The Arctic Circle Train
Updated: Jul 5
Wow. Arctic! Circle! Train! If those words in combination don’t conjure up a certain level of anticipation…..then…..I suppose you’re reading the wrong blog! Setting the scene, I was in Stockholm and feeling pretty damned pleased with myself actually. This was to be a quick (barely) four day trip, more about quality control than anything else.
The overnight sleeper train from Stockholm to Narvik had not been well received by customers, even though for most, me included, the mere thought of it would conjure up a journey of adventure and excitement to a wild, scarcely populated part of Europe. The train would depart Stockholm just before 6pm, chugging along the eastern coast of Sweden as we slept, before waking up with the momentous box-ticking exercise of crossing the Arctic Circle. It would then continue along western Europe’s northernmost railway line across the Norwegian border, reaching the strategic seaport of Narvik some 1,120 km later. A remarkable journey, an adventure most certainly, but perhaps a bit of an endurance test too?
I had flown into Stockholm Arlanda, taken the Arlanda Express train from the airport to Stockholm Central, done my duty of checking out the hotels in the station’s vicinity, all ready for the main event. This was a journey I had longed to experience, even though the customer questionnaires had told a different story. That it was late February and already dark added to the mystique. To hammer home just how committed I was, I would spend that night on the sleeper train to Narvik, then one night in Narvik itself, before returning on the sleeper to Stockholm the following night. That’s 2,240 km of sleeper train in three days, folks! Committed? Maybe it was time for me to be committed!
Why so smug then? It was dark outside and there wouldn’t be much to see as the train headed north. Well, that was true but my colleagues had booked me a compartment and I’d found my lower bunk. If you have never been on a sleeper train in Europe, this was similar to many, a plastic pod with lower bunk and an upper bunk that would pull out from the wall. There was a window with pull down blind, with a small table protruding beneath the window which, with the lid lifted up, doubled as a sink. Toilets and showers were down the corridor, as with most wagons lits. I had with me the autobiography of the late great radio DJ John Peel, a tome he had begun to write before his untimely death whilst on holiday at altitude in the Andes and completed with love by his family. It had been a Christmas present from Mrs C, but with two toddlers at home reading for pleasure had become a thing of the past. Here was my chance to make inroads, a simple pleasure as the train headed into the wintry night. I’d raided the shop at the station and invested in a big bowl of ham salad and a couple of cans of local beer. Yes indeed, simple pleasures and splendid isolation. A few hours of peace, quiet and a little bit of “me time” before waking up in a land of wilderness beyond the Arctic Circle.
As we pulled out of Stockholm Central my idyll was broken. There was a knock on the compartment door. It wasn’t the guard. The chap politely introduced himself as Ahmed. He didn’t speak English, I don’t speak Persian, but we managed a pleasant conversation in German in which he dropped the bombshell that he had booked the top bunk. I hadn’t reckoned with this scenario. Now maybe I’m being a bit of a diva here, but I had mistakenly thought my colleagues had booked me a whole compartment, not a bloody bed! The older you get (and I was mid-30s at that time), the less appealing it becomes to share your living space, let alone sleeping space with a complete stranger. Neither did it seem particularly appealing or fair to scoff my ham salad and swig my way through a couple of cans of lager in front of my unexpected travelling companion, who had already made himself comfortable in the pull-out contraption beneath the ceiling. I retired instead to the seating carriages, eventually creeping into bed for a restless night, with the train’s soothing rhythms jolted by my room-mate’s snores. Using the term ‘sleeper’ for this kind of train is, for me at least, a misnomer.
Who needs sleep anyway?! At around 7am we reached Boden, a rail junction about 50 miles away from the Arctic Circle, where the train halted for a while. There was snow on the ground and I stretched my legs in the icy early morn, not straying too far from the train, lest it depart without me, leaving me waiting hours for the next one in the freezing cold.
We duly crossed the Arctic Circle (tick!) and approached Kiruna in Swedish Lapland, where I had decided to break my journey for around four hours. Our customers did this very thing as part of their tour, albeit during the summer months. Kiruna is a working town with iron ore mines dominating the local economy. The customers were generally whisked away from industrial Kiruna to visit the village of Jukkasjärvi to meet reindeer and have lunch (hopefully not reindeer sandwiches) in a Sami community. In winter though Kiruna is a completely different beast, with the slag heaps, a scene so familiar from my youth in the coalfields, covered in a thick layer of glistening white snow and nearby Jukkasjärvi boasting a temporary building that would excite quite a few of you, I would guess.
