This was my first visit to Oslo after almost 10 years. I had come in autumn 2003 in preparation for my book 'Metros in Scandinavia' (still available!), so I focussed mostly on the T-bane system, although I did a bit of tram riding, too. This time (23-28 July 2013) I had a closer look at the tram system as the visit was in preparation for my forthcoming 'Tram Atlas Northern Europe'.
All in all, Oslo has quite an extensive urban rail network considering the size of the city (around 630,000 inh.) and its metropolitan area (about 1 million). There is a dense tram network that primarily serves the central area, a metro (T-bane) that primarily links the suburbs to the city centre, plus a frequent Lokaltog (suburban & regional rail) network for the larger urban area and region.
The most striking difference I noticed since I was here last is the completely renewed rolling stock on the T-bane. Back in 2003, all trains were still red, some older than others, and in the meantime, all have been replaced by new Siemens 3000-series 3-car sets. These are similar to the V train on the Vienna U-Bahn, wider, of course, as Oslo's T-bane trains are among the widest in the world at 3.2 m, allowing 3+2 seating in one row. Instead of red, the new trains were painted white with grey doors, but I guess that this was not a very good decision, as the white colour after a few years looks rather dirty, which becomes especially apparent when one of the older 3-car sets is coupled to a brand new one that still looks beautifully white. In any case, I would have preferred a red livery, much more noticable as a company brand, whereas the white trains look pale in the landscape, and I realised on the first day, which was covered with white clouds, that there is no contrast between train and sky. I would have to come back in the dark winter to see if the white trains look shiny then. Otherwise they are prefect, smooth ride, nice spacious interior, quiet, but probably too expensive for 'normal' cities (due to steep gradients they need more motorised axles and advanced brakes as well, I suppose) and that's why Siemens has recently come up with the trashy Inspiro metro train instead of developing this train to be used as their standard metro train.
The T-bane often reminds me of the Frankfurt U-Bahn. With rather long trains it carries large crowds, but despite the metro-like sections it does not really appear to be a proper metro. Except for line 1, all other sections are now grade-separated and operated with a third-rail power supply, but the route alignments, often very winding and steep) and especially the standard of the surface stations make it look rather like a typical German Stadtbahn: most surface stations are just an asphalted high-level platform with little more than a small shelter (again, I have never been here in the winter, but I guess people know their timetables well to avoid extra waiting in the cold...). Some have recently been upgraded along with a line upgrade (like currently on the eastern leg to Bergkrystallen or the entire Grorudbanen to Vestli), but the upgraded stops now appear to be modernised surface Stadtbahn stops in Frankfurt. The only exception is Ensjø, which has only recently received a more substantial upgrade and is now partly covered (awaiting construction on top of it), but as in many other cases, access to the station from the western side is still via a public bridge, i.e. if you want to get to the opposite side, you cannot get from one platform to the other inside the station, but need to take a detour (in other cases often quite long and badly signed) via a bridge that does not belong to the station complex. Some of the newer surface stations like Sinsen and Bekkestua at least have an overall roof structure with wooden elements, but cold winters may also have suggested fully encased stations here (like Kalasatama in Helsinki). Some of the underground stations, though pretty metro-style in layout, are not too pleasant, my negative favourite is Trosterud, which I renamed Trostloserud (trostlos in German is desolate). Luckily Carl-Berners-plass has been refurbished a bit with coloured glass panels, but the overall inpression is still that of a damp cavern, and a ceiling other than black would brighten the entire space up enormously (the same is true for Nationaltheatret). My favourite station remains Stortinget with its large and clearly laid out central vaukted hall, the wide ramps down to the platforms and an easily distinguishable colour scheme. Even the rather new and elegant Nydalen station appears very badly lit.
Line 1 up to Holmenkollen and Frognerseteren is a different case altogether. As a local expert told me, decisions in Oslo are not always predictable and rather spontaneous and this is probably how the Holmenkollbanen also became a 'metro' line with third-rail power supply. Ten years ago, it used to be mostly operated by the unpopular 2000-series, but now it is also operated by the Siemens 3000-cars, unsuitable for this line in many respects. First of all, the platforms, though somehow upgraded a few years ago, are too short for the 3-car trains, so only the doors in the first two cars can open. In a very user-unfriendly way, this policy is also maintained at Holmenkollen station, where the platforms were built for 6-car trains! and where most passengers (tourists that go to the ski jump) get off, completely confused by the fact that the doors don't open in the third car (though announced also in English several times on the route), but there can't be a technical or logical reason why the driver shouldn't open all doors at this station. Precaution, in case he/she forgets to switch it back to selective opening for the following stops? I would think that in a high-tech country like Norway this should actually be done automatically by the operation control system.
