Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sweden's Newest Rail Transport Revolution

From its inception, Sweden's railroad system defied trends. Construction began on this vast nation’s first rail line in the 1850's and from the outset an coordinated decision was made to keep major lines inland, avoiding the coasts as a defensive measure to protect rail lines from the threat of military attacks. This decision also kept the railroads out of direct competition with established steam boat routes along the coast. As a result, the inland rail lines flourished and paved the way for what is now the 20th largest railroad network in the world, providing nearly full geographic coverage to an area of roughly 175,000 square miles, or slightly larger than California.

For decades to follow, Sweden allowed private companies to build additional rail lines in order to maintain a competitive rail industry. Until the era of the Great Depression, the rails were still owned in part by private parties. As was true in much of the world, with the rise of the automobile came the decline in passenger rail transportation, though Sweden remained proactive about maintaining and expanding their rail system. In the 1980's Sweden instituted controversial changes to managing its railways by separating train operations from rail infrastructure management. Coupled with the introduction of high speed trains in the 1990's, a streamlined ticketing system, and the much-publicized introduction of biofuel engines; the Swedish rail system continued to sustain itself as a viable mode of transportation into the 21st century.

As of early 2010, Sweden is yet again revolutionizing organization of its transport systems. One of the system's early founders, former Director-General of Swedish State Railways Bengt Furback, always held a strong belief that the government should treat road and rail equally. In turn, the government created a national rail authority and national roads administration. But now, the powers that be in Sweden no longer see the benefit of separate agencies. As of April 1st, 2010, authorities have combined these two authorities into a new agency, the Trafikverket, and added to its purvue the oversight all sea ports and airports. The planning and management of virtually all modes of transportation in Sweden have effectively been merged into one agency.

Opponents of the reorganization remain staunch advocates for the traditional vertical integration of rail systems, but the Swedish government believes the move will better prioritize allocation of money across all transit modes. Considering the vast technical disparities between these four major modes of transportation and variations in traffic control and management, oversight of the Trafikverket seems a daunting task from a practical standpoint. If Sweden overcomes the challenges at hand and succeeds in their transportation experiment, it will be interesting to see if other countries follow suit.

Particularly in America, which is in the throes of rethinking its own national rail strategy, it would be interesting to try and glean something from the experiences of other nations who have “been there”, even if the realities of politics and economics differ tremendously between the two countries. As always, your thoughts and further comments are appreciated.

[Photo of Oresund Road/Rail Bridge/Tunnel connecting Sweden with Denmark courtesy of]


Post a Comment