from southern Sjælland in Denmark to northern Germany, shortening considerably the route to Eastern Germany and Eastern Europe from Sweden. There has also been some study of a line directly across the Baltic from Sweden to Germany or Poland which would be even more useful to Sweden to trade with Eastern Europe.


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The Danish Visitor – The Øresundståg

SJ do not operate trains direct from Stockholm to Kalmar. Their ‘Coast-to-Coast’ service runs a few times a day from Kalmar to Gothenburg, about which more below. But one operator does run a train direct to a Scandinavian capital if not to Stockholm. And that is the Danish trains of Øresundståg which run through to Copenhagen across the Öresund bridge and tunnel between Sweden and Denmark.

Note the spelling difference between Øresund and Öresund. The spelling is important, because Øresundståg is a orthographic impossibility.  Spelling the former way is Danish, but spelling train as tåg rather than tog is Swedish, with only the locals acutely tuned to the difference albeit it is mutually intelligible.

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Danish Contessa train, descendant of the original IC3 in Kalmar (where it was built), well inside Sweden

This service is basically a Danish service that wanders a few hundred kilometres into Sweden. Having come up the Stockholm-Malmö main line to Alvesta, it them turns onto the single track, electrified branch to Kalmar. SJ passengers can be through-ticketed onto it, but it is not an SJ train.

And for first time visitors to Scandinavia, you can tell. And some of this difference will be told in a future post on Denmark, but in short, the train was messy and obviously less well maintained than a Swedish train. Some of the ceiling lights didn’t work. Seating, though supposedly reserved, clearly wasn’t. Danes are clearly not as finicky as the Swedes.

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Dark outside and the lights inside the Øresundståg are not maintained.

Thinking back to Greiner and his flirting , we could have had this if we had come to the deal with the Danes. They were out of gauge, but of course if you order them something similar might have been delivered to the requisite smaller dimensions. At 160km/h it would have been little different in performance to the trains we ended up with.

It is interesting that the definition of regional extends so far. Certainly Malmö could be now considered part of Greater Copenhagen, and by extension Scania province which surrounds it.

However Kalmar is more than 3 hours away and yet they and the Danes obivously see some value in having a direct Copenhagen link. Perhaps this relates to the importance of Copenhagen Airport within Northern Europe.

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The Kingdom of Crystal

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The province of Småland is probably only known worldwide by to the millions of parents who visit IKEA (who originate in this province as do the Lingonberries that readers of this blog will have first tasted there) and leave their kids in the playroom, onto which IKEA usually bestowes this name.

But it is better know as Glasriket – The Kingdom of Crystal – as it is the source of much of the world’s most famous brands, which are actually towns in Småland province starting just east of Alvester and all the way to Kalmar on the Coast. This blog stayed on a farm in the middle of the province near Kosta and Emmaboda (home of Kosta Boda) and Orrefors. The farm itself once hosted a glassworks.

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At the town of Målerås the glassworks makes ornate objects and trinkets to inspect over free mulled wine (glögg) and ginger snaps (which are ubiquitous in Sweden), but as interesting outside the complex is a preserved steam locomotive and carriages. The Målerås glassworks sits on the site of the old railway yard on the branch that connected Kosta Boda to the ‘main’ Kalmar branch.

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While the Swedish rail system looks modern and wonderfully intact to Australians, used as they are to the closure of vaste swathes of lines, it is true that Sweden too has lost its share of lines.

As a tourist it seems a shame that no tourist rail operates into the Kingdom of Crystal as so much of the area is tourist-oriented: scores of glassworks; Elk parks; Pippy Longstocking; even its history of mass emigration to the USA. The land today is fairly flat, covered in lakes and heavily timbered.

The return trip from Kalmar back to Alvesta was the Kust till kust banan – Coast to Coast Line which goes all the way from Kalmar to Gothenburg intersecting the Stockholm to Malmö/Copenhagen main line.

This line, what seems and looks like a branchline is instructive for Australians. First it is single track, electrified and rated at 160km/h. Our governments make a big song and dance about being able to run a train at 160km/h, but only our mainlines, and only for short sections (even where the line appears capable by alignment of maintaining such a speed for long sections. In Sweden the distinction is that the main would be rated for 200km/h.

