Miners and rail lines and bears, oh my!
Ofotbanen, legendary iron-hauling railway, is a trip through history and wild landscapes
M. Michael Brady
Above the Arctic Circle in Norway, Ofotbanen is a rail line like no other. It’s the world’s northernmost railway with regular scheduled service, the Norwegian Malmbanen (Iron-ore line), from the port of Narvik on the coast eastward to Kiruna in Sweden, named after the Ofoten district of Nordland County, in turn named after the Ofotfjord, derived from the Old Norse word for the Eurasian Eagle Owl because its three inner branches are comparable to the three claws of an owl.
Built around the turn of the last century, Malmbanen exploited the enormous deposits of iron ore in two mountains, Luossavaara and Kiirunavaara in northern Sweden. It’s owned by a mining company with a four-letter acronym name, LKAB, where L and K stand for the two mountains and AB stands for Aktiebolag, the equivalent of Inc. in the United States. LKAB headquarters are in the city of Luleå on the northwestern coast of the Gulf of Bothnia. Its trains carry ore from Kiruna to the harbors of Narvik and Luleå. Most of the ore goes to Narvik for the world market, while a smaller portion goes to Luleå for Baltic and Swedish customers.
LKAB trains are heavy-duty. The locomotives, built by Bombardier in Kassel, Germany, are among the world’s most powerful. They are in a class by themselves, designated IORE, an acronym for Iron ORE. The trains hauled by pairs of IORE locomotives comprise 68 hopper cars with a total weight of 8,600 tons. Each year, LKAB trains haul nearly 16 million tons of ore to Narvik, more than the total freight weight hauled by all other railways in Norway.
Narvik also is the northern terminus of the Arctic Rail Express (ARE), Europe’s longest point-to-point freight-train service. ARE trains are operated on a 1219 mile (1950 km) line that runs from Oslo eastward into Sweden, then northward through Sweden to join with Malmbanen, and finally westward across the Norwegian border to Narvik. ARE was started in 1993 by NSB, the abbreviation for Norges Statsbaner (Norwegian State Railways). With changes of name and corporate structure when NSB was privatized around the turn of the century, the NSB freight service became CargoNet in 2002. At first, there was one ARE train a week in each direction between Oslo and Narvik. Now there are 20 trains weekly. In addition to the business of ore and heavy rail freight transport, Ofotbanen has been a tourist attraction from its inception in 1902. Today there are two passenger trains daily, one in the morning to Luleå, and one in the afternoon to Stockholm. A company called Arctic Railway is being created now to handle the burgeoning tourist traffic.
In European railway lingo, LKAB and CargoNet are operating companies running trains on tracks and using infrastructure that comprise the railways owned by two government agencies, Jernbaneverket (National Rail Administration) in Norway and Trafikverket (Transport Administration) in Sweden. Like the locomotives of other European rail operating companies, the Norwegian ones are adorned with colorful logos. The LKAB logo features a large white motif on a blue background, and the CargoNet logo is yellow and white on a gray background.
The rail lines run through landscapes seemingly at the boundaries of civilization. Like the frontier Wild West, the folklore about the building of these lines persists to this day in the legends of the high north. The heroes of these legends are the Rallar, the road and railway construction workers who built Malmbanen. The word Rallar is derived from the Swedish word rallväg, a vernacular form of Railway in English. That said, “construction worker” is an inadequate translation of Rallar; the old British-English term Navvy more closely denotes the work of a Rallar. Today, the legend of the Rallar pervades the society of the north. Rallarklubben (www.rallarklubben.no) in Narvik is dedicated to commemorating their achievements.
Women were also involved in the building of Malmbanen. The most famous story introduces the short life of a Norwegian of unrecorded origin but most likely Anna Rebecka Hofstad (1878-1901), a cook and one of the first women to work among the Rallar building the Malmbanen in 1898-1903. It is said that a local Sámi nicknamed her Svarta Bjørn (the Black Bear) because she was statuesque, with black hair and dark eyes. Svarta Bjørn has become an enduring legend, the subject of film and fiction. Since 1959, a Winter Festival in Narvik features a contest for a “dark, fearless, and curious” woman in her 20s to be crowned “Svarta Bjørn of the year.” A Swedish TV semi-documentary, Legend om Svarta Björn by film director Ingvar Skogsberg was released in 1979. In Jernmarken (Railway Park) in Narvik there’s a statue unveiled in March 1986 of Svarta Bjørn by Wenche Thon, the first woman to be crowned Svarta Bjørn of the year.
Further reading (in Norwegian):
• “Det dere har sørpå, er leketog. Det vi har, er Ofotbanen” (What you have down south is a toy train. What we have is Ofotbanen), by Sveinung Berg Bentzrød with photos by Tom A. Kolstad, A-Magasinet, March 16, 2018: www.aftenposten.no/amagasinet/i/A2JqA3/Det-dere-har-sorpa_-er-bare-leketog-Det-vi-har_-er-Ofotbanen
• Svarta Bjørn, by Nils A. Ytreberg, a novel based on the legend, Aschehoug Forlag 1954, reprint 2002
• Malmtunge spor (Ore-heavy tracks), history of the Ofotbanen by Gunnar Grytås, Samlaget Forlag 2017
• Sølvbandet (The Silver Band), a serial novel on the building of Ofotbanen and the lives of the Rallar, by Martine Strømsnes (born 1990 in Narvik) who began writing the series in her student days, 15 installments published from 2014 through 2016 by Cappelen Damm Forlag: www.cappelendamm.no
•Pen, malmsterk og flott: en sosiologisk analyse av Svarta Bjørn-utvelgelsen i Narvik (Attractive, strong as ore, and elegant: A sociological analysis of the Svarta Bjørn selection in Narvik), by Åse-Johanna Syversen, University of Tromsø master’s degree thesis in sociology, Spring 2010: munin.uit.no/bitstream/handle/10037/2784/thesis.pdf?sequence=2
This article originally appeared in the June 15, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.