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Norwegian Journeys

Posted on December 7, 2022

Reading time: 9 minutes.

NSB train, Hønefoss, Buskerud, Norway

Continuing to share experiences of public transportation in other countries within the last decade, I now turn to two trips that I made to Norway during a time of tumult in my life. This is when I discovered that palliative care of an unappetising work situation using overseas did not solve anything. The real resolution was to involve a career break but that lay in future at the time these excursions were undertaken.

An August Escape

The first was an extended weekend visit undertaken around the time of the English Summer Bank Holiday at the end of August 2016. Ongoing business in Ireland intruded at one point, but this otherwise was a case of spending a little time around Oslo and Bergen. Rail and air travel were the mainstays of my travelling though there was one airport bus transfer by bus.

The Flytoget airport express train service was used to get from Oslo Gardermoen airport (there are a few of them) to Oslo city centre. After settling into my hotel, I was lured out about the city on foot on by the appearance of warm sunshine that persisted for the rest of the day. Next morning, I wondered at myself leaving the sunny weather for Bergen with a rainy forecast promised for there.

This was brought about by a bit of pre-planning. The lynchpin of the weekend was travelling along the Bergensbanen by train, often included in lists of the world’s scenic railways. The line is electrified all the way, so the train was hauled by an electric locomotive. Even with this being near the end of the high season, it was busy too and the seat reservation that I made was more than necessary.

What I had in mind was a quiet trip of reading and window-gazing. A family next to me had kids who could not be kept busy doing such things and, next to me, I had someone watching a film on an iPad without headphones. That was enough to send me to the café bar for some nourishment and added peace. While nursing a coffee, I savoured the scenery that lay outside while the sun shone. By the time that I returned, silence had been restored and torpor was becoming evident.

The journey length generally is a long one at around seven hours in duration, and this one was stretched even further by delay. Engineering works had meant a diversion and then a long delay at Hønefoss while passengers from rail replacement coaches were awaited. A further delay resulted from a problem with the locomotive in the most mountainous and highest point of the journey. Thankfully, we got going again but those wanting to make a connection to Flåm had to do so in inclement greyness and with a significant delay.

Eventually, we entered cloud after we continued west from Geilo. That and the snow shelters through which we passed restricted the hoped for mountain views. When we descended to the fjords near Voss, the views were more expansive. These were not the blue sky vistas for which Norway is renowned though, due to lack of good fortune with the weather.

Bergen is infamous for being susceptible to rain, so it was in typical conditions that I arrived there. The station buildings were clad in scaffolding and left luggage facilities were unavailable. Given the late afternoon arrival time, these were not needed since I could check in at my hotel once I found it after taking a more circuitous route than was necessary.

On my traipsing, I made use of the Fløibanen funicular railway to reach the top of Fløyen . The first was on my evening of arrival when the rain stopped, while the second was when I made a descent after spending a day trotting around Bergen’s local hills. In both cases, it did what was needed; there was confusion over where I had placed my wallet, but that was something that I sorted myself.

In hindsight, my last day in Bergen could have been stretched by using a direct flight from there to Manchester. Knowing about the availability of left luggage facilities or being able to store my luggage at the hotel would have allowed that. There might have been a fjord tour if I really was brave.

However, I played it safe and tried out the Norwegian internal air system because it offers short shuttle flights around the country. The Bergen to Oslo frequency was half-hourly using the services of Norwegian, which was just as well when we had to decamp from aircraft to another because of an issue with the plane. That did nothing to make me miss my return flight from Oslo to Manchester with the same operator. A coach service from Flybussen conveyed me to Bergen airport and was the only road transport service used on this visit to Norway.

A June Retreat

An extended weekend does little justice to anywhere, so I made a return to Norway for a longer stay. That also gained me more observations of its public transport system as I spent some time around Oslo and Stavanger. There was one similarity shared with the previous trip: the former enjoyed sun while the latter offered rain. In some ways, that may be an overstatement, but it still largely sums the weather that I found, and I found many differences though.

A different hotel was involved, but my journey there was like the last time. In retrospect, getting off at Oslo Sentralstasjon (Oslo S or Oslo Central) was a mistake because it left me with a long walk. The Nationaltheatret (National Theatre) stop would have been better for me, and I was to use that later. Before that, I walked here and there around Oslo except for a cruise around Oslofjord.