The Ice Hotel! Yes, a hotel sculpted from blocks of ice. Not the kind of thing you get to see every day! Now, as part of my job I’ve had the pleasure of being shown round hundreds of hotels by keen and exuberant Sales Managers, often viewing identikit rooms with essentially the same features and facilities. This was to be a hotel show-round with a difference. The rooms were all different, all works of art, glistening and beautifully carved into the ice. The Ice Bar was something else too, but having been led to the icy counter sadly there was no time to sample the wares as my guide, Gunnar, was keen to get me back to Kiruna. I was told that a different construction was created every year for the winter season as the hotel melts when the summer arrives. Adjacent to the cold comfort of the Ice Hotel is a permanent structure with extra rooms for those not wishing to sleep in an animal skin on a bed of ice, plus a renowned restaurant to warm your hearts and fill your stomachs with local produce. In a region so harsh in climate they really do make the best of what manages to grow.
Back in Kiruna, the church (kyrka) is one of Sweden’s largest wooden buildings and well worth a visit. Having checked out the small number of hotels that might be suitable for future customers, I rejoined the next train to Narvik. This line, the Ofotbanen, is the northernmost in western Europe and was opened way back in 1903 specifically to enable the rich pickings of iron ore from Kiruna to reach an ice-free seaport across the Norwegian border at Narvik. It’s hard to believe that, prior to the railway, reindeer were used to make this epic journey. It’s also impossible to imagine the hardships suffered by those brave souls who built this railway through some of Europe’s most hostile terrain and in severe winters. In the strange twilight of a Swedish Lapland emerging from winter’s darkest depths, the train skirted the vast shoreline of the Torneträsk lake, dropping off skiers and adventurers at Abisko and Björkliden, now very much synonymous with Northern Lights seekers through the winter months. What followed was an amazing snowbound climb up to the mountain resort of Riksgrensen, the last stop before the Norwegian border (its name translates as ‘border of the realm’), before twisting and turning on a descent to the alluring Rombaksfjord and finally the Ofotfjord and our journey’s end, Narvik.
I would highly recommend SJ’s (Statens Järnvägar, Sweden’s state railway) night train beyond the Arctic Circle for anyone looking for an adventure but without luxury. It’s certainly a great journey. However, for anyone with a little more time to spend, there are other ways of reaching Narvik from Stockholm by train, splitting the journey, discovering more and seeing everything in daylight.
Narvik itself isn’t the centre of the universe, but has enough interest to spend a day or two, especially if you are a winter sports enthusiast. Aside from its main raison d’être as an industrial port, exporting the iron ore mined in Kiruna and sent across the mountains on the very route I had just ridden, the Narvikfjellet’s slopes are accessed in minutes using the lifts close to Narvik’s town centre. For those seeking less active experiences, the Museum Nord is based in the former NSB (Norwegian Railway) offices and traces the history of the Ofoten Railway, the remarkable navvies who built it against the odds and the development of Narvik as an ice-free harbour. Narvik’s other major museum, the War Museum, homes in on the biggest land and sea battle of World War II, which took place between April and June 1940 between the Nazi and Allied forces, events that have scarred local memories to this day.
After my night in one of Narvik’s small supply of comfortable hotels I rejoined the sleeper train to Stockholm the following afternoon, I have to admit with a certain amount of trepidation. Departing again in that strange twilight at around 3.15pm, I found my sleeper compartment, settled onto my bottom bunk and waited for the inevitable arrival of my as yet unknown room-buddy for the night. Right on time the train trundled away from Narvik, with no takers for the top bunk. Get in! Out came the John Peel autobiography, a pre-packed sandwich and a tin of Norwegian beer. The small joys of a life on the road (sorry, rails).
As we slowly made our way through the snow towards Sweden I wandered carefree along the train to find the best spot from which to take in the increasingly snowbound scenery before darkness fell, at which point I would retire to my cabin for a restful evening. At Riksgrensen, the first station in Sweden, a platoon of Swedish national servicemen boarded the train. Returning to my compartment, I was hit by a double whammy. I hadn’t noticed that there were actually two pull-out berths above my bottom bunk. And they were both occupied. On the bunk directly above me, just inches from my nose, wriggled a lad in khaki with the worst cold in Scandinavia. On the top bunk another khaki clad youth gave me a surly stare, then continued to strum ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis on his acoustic guitar. The sleeper train chugged and juddered, my near neighbour coughed and spluttered, the surly youth strummed and muttered. It was the longest night of my travelling life.