By a commentator for Tjen Folket Media
The storm that hit Østlandet this week has put the trains out of operation. This is not by any means big news. Commuters and other passengers in Østlandet have had such experiences many times in the past few years, with closed train lines and canceled departures. Why must the Norwegian train service create so much irritation?
One passenger reports the following to the newspaper:
There is a complete breakdown in all areas, and neither traffic nor information works. It is very despairing.
A number of larger proposals have been raised in recent years to improve the rail service. There is the demand to expand the Northern Norway line, for instance, such that the train line may connect with Troms and Finnmark. The demand for doubling up the tracks on several lines, such that trains can pass each other without issue is another. In addition, there are more visionary wishes for bullet trains between large cities.
But what do we get instead? The answer is canceled trains that result from poor weather, which by no means comes as a surprise. The answer is increasingly more expensive tickets, such that the train between the large cities can often be just as expensive as a plane ticket. Or that people must use more than 10% of their income on transportation to their jobs. The Northern Norway line is an old goal, yet still remains nothing more than a pipe dream. Those in Finnmark must depend on planes, or else they must drive for a day to travel to the capital or other parts of Southern Norway.
The worst is nonetheless the chaos within the Norwegian railworks. And this is of course the background for the problems in all areas. The railway is in practice privatized. Not in the sense that the state is completely removed from the railworks, but to the degree that it is marketed behind the principle of New Public Management. Instead of a collective public company, the railways and their management have been broken up into many small pieces and the train services themselves have been put up for auction. Now several companies operate trains in Norway, among them the Swedish SJ and British capitalists.
The Norwegian Union of Railway Workers, which organizes workers within the railworks, writes of the pretext for today’s situation in its short history:
1995: […] NSB resolves to convert Reisebyrå to a publicly owned AS […]
1996: […] ‘Kostølutvalget’ recommends that NSB and Postverket become special statute companies […] Special statute company status for Postverket and NSB resolved in Parliament, effective 1.12.96. […]
The so-called ‘Kostølutvalget’ was established by Samarbeidskomiteen where the foremost leaders for the Labour Party and LO [Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions] continue to meet every other week. Kostølutvalget was established to “discuss the great restructuring challenges that the public enterprises maintain responsibility for”, or in other words discuss how the state could make public companies amenable to neoliberal policies.
In the same historic text, the union shows that the restructuring of Norwegian railways occurred in a struggle against its employees. They describe a number of strikes and protests throughout the reform process.
In the history, we can furthermore read:
2000: […] Jernbaneverket [Norwegian National Rail Administration splits production and management […]
2003: The Bratsberg line is put up for auction as the first line in Norway. NSB ‘receives’ the line after Connex’s offer was rejected. […]
2009: Train traffic, particularly in the Oslo area, experiences great instability due to poor infrastructure and shortages of materials. […]
2013: A new railway directive is put forward by the EU Commission’s Fourth Railway Package. This recommends the full commercialization of all personal traffic in EU countries. […] NSB CEO proposes a comprehensive reorganziation of NSB, a comprehensive competition-orientation of all train traffic and workshop operations, and the establishment of a public company where Jernbaneverket and NSB administrative and planning organization are smelted together.
The government writes the following about the railway reform:
The structural changes in the railway sector was initiated at the 2016/2017 year-end, when Jernbaneverket became Jernbanedirektoratet [Norwegian Railway Directorate] and Bane NOR, and in April/May 2017, when Norske tog AS, Mantena AS, and Entur were distinguished as separate companies from Vy (formerly NSB). The competition over passenger services is fully underway.
They further write:
The division of responsibilities within the current railway sector can be summarized as follows:
Jernbanedirektoratet has the primary responsibility for train service and for strategic planning, development of infrastructure, and complete coordination of the sector.
The state enterprise Bane NOR has the primarily responsibility for directing traffic, operations, maintenance, and the expansion of railways and train stations.
State-owned Norske tog AS has the responsibility of renting out the state’s train materials to train companies that operate on behalf of the state.
State-owned Mantena AS and other companies maintain train sets in accordance with agreements with other train companies.
State-owned Entur AS has the responsibility of selling train tickets and offering travel itineraries and fundamental digital services for all collective traffic in the entirety of Norway.
Vy, Flytoget, Go Ahead Norge, SJ and other train companies have the responsibility of running trains on the railway lines.
The Norwegian Railway Authority supervises and ensures that the railway businesses fulfill their obligations in accordance with railway law.
In other words, there are six (state-owned) companies, plus state-owned Vy – and private actors like British Go Ahead, messing around with the railway sector that was previously a collective area of responsibility for NSB.
They write that the point of this delegation of responsibilities was and continues to be to break up the monopoly within the railways.
Monopoly capitalism is not socialism. It is not socialism to preserve or re-establish NSB. But the eventually miserable situation within the railways cannot be seen isolated from the fact that the state wishes for competition within the sector.
It can furthermore not be seen isolated from the developments in capitalism. Since the 1970s, the relative booms from WWII were superseded by shrinking profit rates and steadily stronger cyclical crises. It is more difficult to earn money and capitalists therefore break up public monopolies in order to liberate capital from the fixed investments.
This development is the background for the “obstacles” faced by public companies. And, facilitated by Labour and LO, they have resigned themselves to the development. The result is poorer price offers to the people, and no new large investments. There is no room for the enormous investments anymore, not in this economy. It is not practical to put aside profits for years to expand and modernize the railways. Instead, we see savings packages, cuts, fragmentation, auctions, and reservation from liability – to the great frustration of both employees and passengers.
Translator’s note: All direct quotes are translated by TFM into English from the original Norwegian.