Train Project in Sweden

Mr. Ek wants Speed

Faster, more efficient, better for the environment: Sweden is currently working on the country’s first high-speed railway project. Its goal: to improve the journey between the commercial hubs of Gothenburg and Stockholm for commuters like Gunnar Ek. The project may even encompass all of northern Europe in the end.

Text Felix Enzian and Tino Scholz  Photos Jan Steinhauer

It’s early, so early in fact, that just a couple of seagulls accompany him on his way to work. They circle the first rays of sunlight falling on the streets of Gothenburg, squawking a bit, almost as if they were wishing Gunnar Ek a good morning. As they do almost every morning at 5:45 a.m. Ek is meticulously dressed, wearing a suit and tie; the morning air is brisk, he takes a deep breath. “Well, let’s go!” he says. Ek sets off towards the main train station. A new workday has begun.

He won’t make it to the office until four hours later. It’s located 457 kilometers east of Gothenburg, at the other end of Sweden, in the capital, Stockholm. Ek has been commuting to work, usually several times a week, since 1991. A Gothenburger through and through, he doesn’t want to move away from his beloved city. “Commuting isn’t a problem for me,” he says. “But when I look beyond Sweden’s borders, I see a great number of high-speed trains in Europe and around the world that could shorten the travel time. Yet not in a highly developed country like Sweden. It’s a crying shame.”

The good news is: change is coming. As the planners themselves explain, Sweden will be building a high-speed railway project within the next two decades that will influence mobility for generations to come. “A transformation so enormous, it’s only comparable to those of the nineteenth century, when the main railways still in use today were first laid down,” they say. The current project’s title: En ny generation järnväg — a new generation railway.

Right now, the project is still in its early stages, and is divided into individual construction phases, each over a period of several years. This year, the first work will begin in the east of the country, and things really get going in 2020. The goal is to have the country’s most important corridors able to handle high-speed trains by the year 2035. The benefits of this major project speak for themselves: the new railway lines will relieve pressure on the current extremely tightly scheduled rail traffic, they will lead to more environmentally friendly mobility for Swedish citizens, and they will boost the economy. At least that’s the theory.

But particularly for commuters like Gunnar Ek, the high-speed railway network would bring direct personal benefits. It’s only worth commuting if trains zip reliably across Sweden. Right now, Ek needs three hours to get from Gothenburg to Stockholm. With a round trip, one fourth of the day is already used up. In a high-speed train, it would take just under two hours each way.

Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home

Gunnar Ek could have moved to Stockholm, but he doesn’t want to give up his network, built up over years, in Gothenburg. “Better big in Gothenburg than small in Stockholm,” he jokes.

— IT'S 6:15 A.M. when Ek sets foot into Gothenburg Central Station. “If there were a high-speed train, I could still be hitting the snooze button,” he says, smiling. A dream of the future.

Ten minutes later, the train rolls slowly out of the station. From platform 4, as always. Ek makes himself comfortable in the first class compartment as the Swedish landscape rushes past, alternating between coniferous forests and small villages. Ek breakfasts in his seat and reads the news, financial and political, in Svenska Dagbladet, a daily newspaper. It also has an article discussing the new high-speed railway lines. Ek pays close attention to this one. “Sweden is ecologically oriented, train ridership is increasing,” he reads aloud. “That’s why we need a solution.” Take the ridership figures for Gothenburg, for instance: in 2013, along with Ek, some 750,000 people took the train. By 2016, the figure had skyrocketed to 1.3 million.

Ek travels for work about 150 days every year. As an analyst and networker for Aktiespararna, the Swedish Association of Equity Investors, he meets many politicians and business executives. Especially in spring, when the majority of shareholder meetings take place, he is on the train every day. “Often for sixteen or seventeen hours,” he says. “I can get to Stockholm faster in a plane, but I can’t work without interruption due to the security checks and boarding.” Ek’s eyes squint against the sunlight, then he turns back to the reports and statistics on his laptop.

Everyday Routine

Everyday Routine

Having his breakfast on the train in the morning is as obligatory for Gunnar Ek as reading the daily newspaper.

— BY NOW IT'S 8:00 A.M., and Stockholm is still 90 minutes away. A few kilometers south of the current tracks, near Linköping, a hub for the new high-speed routes will be soon be built. The first big 160-kilometer-long segment between Linköping, in central Sweden, and Stockholm is scheduled to be completed by 2028. The subproject’s name is Ostlänken, or, in English, the Eastern Link. Completion of the Götalandsbanan, the Gothenland Line, is planned for 2035 and will connect Gothenburg to Linköping and the Ostlänken. All of these lines will then eventually link up with the Europabanan, the Europe Line, a transregional high-speed railway concept, 1,000 kilometers long, between Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Hamburg.

In Sweden, though, everyone will be pleased if all the planned projects within the country get completed on time in the first place. “The challenge is the size of the railway project,” says Johan Tjerning, spokesperson for the state-run authority Trafikverket. “We can’t manage it alone. That’s why we looked at the best cases — in Japan, Germany, Spain and France. At the same time, we’ve hired experts from all over Europe for planning and construction. This is necessary to be able to realize a project of such dimensions.