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Coast to Coast SJ service waiting at Kalmar for departure to Gothenburg. Don’t be fooled by the long rays of the sun – around 2:30pm.

Second is that not only do the EMU stock work at this speed, but also the locomotive-hauled Coast to Coast trains.  The loco-hauled set managed to do 160km/h consistently for most of the journey on the branch, outside the station limits.

The Rc Class locomotives and cars in use are painted black and look the part. No Australian electric locomotive ever reached anything like 160km/h – and only the Rocky Tilt sets as electrics regularly reached this speed.

The final observation again was the ‘normal’ people using this train even for shorter sections. It appeared that for a Saturday afternoon departure, the shopping and other attractions had drawn people from smaller towns into Kalmar, and they were now on their way home. Swedes are generally very wealthy, and besides the inevitable Volvos were plenty of Mercs, BMWs and Aldis.

Yet the train is clearly the mode of choice for these intercity journeys, and much more comfortable than driving your Merc through the snow and darkness.

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General thoughts on the application of Swedish rail experience to Australia

Sweden is an antidote to several forms of misinformation and garbage thinking that many, including rail enthusiasts who ought to know better, apply to Australian rail.

As noted at the top of this post, the most obvious of these is the old furphy of population and density. Sweden does have some advantage in that Copenhagen is just outside the jurisdiction, but then that is no different from NSW where the whole of South East Queensland is also just across the border. This has otherwise been done to death and does not need further elaboration.

Australia has been caught in an intellectual vicious cycle of debate around high speed rail. With such a crap rail system, real high speed rail seems to hard and too far off. Sweden has shown the way – a much more affordable program of medium speed rail conversion – lifting speeds to 200km/h consistently across journeys – provided the lift that was needed and gave aviation to flight (pun intended) over the Stockholm-Gothenburg distance (around Sydney to Canberra, or Newcastle to Wollongong distance).

Botniabanan was built new, in the recent decade, capable of 250km/h and grade separated – but as a mixed traffic single track line. Imagine if even that was the goal for replacing the Sydney to Brisbane or Brisbane to Cairns routes. Of course the line would not be the very fastest of lines like the Italian or Spanish ones – but would be ‘good enough’ to prove the point to Hunter Region commuters; Port Macquarie or Harvey Bay holiday makers; the many freight customers along the route and maybe even a few business travellers who prefer trains to flying.

Humble simplicity in the Scandinavian way – Botniabanan is fast and modern, but no TGV. The X55s can reach 250km/h, the same as some German ICEs.  Affordable High Speed Rail. Infrastruklur i Umeå photo.

Sweden is also a good illustration that our endless loop of ideological silliness, that passes for debate about privatisation and competition, is just the claptrap it is. In truth, it doesn’t really matter whether rail is in private or public ownership, and well managed competition is not a bad thing. It is the quality of the management, leadership and accountability that matters. Much of that, in the opinion of this blog, stems from whether the political system is robust, or not.

Australia has done some things well with rail. It is just that it fails to be consistent with them. And the inconsistency undermines the product as a whole.

Think how good the Rockhampton Tilt Train is – and ask then why they are not ubiquitous for long distance express services.

The V Sets in NSW were the pièce de résistance.  Yet their numbers were very slow to increase while demand for them rapidly grew through the 1970s and 80s. Nor was there range expanded when it needed to be – interurban electrification should have reached Newcastle by 1960 and at least Coffs Harbour by now.

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Brad Peadon photo of V set in classic colours crossing the Hawkesbury. Imagine this base product available from Nowra right up the coast past Newcastle!

All these wonderful passenger rail achievements – the SAR Bluebird; the Commonwealth Railways Budd; the Prospectors or even the the original Spirit of Progress S cars and locos – that could have made a wonderful rail product that lasted generations but instead was usually piecemeal, too late to make a real difference and never given the management commitment such things needed. Near enough was good enough.

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Australia has always had great rail products – but mixed them with very crap ones.

Sweden, finally, provides a good template for localised operation on a national network. Every province seems to have its own local operator running services to small villages, sometimes with small electric railcars.

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A local rail operator based in Norrköping in Central Sweden.