In any case, I think that the Siemens trains, good as they are on proper metro lines, are not the ideal choice for this route. They virtually torture themselves up the winding route at the lowest imaginable speed, both up and down, and leaving quite a wide gap at many platforms, as normal metro cars are simply too long for such a winding route. Ten years ago, there was some discussion whether the Holmenkollen line should rather get connected to the tram system. Technically, I guess it would have been wiser to use some sort of articulated light rail cars like the Alstom RegioCitadis. From a passenger's point-of-view it is certainly better to have it connected to the metro tunnel, but as only 3-car trains can be used, while on all other lines 6-car trains are the standard during most of the day, line 1 doesn't fit properly into the shared (overloaded) tunnel headway (and therefore for some time they were actually curtailed at Majorstuen, but passengers claimed a through connection into the city). Whichever route would be chosen to bring it into the city centre as a light rail line on existing or new tram tracks, this would certainly increase travel times. On the other hand, I found it quite a luxury that all line 1 trains go to the Frognerseteren terminus, which is only useful for walks through the woods, and trains were close to empty even on the best days of summer beyond Holmenkollen. The last houses are at Lillevann, but even that stop seems to be barely used during daytime, so terminating every other train at Holmenkollen (and opening all doors there) would just be as fine. It is not quite clear either why a third rail power supply was necessary on this line after more than a 100 years of overhead wires. The route still has many level crossings, where generally an overhead equipment seems safer, but I guess that maintenance is easier, especially in harsh winters, with a third rail. All level crossings are protected by automatic barriers. Otherwise, the formerly used switching from overhead to third rail, as has also been done in Rotterdam for many decades now, could have persisted in Oslo, too. I assume that the visual impact of the overhead equipment was not an issue here, as it is in many new tram cities, as the overhead lines had been on this line longer than most houses alongside it.
The junction where all western lines converge near Majorstuen station reminded me a bit of some 100-year old junctions on the London Underground. All branches diverge in a grade-separated junction, but especially outbound L2/5 trains crawl over the L1/6 tracks. Inbound trains often have to line up before getting into the busy tunnel. There are plans for a second city tunnel plus a new line to Fornebu (old airport area), and this would require a complete reconstruction of Majorstuen station into an underground transfer station, requiring new approaching tracks, but this could be another 20-30 years before it is built.
In general I was amazed that the T-bane runs its normal timetable also during the summer holidays, while the tram service (much busier on some routes like line 12 with tourists) was reduced from a normal 10-minute to a 15-minute headway. Most T-bane trains ran with 6 cars, when a 3-car set would have been more than enough.
What has also improved over the last years is the Ruter fare system. Previously those stations located in the municipality of Baerum, west of Oslo, were outside the Oslo zone and an extra fare was required. Now all T-bane stations and tram stops are within zone 1 (Oslo), so a 24-hour ticket for 80 NOK (some 10 EUR) or a 7-day pass for 220 NOK is enough to explore the urban rail system. And unlike other Norwegian cities, these passes are also good on the NSB suburban rail network (not on the airport train Flytoget – but you can get to the airport also easily on an NSB train! > 4 zones). Now mostly electronic tickets are used, a Reisekort for regular passengers, but available without an extra charge also when you buy a 7-day ticket, or an Impulskort for single tickets or 24-hour-tickets bought from vending machines or kiosks. Oslo, however, does not really take full advantage of these electronic tickets, as they just need to be validated once just like paper tickets used to. So, there is no exact statistics how many passengers are carried by which operator, in many other cities the primary reason to introduce such a system in order to distribute the revenue accordingly. Metro stations in the central area have proper ticket gates, but these were not in use (maybe they are at certain peak hours – but this would require at least one manned access as there are still some paper tickets left). The only ticket inspectors I saw in five days were at the ferry terminal on a nice sunny day...
