The railways of Sweden are a tale of extremes, of development and innovation. Here is their story…
In 1798, an English mining engineer, Thomas Stawford, designed and built Sweden’s first railway, a horse-drawn line running a few miles between a coal mine and the port of Höganäs. In the years that followed, more lines of this nature were built, but the first passenger and commercial goods railways weren’t opened until 1849 and 1850, with steam traction being introduced in 1856.
It was in England that Sweden’s steam locomotive history really began; at the Rainhill trials of 1829. Swede, John Ericsson, who invented the screw propeller, participated in the trials with his British-built locomotive, “Novelty.” Although it did not finish, it received high acclaim, and this encouraged the Swedes to build their own locomotives. The first Swedish-built steam locomotive (unfortunately not preserved) was delivered in 1853 by Theofron Munktell, the owner of an engineering company in Eskilstuna (now known as Volvo-BM) to Norbergs Jernväg. Large-scale locomotive production started in the 1860s with notable names as Nydqvist & Holm (NOHAB) and AB Atlas; the latter now involved with rock-drilling equipment as Atlas-Copco.
In 1845, Adolf Eugene von Rosen received royal permission to build a railway system through Sweden, and in 1854 parliament resolved that the state itself should build and operate the main railway lines. Smaller private companies were also allowed to build and operate their own systems, though many of these had the characteristics of the main lines. During the 1940s, SJ took over many of these private lines, with the notable exception of the TGOJ, hauling iron ore and steel from Grängesberg to Oxelösund on the Baltic coast.
Two months after the parliamentary resolution in 1854, Col. Nils Ericson was assigned to build a line to link Stockholm with Göteborg and with Malmö. The first parts were opened in 1856. Stockholm Central station was opened in 1871, and many bridges and tunnels were required for the north-south rail link there. One tunnel was blasted through a hill in the south of the city, one of the very first to be excavated by dynamite blasting, invented by Alfred Nobel!
SJ was officially established in 1856. Locomotives were purchased from England, and carriages from Germany and England. The first rail ferry was put into service in 1892 between Helsingør and Helsingborg. Right from the beginning, the decision was made to adopt the standard gauge of 1435mm, although some companies opted for a narrow gauge of three Swedish feet – 891mm! One of these, the Roslagsbanan is still in corporate service, having pioneered electrification in 1895, taken over by SJ and transferred to Stockholm Transport in 1972. There were many other gauges also, 600mm and 1067mm being the most common.
Mainstream electrification in Sweden started in 1905, with some testing in the Stockholm area. By 1915, the route from Kiruna to Narvik (the latter in Norway) had been electrified. The 129km route was so successful (despite its northern extremity and polar weather conditions) that the electrification was soon extended to Luleå, and very quickly in other parts of the country. By 1926, the Stockholm to Göteborg route was electrified, and the main lines in the south were electrified during the 1930s and in the north in the 1940s. This became Europe’s longest electrified railway (at that time), 2,022km from Trelleborg in the south to Riksgränsen on the Norwegian border in the north. SJ uses single-phase alternating current, at 16⅔Hz, 16kV.
Feeder buses were an important feature that started in 1911, and at one time SJ’s bus operation was the second largest in the country. SJ also had a freight forwarding company, ASG, who although still in business, are no longer owned by SJ. (ASG is now a part of DHL.)
Railway Enthusiasts formed SJK – The Swedish Railway Club in 1958, and with roundly 5,000 members, has become one of Europe’s largest rail organisations. The first ‘museum train’ was put into operation in 1961 at Södertälje, and this still runs, but now between Mariefred and Läggesta. SJ has always had preservation in mind, and as far back as 1906, items were collected for memorabilia. The first museum was opened in 1915, but it was not until 1945 that space was found at Stockholm for the national collection, which has subsequently moved to its present location at Gävle.
During Electrification of the 1920s and 1930s, the main locomotive type was the ‘D’ class. These were put into service from 1925, but by the late 1930s, higher speeds were permitted along the routes to Göteborg and Malmö, and in 1942, the first ‘F’ class locomotives were put into service. For SJ’s 100th anniversary, a new locomotive was developed, the ‘Ra’ class. Next, SJ and ASEA experimented with the ‘Rb’ class, which in turn led to the introduction of the ‘Rc’ series in 1967. These were the first thyristor controlled electric locomotives built in any quantity, and there are over 300 of them. The design as been so successful that derivatives are also operating in Austria, Norway, Iran, and the United States. Development of the ‘D’ series has also been profound, accumulating with the ‘Dm3’ class, comprising three ‘D’ units coupled together in a semi-permanent manner. These massive 1-D+D+D-1 locomotives were used to haul the 5,200t Iron Ore trains across Lapland, mainly from Kiruna to Narvik. Today, they have given way to the IORE locomotives with their longer and heavier ore trains.
Gasoline powered locomotives first appeared in 1926; Swedish-built with a Fordson engine and chain drive. Hydraulic transmission was introduced in 1935, shortly before the 1938 introduction of the Diesel powered locomotive. However, it wasn’t until the 1950s that large-scale use of Diesels was started. In 1949, Sweden acquired two diesel electric locomotives from England, but in the early 1950s, 50 diesel hydraulic locomotives were delivered from West Germany. Subsequent deliveries of diesel locomotives – in the main – have been from MaK, ASJ and NOHAB.
Road buses converted to rail buses were introduced in the 1920s, but they could only be ‘driven’ one way! In 1932, SJ introduced the first two-way drive railbus, seating only 14 passengers. Gradually, railbuses have got bigger, and the Fiat-designed ‘Y1’ class buses are over 24 metres in length!
SJ introduced ATC in 1976, developed in connection with Sweden’s LM Ericsson and Standard Radio. ATC exists now, in many countries, but SJ’s is so advanced that replacing it now with a European standard seems like a backward step!
During the 1970s, SJ and ASEA developed what is now known as the X2000, an express passenger train with a tilting facility, permitting higher speeds, safely, on curves. The time savings made by these trains brought many customers back to the railways; the Stockholm to Sundsvall journey now taking only 4 hours – one hour less than with conventional rolling stock.
To find out more about the railways of Sweden, there are many books and videos, though text and narration is usually in Swedish. The most notable names are SJK, TNF (Trafik-Nostalgiska Förlaget), and Stenvalls (for books) and LEG and Teknikarv (for videos). Membership of the Scandinavian Railways Society is especially useful for those who are not fluent in the Swedish language. AJF will also answer any enquiries about the Swedish railways, and if we do not know an answer, there is a good chance that we can find someone who does.