Northern Europe’s highest rail route

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The 496km, 39-station Oslo-Bergen railway, which connects Norway’s stylish capital with its most picturesque city, is one of the world’s most beautiful train journeys.

I boarded a train bound for Bergen on a chilly November morning in Oslo.

I’ve been visiting Norway for over a decade, returning at least a dozen times since my naive first visit. I’ve been to both the northernmost and southernmost points of the Norwegian mainland (Knivskjelodden) (Lindesnes Fyr, where my sunglasses blew clean off my head and out to sea in a gale). I’ve seen walruses and whales. In Svalbard, I hiked across glaciers and stood beneath the country’s only palm tree in Kristiansand. And I’ve seen the northern lights in the winter and partied under the midnight sun in the summer.

But, for reasons beyond comprehension, I had never taken the Oslo-Bergen railway before. The more I considered it, the stranger it seemed. After all, this is consistently ranked as one of the world’s most beautiful train journeys. It was past time, even if it had been a long time coming.

I had done my homework. On a short November day, for example, I knew that only one of the five daily departure times, 08:25, would ensure that I completed the entire six-and-a-half-hour, 496-kilometer journey during daylight hours. I also knew enough to reserve a window seat on the left side of the train (on the right if coming from Bergen) for the best views.

And as the train pulled away from the platform, I suddenly realised that I had been anticipating this moment for a very long time.

At first, nothing hinted at the drama that was to come. As the train sped away from the city centre, there were brief glimpses of the Oslofjord pleasure craft, elegant wooden homes climbing hillsides, and signs to Bygdy, where museums told epic stories of exploration and the Viking past. The train accelerated past Asker and Sandvika, then crossed the fjord and rushed past the burgeoning commuter city of Drammen, its hills colonised by the most beautiful urban sprawl. The track turned north not far west of Drammen. This track has been designed so well that the change in direction barely registers. The landscape itself announced the change: all of a sudden, the hills were higher, and pristine alpine meadows and pine-clad foothills scaled deep valleys studded with small villages and lone farmhouses clinging to precipices.

Change happened gradually. The slowing train hinted at subtle altitude gains. We entered a valley near the shore of a beautiful fjord. When we left, it was across a pass high above the valley floor; looking back, it all seemed so far down below.

Then, unexpectedly, we emerged from a tunnel and into the deep snows of Hardangervidda, a vast mountain plateau.

I love watching people’s faces when they travel this route for the first time

“I love seeing people’s expressions when they take this route for the first time,” Jrgen Johansen said. Johansen has worked the line for the Norwegian railway authorities for over three decades. “I never get tired of the view, but it’s the expressions of awe on people’s faces that I find most enjoyable.”

The train was now atop Europe’s largest high plateau, Hardangervidda, which covers nearly 6,500 square kilometres and has an average elevation of more than 1km above sea level. For the first time, it became clear that this was both Northern Europe’s highest mainline railway and an engineering marvel.

Hardangervidda, one of the continent’s oldest geological formations, and its valleys and contours were shaped over Glaciers have carved their way down from the icy wastelands towards the sea for millennia. Despite this, Norway’s rail and road builders completed what took thousands of years under the weight of ice and the inexorable march of time in decades.

Norway was an impoverished outpost of a more prosperous Europe when the Bergensbanen (the Bergen Line), as it is now sometimes called, was first surveyed in 1872; the discovery of oil that would transform the country was still nearly a century away. There was much debate about where the money would come from at the time, and there were many false starts; at the time, the export of sardines and herrings kept Norway’s national budget afloat, with little left over for large-scale infrastructure projects.

Nonetheless, construction on the line began in 1875. It was completed in 1909, with 39 stations (some of which are only for local trains – inter-city service terminates at 21) linked by a serpentine path through some of the most difficult landscapes imaginable. Hardangervidda is notoriously inhospitable, with unpredictable weather just one of many challenges that the line’s builders faced. They built 180 tunnels – one tunnel for every 2.75km of track – to make the railway work and to find the most direct route possible.

“The story of the Oslo-Bergen Railways is very Norwegian,” Lisbeth Nielsen, a Norwegian transport historian, told me later in Bergen. “When it comes to getting around Norway, there’s always something in the way. We’d never get anywhere if we let mountains or fjords stop us. As a result, they constructed tunnels, roads, and railway lines that appear to everyone else to be impossible. It’s part of what defines us as Norwegians.”

By the time we arrived in Geilo, altitude 794m and the halfway point of the journey, the world we had travelled through bore no resemblance to what had come before. Cross-country skiers left the train and skied out of the platform and over the hills as deep snow blanketed the landscape. A reindeer’s antlers stood silhouetted against the piercing blue sky high above Ustaoset (990m) and its ice-bound lake fringed with country cabins; Norway’s largest herd of wild reindeer, 10,000-strong, still roams free across Hardangervidda. A group of hikers in heavy winter gear boarded the train at Finse, the highest station along the line, at 1,222m above sea level, ice still clinging to beards and boots.

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