Electrification of the Ofotbanen Railway
In 1923, the line from Narvik to Riksgränsen was electrified, and the entire line from Narvik to Luleå could finally be operated by electrically powered trains.
But what exactly is electrification?
And why was the decision made to convert to electric operation?
Farewell to coal smoke and steam
Automation and streamlining of mining operations on the Swedish side resulted in larger quantities of ore being transported to Narvik in Norway for onward shipping around the world.
Stronger locomotives were needed to haul more ore, and there was also a desire to become independent of coal imports.
The Swedes had already electrified their section of the line from Riksgränsen (The National Border) to Luleå in 1915. Until the electrification of the Ofoten Line in 1923, considerable time had to be spent switching from Swedish electric locomotives to steam-powered locomotives at Riksgränsen in order to be able to transport the ore onward to Narvik.
It was therefore obvious that the Ofoten Line would also have to be electrified, despite some scepticism about an electric high mountain railway. In July 1920, the plans to electrify the Ofoten Line were approved by the Norwegian Parliament. Significant funds and personnel were mobilised to carry out the conversion to electric operation. The decision also included a provision to purchase power from the Porjus Hydroelectric Power Station in Sweden for the purpose of operating the Ofoten Line.
Extensive work was required before the Ofoten Line was finally ready for electrical operation. Distributing main between Riksgränsen and Narvik station, transformer stations, overhead lines from Riksgränsen and all the way to the Port of Narvik had to be constructed. A large number of people were involved in the rebuilding work, and in the autumn of 1921 the number of workers on the Ofoten Line was as high as 880. Later, the workforce was reduced to 500-600 men.
The Narvik-Luleå line was opened in 1923 and was the longest electrified railway line in Europe at the time!
Electrified railway lines
There were already some electrically powered railways in Norway in 1923. Within the Norwegian State Railways, the Ofoten Line was the second line to be electrified. The Oslo-Brakerøya section was electrified in 1922. In addition, there were three private electric railways in Norway: Tinnoset-Notodden, Thamshavnbanen and Rjukanbanen.
Swedish hydroelectric power for the Ofotbanen Railway
In 1910, the Swedish producer of hydroelectric power, Vattenfall, began development of the Lule River watercourse and the construction of the Porjus Hydroelectric Power Station. The power station would produce electricity for both LKAB (Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara Aktiebolag) and operation of the Swedish State Railways.
Porjus Hydroelectric Power Station was completed in 1914. Damming of the Suorva Dam began in 1919 and was completed in 1923. It was then Sweden’s second largest reservoir and the water level in the reservoir was raised several times. Access to sufficient power was important for LKAB’s development of its mining operations and the transport of ore to the Port of Narvik. However, the damming of the river meant that several Sami settlements ended up under water.
The damming of the Suorva Dam caused several Sami families in the Sörkaitum Sami village, now Unna tjerusj, in Gällivare parish to lose their settlements along the original bank of Suorvajärvi, later Suorvadammen. Photographer Ernst Manker documented several of these flooded areas.
“But all the goahtis (Sami huts) we had along the shorelines are now mostly under water. The structures are standing there with only the poles above the surface of the water, and raised sheds and other things are also out in the lake.”
Ernst Manker: Det nya fjällvattnet, 1941
In order to transform the power in the power line down to the voltage needed to operate the Ofoten Line, transformer stations were built at Katterat and in Narvik. Swedish power came here from Porjus Hydroelectric Power Station in Sweden via a Swedish power line to the border, and then through NSB’s power line to the transformer stations at Katterat and Narvik. The electrical voltage was transformed from 80 to 15 kV and passed on as traction current for the Ofoten Line.
When Nygård Power Station came into operation, the electricity from this power station was routed via the NSB power line to the transformer stations in order to be transformed down to railway electrification for the Ofoten Line. The transformer stations in Narvik and at Katterat were replaced by a new converter at Rombak station in 1970.
What is kV?
kV is a unit of measurement for electrical voltage. The higher the voltage, the more current can be sent through a wire of a given dimension.
What does transformation mean?
Transformation is raising or lowering the voltage of the current coming in though the wire. High voltage allows the electricity to be transported over long distances, but it is too high to be used in electrical machines. It must then be transformed down to a lower voltage level. The usual voltage level for residential buildings is 220 volts. The voltage of a car battery is 12 volts.
Hydroelectric power development in Ofoten
There were already some power stations in Ofoten when the Ofoten Line was electrified. Nevertheless, Norway had to buy power from Porjus in Sweden to get enough power to run the railway. Electrification led to a much greater need for electricity, a need that was already on the rise due to technological developments in both industry and the home.
There was a greater focus on the development of hydroelectric power in Norway in the 1920s in order to supply the growing demand. It was not until 1932 that the Ofoten Line was able to switch to Norwegian power, from the newly built power station in Nygårdvassdraget, which for 40 years provided electricity directly to the Ofoten Line.
Nygård Power Station
Nygård Power Station at Trældal was completed in 1932, with a total of seven reservoirs with 18 large and small dams to regulate the water level. The power station utilises the drop between Trollvatnet on Nygårdsfjell and down to Rombaksfjorden. In total, the plant consists of seven kilometres of tunnels.
Nygård Power Station was last modernised in 1997-1998, including replacement of the high-voltage system and control system.
Hydroelectric power in Ofoten
Today, we are well used to seeing electric locomotives on the Ofoten Line. When the line from Narvik to Riksgränsen was opened for electric operation, there were no electric locomotives in Narvik. Six new electric locomotives were ordered, but these could not be delivered until 1924. Therefore, initially, six Swedish electric locomotives were borrowed.
The new electric locomotives had greater pulling power, and as an added bonus, they eliminated the smoke and soot that billowed out when the steam locomotives sped past.
Here you can see a selection of electric locomotives that have run on the Ofoten Line over the past hundred years.
Official launch of electric operation
Major festivities were held when the Ofoten Line was opened for electric operation on 10 July 1923. Invitations were sent out to Minister Wefring, Director General of the Norwegian State Railways, railway directors Hoff and Auberg, the county governor and the bishop among others. The Swedish Prime Minister, the Director General of the Swedish Railways and the directors of LKAB were also invited.
A special train was laid on to transport people to Narvik railway station. There, Minister Wefring gave a speech about the remodelling and declared the railway open for electric operation. The guests then had lunch in the garden outside NSB’s administration building. Later in the day, the guests were transported to Kiruna, where LKAB hosted a dinner, while that evening a party was organised for the railway staff in Narvik.
Map of the railway network in Norway
Note: The map does not show the exact geography or length of the railways.
Red lines = electrified railway lines
Black lines = non-electrified railway lines
Blue lines = railways that are no longer in regular operation (historical, abandoned, etc.)