The Flåm Railway: Norway’s most scenic train journey
From the train window I watched snapshots of Norway’s stunning scenery flashing by, one after another – steep rocky cliffs, deep blue fjords, lush green meadows, neatly painted red and white clapboard houses, mountains topped with a sprinkling of snow. I was expecting the Flåm Railway, or Flåmsbana, to be impressive – it’s ranked as one of Europe’s most spectacular rail journeys – but we hadn’t even arrived at the start yet. In most countries this would’ve been a famous scenic train route, but in Norway this was just the regular mainline track between Bergen to Myrdal. It was hard to even imagine how much more beauty there could possibly be, but Norway is overflowing with it. So much so that it can be hard to take it all in, but the Flåmsbana is a pretty good place to start.
The Flåm Railway was built in the 1920s – well started then at least, as the huge engineering challenges in building a line on this steep gradient meant it wasn’t finished until 1940. Around 200 men worked on the site at a time and it was tough going. As well as the line itself there were 10 stations, 20 tunnels and a bridge to build, and with no heavy machinery to help them back then, each tunnel had to be dug out by hand. It took something like 150 man-hours of work to create just one metre of tunnel. The finished line is only 20km long, but travels a huge distance in height from 863 metres at Myrdal to sea level at Flåm. It was mainly used for freight to start with, but when that started to decline it was sold off and it’s now one of Norway’s top tourist attractions with around 600,000 visitors each year.
After leaving the Bergen train, our Flåm Railway journey started off at its highest point in Myrdal. Even in mid-May the ground was still covered in a thick layer of snow, and having not packed a coat I was glad to see the train already standing on the opposite platform. Smartly painted in dark green with gold lettering, the carriages have a real vintage feel with wood-paneled walls and chrome luggage racks. But there are mod-cons too, like screens at the end of the carriage to tell you what you’re seeing and about the history of the line. And even more importantly, each carriage has five different brakes, each of which can stop the whole train. Something you’ll be glad to know when you see the steepness of the track.
I’d already read up on how the line had been built, but it’s not until you start on the journey that you realise what an amazing feat of engineering it really is. The track zigzags its way down a gradient of 5.5%, which means that it descends one metre in height for every 18 metres it travels. The gradient wasn’t the only challenge though, the steep rocky cliffs and river gorges didn’t help – and they even had to redirect the river through tunnels through the mountain. And this was all designed and planned on paper, long before computers, in an environment where landslides could easily wipe out weeks’ worth of work.
The beginning of the route runs through a snowy forest, dotted with red and yellow wooden houses. It passes by the Reinungvatnet mountain lake, which was just starting to thaw after being frozen for months. The track then starts to descend steeply and disappears into the first of many tunnels before stopping at the Kjosfossen waterfall. The waterfall is over 90 metres tall and according to Scandinavian fokelore, it’s home to mythical creatures called the Huldra. These beautiful siren women bewitched passing men with their song and lured them out into the woods. Keep an eye out for them, as you might spot one or two dancing among the waterfalls (though they only seem to come out on the busier train journeys!).
Back on the train again, windows cut into the tunnel walls give you flashes of the view down the valley and across the valley to the sinuous Rallarvegen. The name roughly translates as the ‘navvies road’ and it was originally built as a construction and access road for the railway track works. Today it’s used as a mountain biking track with 21 twists and turns on the way down. By this point we had descended almost halfway and the snow had completely disappeared, replaced by green fields and cascading waterfalls full of meltwater.
At Breikvam the track splits in two so that trains travelling in opposite directions can pass each other. Then towards the end of journey, the gradient smoothes out and the valley opens up. Looking down on the old part of Flåm it seemed like a model village, with miniature houses and a tiny wooden church on the riverbank. The newer part of Flåm lies further downriver, along the banks of the Sognefjord. This is the end of the line for the Flåmsbana, where the passengers climbed off, slightly dazed from an onslaught of views and colours and dizzy from running from one side of the train to the other so as not to miss anything.
The Flåmsbana runs four–ten services in each direction per day, depending on the time of year – see a full timetable here. The journey takes around 50 minutes and tickets cost 300 NOK (£30) one way, with a 30% discount if you have an Interail/Eurail rail pass. You can also combine the Flåm Railway with a fjord cruise as part of the hugely popular Norway in a Nutshell day trip, though it can get really busy. A good tip if you are doing the trip independently is to check out the Norway in a Nutshell timetable and avoid the trains they use – we had a carriage almost to ourselves on the Myrdal–Flåm route by doing this! You can find out more about the railway’s history in the free Railway Museum in Flåm.
Which direction is best? We did the journey in both directions and although you see the same scenery, you get a different experience. Travelling downhill from Myrdal–Flåm was much smoother and better for taking photographs. Travelling uphill from Flåm–Myrdal you could feel the train working hard so you get a lot more squealing of brakes and and lurching around. So it depends on which you prefer!