After a two night stay, I went to the Nationaltheatret station to catch a Flytoget service to Oslo Gardermoen airport. What I can recall now is how slow elevators were and how I ended up missing a train because of that. If timing is crucial, it is better to allow more time to reach the platform from street level.

Like Bergen, Stavanger also is connected to Oslo by frequent flights operated by Norwegian. Getting there by train would be a day-long affair unless I were to travel overnight, so I stuck with flying for the sake of convenience. Check-in was very much a self-service affair, and this was the first time that I encountered something so streamlined. The same model has appeared elsewhere with other operators, so it seems to be a coming trend.

On reaching Stavanger, it was the turn of Flybussen to get me to the city centre. Since I was too early to book into the hotel, I left most of my luggage in the available luggage lockers. That left me free to chance my luck with getting on a fjord cruise. Prospects were not looking great after talking to someone in the operator’s shop. Nevertheless, I decided to try again when the boat docked to see if there were cancellations. Others did likewise, and I think that they got all of us onboard. That was just as well since wet weather was forecasted for the following days.

The rain arrived the next afternoon, so I stuck with exploring the city’s lakes on foot. Even though things did not look much better, I went to Tau on the local ferry, and caught a bus to Vatne. That allowed me a chance for two hikes: one to Preikestolen and another around Revsvatnet. Reversing the bus and ferry combination returned me to Stavanger after catching some sun in the evening time.

The way back to the UK involved no direct flight from there to Manchester. Flybussen returned me to Stavanger airport on a day of rain, from where a shuttle flight got me to Oslo in time for a flight to Manchester. Everything ran to time on this trip, except for myself at times.

Changes

It has been a while since I was in Norway and I fancy a return for there is plenty of attractive scenery to be savoured. That also means that there have been some changes since then.

For one thing, the ferry service between Stavanger and Tau has been supplemented or replaced by the Ryfylke tunnel. From the Kolumbus website though, it appears that there still are ferry sailings available. Nevertheless, there are direct buses and coaches to Vatne now, where the aforementioned hikes begin; Boreal is one such operator.

While in Stavanger, I toyed with an out and back coach excursion to Bergen using NOR-WAY BussekspressKystbussen service. In the end, the length of the journey put me off. There currently are two ferry crossings needed, but there is a major tunnelling project to improve road connections from Stavanger all the way to Trondheim. There may be a time when no ferries are needed for bus travel, and the Ryfylke tunnel is part of this effort. The rest of it is expected to be complete by 2033, so this is a long term effort.

What also has changed is the Norwegian rail network. When I was in Norway, NSB operated everything apart from Flytoget, and even that started as one of its subsidiaries. That has changed dramatically with NSB rebranding as Vy and only keeping part of what it used to operate. They still sell tickets for the whole network, though, as do Entur who do more than this.

Go-Ahead Nordic operates the Sørtoget, Jærbanen and Arendalsbanen routes in the south, especially on the way to and around Stavanger, while SJ NORD operates trains going north out of Oslo to places like Trondheim and much more besides on the Dovrebanen, Raumabanen, Trønderbanen, Rørosbanen, Meråkerbanen, Nordlandsbanen and Saltenpendelen. The latter sells its own tickets until 2023-03-01 while the former directs you to other outlets. SJ is Sweden’s national rail operator and operates services between there and places like Oslo, Trondheim and Narvik in Norway.

SJ always operated into Norway from Sweden, but the internal concessions are much newer. They marked a big change in Norway’s rail network structure. It is not all about train livery changes either, since it appears that new trains have been acquired too. If I get back to Norway, there will be numerous changes to negotiate and more to learn.

On Reflection

Aside from delays on the Bergensbanen and a delayed flight at Bergen airport, all worked without fault on my two outings to Norway. Flights clearly needed advance booking as well as the Bergensbanen, it was a case of turning up and going. What I cannot now recall is how I paid. For one thing, I did have some cash with me, yet I cannot exclude the possibility of paying by card as well. Pre-paid travel cards may be available, but I have not used any of these.

This is one long narrow country with plenty of mountains and fjords, so there is ever reason to return. Catching the weather can be a challenge though, especially when you need to plan things in advance. Even so, the potential rewards make it plausible that I might try again.

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