Imagine in our context, say, QR only ran the Tilt Trains through the Sunshine Coast; a SEQ Regional Operator then ran the major commuter trains into Brisbane, but a Sunshine Coast local operator, franchised to the Council, actually ran small trains stopping at the likes of Woombye or Mooloolah and got them to Caboolture or Nambour to connect with an express..

Lastly, Sweden is a reminder that normal people will ride the rails if treated with respect, provided with a fit-for-purpose product and when suitable contrast with the alternatives – congested airports and unsafe roads – is pointed out.

It also helps that rail is not stigmatised as welfare in Sweden, if only because welfare spending itself is not stigmatised, but seen as a valuable part of the social contract that keeps the production side of the economy efficient.

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General Observations about Sweden and its rail system

Sweden is so beset with clichés, including the socialist one above, that it is hard for the visitor to know which will be true, and which over-egged like so many things where people are pushing an agenda.

The extreme Right like to push the idea that Sweden is a war-zone for having accepted a large number of refugees, particularly from the Middle East.  There may be places but nothing came even vaguely close to this in Stockholm or Kalmar. It feels extremely safe. Japan-level safe.

To this blog, Sweden is the Japan of Europe. Most things, including the railways, were spotlessly clean and mostly new. But even the old things seemed in good condition.

For example, the underground shopping arcades around the stations are not new, but everything looked clean. You just don’t get that disreputable feeling leaving the station and heading into some nook or cranny of the neighbourhood, like you might get here, or like cities such as Paris or Frankfurt.

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Well-worn but clean

Around town, you can see plenty of people, at the extremely high wages they pay them, cleaning windows or sweeping.

One imagines all Swedes and Swedish things at a very high standard of environmental sustainability, and while it isn’t necessarily backward in that respect, not everything seems to be as strong, especially the example of recycling.

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In terms of food, and many other things, self-serve is common, and you can see where the culture of IKEA comes from.

Like Japanese bento, boxed food is extremely common, and not particularly cheap, but if you want to save money, Stockholm has two staples: cinnamon buns (which you cannot avoid) and hot dogs.

And just like Japanese kombini, convenience stores are cheap and abundant, the dominant one Pressbyrån sells at least 10 types of hotdogs ready to eat.

Finally, people are very much friendly, helpful and very trusting, and politically progressive. The bento shop pictured above informed customers via a sign, that they employed Muslims, Jews, Africans, Gypsies and various others on a list, and that people who didn’t like it could go jump!

Also visitors should be aware, as this blog encountered, the public toilets may be unisex, otherwise you end up doing a double-take – and do a quick 180 after entering the toilets thinking you’ve entered the wrong one.

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Aquavit museum right next door to the ABBA museum.

From what can be discerned, Swedes do enjoy their drink, and even have a museum of their hard spirits such as Aquavit. But alcohol access is very strictly controlled, with the government alcohol monopoly (Systembolaget) the only place you can get it outside of licenced bars or restaurants and the taxes on it very high. And you must not drink anything and drive!

And much like NSW, disability access has been a priority at every station and every piece of rolling stock, no matter how sparsely used it might be. Even wheelchair lifts inside the train.

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The X2000 service did not have a ticket check. People boarded from the platform and took their assigned seats. The conductor informed this blog that ticket checking was not necessary – his logic was that he had already a manifest with all the passenger names, he knew the train was full (and had been for weeks), and if there was an argument between 2 passengers over an assigned seat, then he would sort it out, but otherwise there was no need to upset the passengers by checking their tickets.

For the tourists, of course, everything is in English, extremely legible and sensible and you are in little danger of getting lost – and nothing much will happen if you did.

Swedish is pretty easy to read if you speak German, once you get the logic. Just be aware the definite article appears at the end of the word, hence tåg = train, but tåget = the train. Many words are French but written exactly as the Swedes say them, like Pressbyrån = The Newsagency. Press is obviously Newspaper; byrå is their rendering of bureau, and -n is the definite article. And you will see lots of Latin on old buildings – in a country the Romans failed to invade.

Crossing the Øresund into Denmark is a contrast. In short, Scandinavian, but not the Japan of Europe. A following post will go into this further.

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7 thoughts on “Slice of Sweden

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