Oslo's tram system, cutely called [elek]trikken has hardly changed over the last 10 years. The section from Disen to Kjelsas, which had suddenly been closed then, has reopened, though this section has some worn-out track, indeed. Otherwise the routes are pretty o.k. and the trams get through the city at an acceptable speed. Most stops have some sort of platforms, sometimes integrated into the pavement, although stepless boarding is a privilege for some passengers only, anyway. Most lines are operated with the older single-ended Duewag trams, reliable, but in this respect outdated and often too small. The Ansaldo trams, however, are double-ended and therefore required for lines 17 and 18, which don't have a turning loop at Rikshospitalet, as well as line 13 to go to Jar (see below). The Ansaldo trams, however, have proved very unreliable, so there is a continuous shortage of trams, and on line 13, a minibus carries the few passengers from Lilleaker to Jar, when a Duewag tram has to help out. I assume the same is true on lines 17/18 between John Colletts plass (loop) and Rikshospitalet. Strangely, the city or whoever is in charge now, has not taken a decision yet to order new (and reliable) and urgently needed rolling stock for the tram system.
I do not understand why line 13 needs to go to Jar and even to Bekkestua. To do so, a sophisticated grade-separated junction was built east of Jar, and the rebuilt metro line was equipped with both third-rail and overhead catenary. This shared section can only be operated with Ansaldo trams, of which there aren't enough, as the older trams are not equipped with the metro's control system. At the moment, this wouldn't be necessary anyway, as the short section between the junction and Jar is operated separately, the tram uses the southern track, and the T-bane the northern (thus operated single-track through the station), this leaves a very unpractical situation for transferring passengers, as the trams actually terminate at a special side platform to the south of the metro station. To avoid building a low-level platform next to the high-level metro platforms, Ringstabekk station will not be served by trams once these go through to Bekkestua. At Bekkestua, the defintive terminus for the trams, there are two stub tracks between the metro tracks, so here transfers will be quite convenient. But I wonder whether this sort of mixed tram/metro operation is worthwhile with all the technical difficulties and investment in infrastructure it required. My choice would have been for a good interchange station near Øraker.
But the worst impression left was the outside appearance of the Ansaldo trams. The cover of the bogies as well as the painting of the trams as such is worn out and rusty, very neglected. This may be due to more serious problems the workshops have to deal with (and the inavailability of the paintshop formerly located at Avløs depot).
The tram system hasn't been extended for a while, a line from Sinsen to Tonsenhagen had been planned for a long time, but has not materialised. Currently a new avenue is being built along the seafront near the Opera House, and tram tracks should run in the middle of it, although it is not clear yet whether this route would replace the current line 18/19 on their way into the city or complement it.
NSB Suburban Rail (Lokaltog)
A lot has been invested in the NSB rail system in recent decades, both in infrastructure and in rolling stock. Many sections in or near Oslo have been quadrupled by building long express tunnels, although 2-track bottlenecks remain between the four-track stations in the central area, Oslo S, Nationaltheatret, Skøyen and Lysaker. Routes are now properly numbered, so that the system is much easier to understand, with L1 and L2 providing a local service every 30 minutes, and L12 etc. an express service skipping some inner stations. R10 etc. run even further out into the region. There are even maps available with these routes, and these maps even show the zone boundaries clearly (some stations of the Lokaltog system are outside the 4-zone Ruter system!).
While local services are mostly operated with refurbished class 69 trains from the 1970s, plus some Ansaldo partly low-floor trains (class 72), most regional services are worked by new Stadler FLIRT sets (classes 74+75), which due to a different front and a rounded belly look slightly different from the typical FLIRT, but inside they can easily be recognised as such. The Ansaldo trains offer a similar travel comfort to that of the FLIRT, but their green and silver livery plus green interior makes them look very Italian and like an outsider among the otherwise red/black livery of most NSB trains. Integration between Lokaltog and T-Bane is much better at Nationaltheatret than at Oslo Sentralstasjon, where the platforms have been set back towards the east since the cross-city tunnel was opened in 1980, while the metro station lies to the north of the railway station (the tram stops, however, are on the western side and also require quite a long walk to reach a Lokaltog!).
Ruter (Timetables etc.)
Oslo T-bane & Tram at UrbanRail.Net (incl. maps)