”Thus TÜV SÜD was awarded the contract to inspect the Ostlänken Project according to CSM regulations — the common safety method for evaluating and assessing risks. “Our role is that of an independent evaluation body,” says TÜV SÜD Project Manager Johan Tann. “We have an overview of the project development and advise management.”

TÜV SÜD is also responsible for the preparation work carried out on the Västlänken (Western Link) project as the Notified Body, the organization designated to assess whether certain standards are met. In Gothenburg, another important project, independent of the high-speed railway, is being advanced.

Beneath the city center, construction of a railway tunnel and three new stations, to improve connections to downtown, is scheduled to be completed in 2026. TÜV SÜD is determining whether the requirements for conforming to European specifications are being met.

“These are prestigious projects for us,” Tann says. “We of course hope to be involved with future Götalandsbanan projects as well.” As Tann sees it, the chances for this look good, because the administrators of the current projects highly appreciate the advice they received from TÜV SÜD early in the process, which has helped prevent later, very expensive project modifications. “Every­thing has to be safe when people are travelling at 320 kilometers per hour by train. It’s absolutely vital for this project.”

You’ve Reached Your Destination

You’ve Reached Your Destination

Gunnar Ek usually gets to Stockholm on the train arriving at 9:35 a.m. “The day runs like clockwork.”

— IT'S 9.35 A.M. as Gunnar Ek arrives, on time, in Stockholm. Dependability and safety are of great importance to him. His day is fully booked with appointments, for instance with the president of the Pension Fund, and with politicians. Ek can’t afford any delays. “Appointments are difficult to reschedule, and anyhow, nobody is waiting for me to show up at stockholder meetings.”

Ek recalls a major disruption in spring last year: a train broke down — and, of all places, in a short section of track with no electric power supply. After a while, the train’s battery was completely drained; the heating, lighting, toilets and loudspeaker system in all the wagons were inoperative. Since that section of track was in the middle of a forest, evacuating passengers onto buses wasn’t possible. And because there was a simultaneous blackout in Stockholm, the entire railway service in the region was thrown into turmoil and it took a very long time before a replacement train reached the location. Ek eventually made it back to Gothenburg, with an eight-hour delay.

— AFTERNOON, 2:10 P.M.: Ek sits in his office at the association recording his weekly podcast, “Economy Club,” on the topic of railway transportation. In it he says: “Shorter travel times are an engine for economic development. The state should be investing.” A few kilometers away, in Sweden’s parliament, sits Karin Svensson Smith. She’s not listening to the podcast, but she’s thinking the same thing. Svensson Smith is a member of the governing Green Party, and is chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Transport and Communications. “It’s embarrassing that we’re just now getting this project started. I don’t have an answer for why, but I do have an explanation: We have strong car companies in Sweden, and there are simply differing interests.”

Svensson Smith talks about the groundbreaking Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015, which also accelerated the process for high-speed rail in Sweden. Many countries made binding pledges, as did Sweden, for instance wanting to be first country to stop using fossil fuels worldwide. “However,” Svensson Smith says, “eighty percent of oil imports go to the transport sector. That’s where we need to start. We won’t be able to banish cars and planes. But what we must do is strengthen railway traffic. Efficient, high-speed trains will win over the public, I’m sure of that.”

Always on the Go

Always on the Go

Gunnar Ek is heading home once again. Like almost every day, he won’t get there until late in the evening.

— AT 6:10 P.M., Ek’s workday is approaching its end. It’s been almost thirteen hours so far. Tired, he settles into his seat on the train. “I’ve often thought about whether I should move to Stockholm to save myself the long commute,” he says. Yet Ek hasn’t yet been able to force himself to leave his life in Gothenburg behind.

As the train leaves the station, Ek again takes out his laptop: he still has a bit of work to get done, some reports to read. He grabs a bite to eat, the train attendants know him by name. “Our Gunnar,” they call.

Ek considers what he could do with all the time saved if the journey between Stockholm and Gothenburg was an hour shorter each way. He could get up later in the mornings. In the evening, he could take his wife out to one of the nice downtown restaurants. That would be a wonderful change from the train’s onboard menu. Perhaps, Ek says, he could even manage more appointments during the workday — and then spend more vacation days at his summer home, in Karlstad. His gaze begin to wander. He’s probably already at his summer home, at least in his mind.


— AT 9:35 P.M., he comes back to reality. Gunnar Ek is back in Gothenburg, he walks out of the station. The sun has almost set, he just manages to get the last rays of sunlight on his way home. He has an escort of seagulls. Whether they’re the same ones from sixteen hours ago? Ek smiles a weary smile. The gulls will be back early the next morning. As they are, every day, at 5:45 A.M.

Bigger, Faster, China

According to the International Union of Railways, 37,343 kilometers of high-speed railway networks are currently in use, with another 15,884 kilometers under construction. The trend shows: high-speed trains play an important part in today’s mobility mix.