The Oslo-Trondheim example of rail vs plane

Norway has long been the European country with the most domestic flights. This is not so strange when one considers how geographically isolated it is, it’s length, difficult topography, distributed population and wealth. But the Norwegian NGO Framtiden i våre hender (Future in our hands) has compiled some rather shocking statistics placing Norway in relation to its European peers for domestic flying.

OSL Oslo Lufthavn planespotting - frame grab. Foto: Eirik Helland Urke

Norwegians fly within Norway on average 2.9 times per year. Using the same methodology the country that comes second in Europe is Sweden, with 0.8 domestic plane trips per person per year. Nearly four times less! Sweden is not so dissimilar from Norway on the map, but its population is heavily concentrated in the south of the country and is considerably more urbanised than Norway’s, a function of a very different approach to decentralisation and financial support to rural areas (which is more prevalent in Norway). 

But as I’ve hinted already, Norway has a rather mountainous topography and its cities are spread all along the coastline which, including all the small islands and fjords, is the world’s longest. This makes competitive alternatives rather difficult (namely high speed rail). To date, discussion of high speed rail in Norway has been just that, a discussion.

With regards to flyable (regular speed) train journeys there are quite a number, and most of them end in Oslo. Here’s a short list:





Trondheim – Mo i Rana – Bodø

And combinations of these are also possible (with a change in Trondheim or Oslo).

NSB rutekart
The Norwegian State Railways railway network (minus the Bodø-Trondheim line and Narvik-Kiruna. Over 90% of these lines are single track.

Now this raised a question in my mind, because I have seen and met people who are taking the train on these flyable journeys (yes there are others apart from me and tourists!). My general observation seems to be that there are a significant number of elderly passengers travelling by train. My guess is that this was very much normal behaviour only a few decades ago, and they do this as they are used to the idea of taking a train between cities and are often retired and thus have more time free. It may also be that travel time by train is considered more valuable for them than the time spent in a plane (which is often characterised by hustle bustle of young and middle aged people).

But there’s another slowly growing demographic which is adults in their 20s and 30s. This includes people who choose the train largely because of environmental concerns (electric trains in Norway are estimated to release under a tenth of the emissions of planes on the same origin-destination). This is certainly a minority. And then a number who choose to take the train more likely because of economic hardship (which is a probably an even mix of Norwegians and foreigners – where foreigners are overrepresented).

I wanted to see if I could find out just roughly how many people are taking these flyable train journeys compared to the planes. So I got in touch with the Norwegian Railways to ask how many of the tickets sold on inter-city routes are actually between the start and end destinations (or close to these locations). Unfortunately this information has recently become sensitive commercial data because of the opening up of Norwegian rail provision for private companies to bid upon. So my search ended rather abruptly here.

The number of flights is of course public information however (as are the number of train departures). Looking on the airport operator Avinor’s website reveals that there are 58 daily flights between Trondheim and Oslo Gardermoen airport (for today 11th April 2018). There are additionally eight flights connecting Trondheim to Sandefjord Torp airport, which is also in the Oslo area. This puts the route Trondheim-Oslo as Norway’s busiest – and Europe’s 6th busiest airport pair! The aforementioned NGO report shows that this is equivalent to just under 2 million passengers on this route in 2015 (compared to 2.3 million for Europe’s busiest aviation route: Paris – Toulouse).

NSB, the national rail operator has two rail lines connecting Trondheim to Oslo. There are 26 weekly departures in each direction on the electrified Dovre Railway (which is faster and more comfortable) and 12-13 on the diesel Røros Railway (which involves a change of trains at Hamar if you should travel the full Trondheim-Oslo distance). So that makes a daily average (for both directions combined) of 11 departures.

Comparing seat numbers:

By plane: 1 942 761 passengers per year is 5323 passengers daily

By train: 11 daily departures. Average of 5 passenger carriages per train (the Røros railway would I guess have 2-4 usually) whilst the Dovre railway train can be much more modular in response to demand. 68 seats per carriage (making some assumptions based on the NSB fleet). 340 passengers per train. 3740 passenger capacity. I would hazard a guess that not more than about 10% of the passengers (potentially as little as 1% I suppose) travel between the end stations – hence 370 passengers by train.

Comparing the two (remembering that this is based largely on guesses!) suggests that no more than 6% of all journeys between Trondheim and Oslo are taken by train (excluding those who drive or take the bus).

NSB has much more accurate information regarding the numbers of passengers travelling between end stations on their trains, but have unfortunately reserved this information from public eyes (even when it was under a research interest and not commercial interest).

My supervisor has however done a small high speed rail feasibility study for Oslo-Trondheim around 20 years ago. It was just scraping the tip of the iceberg, with 19 interviewees as the primary data source, but gives some informative results nonetheless. Most importantly interviewees were asked what amount of time they would consider acceptable for a train journey between Trondheim and Oslo.

Interviewees were chosen amongst people who were waiting for the airport bus to either airport or amongst acquaintances of my supervisor and his colleagues at the time (thus a focus on business travel). Given the travel time between the cities for a plane journey (including waiting and getting to/from the airport) is about 3-4 hours, it was surprising to note that whilst about half of the interviewees would accept a 3 hour journey by a hypothetical high speed train (ie faster than the plane), only 5% would accept a journey longer than 4 hours. This is in line with similar research on the impact of high speed rail. According to Crister Fritzson, the CEO of SJ, one of Sweden’s largest railway actors, surveys show that 80% of all travellers wish to take the train rather than flying if the travel time is under three hours. Unless it is time competitive (aka faster than flying from city to city including waiting, transfers etc), it will not take over the lion’s share of the transportation market.


A reasonable example to look at in terms of reduced travel time is the line between Oslo and Stockholm which received new rolling stock in 2015. Whilst it is not a high speed train by most definitions, the travel time between the cities was reduced from around 6 hours to just over 4.5 hours. The number of travellers on this line has subsequently increased by 39%. These figures are of course for all passengers, including those travelling shorter distances such as from the Swedish border. If we look at the graph above, we have some way to go before we reach many more passengers taking the train for 4.5 hours between Stockholm and Oslo.

The train between Trondheim and Oslo currently takes a minimum of 6.5 hours but there are still some (a minority) of passengers travelling the full journey. So perhaps the selection criteria of the participants in the study from 90s was biased towards those who have a higher value of time than the minority I have observed myself. It would be reasonable to expect that concern about the environment and travel-related emissions has increased in the past 20 years. So it may be that I’m witnessing the niche gradual change towards less polluting transportation modes for those with the necessary value of time to make this seem like a reasonable option. [Note that I say less polluting rather than environmentally friendly since there is no net positive effect on the environment of taking the train if the null hypothesis is doing nothing.]

Or maybe this effect is just so small that conventional rail transport doesn’t even make up 1% of the travel between short-haul destinations like Trondheim and Oslo? I would hope the latter is not correct, but it is almost certainly the case that we cannot wait for everyone to develop the same value of time and value on their carbon footprint as me and the handful of others who choose train over plane.



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