"Powellite" Bagnall 3ft gauge locomotive at Black Sands, Victoria - 1938. Photograph: P.G. Dow

27 July, 2010

Gamle Vosseban - the old Voss railway Sunday 25 July

The old Voss railway is a preserved standard gauge line which runs from Garnes to Midttun, an 18km stretch through a wide variety of scenery. It was part of the mainline from Bergen to Oslo, until replaced by a long tunnel, which shortened a very convoluted entry for the railway into Bergen. The railway first opened in 1883, and at that time it terminated at Voss, and was of 3ft 6in gauge. It was converted to standard gauge in 1904, as part of the process to extend over the mountainous country to link with Oslo. The route it takes is difficult and their are several tunnels in the preserved section.

Getting to the railway by public transport is a little tricky, bus to Garnes should be the most straightforward way, but I find the Bergen bus system to be almost opaque to navigate, and the Bergen bus station a place to avoid if at all possible. The alternative, which I took is to take the normal train to Arna, walk to the old Arna station (on the preserved line), then travel to Midttun, back to Garnes, then back to Arna, then take the normal train back to Bergen. This was the course I adopted. There was still the difficulty of finding old Arna station after walking out of new Arna station. It is by no means obvious where it is, nor is there anyone to ask, not even any shops to walk into to ask directions. The only information I had was that it was 300 metres north-east of the new station. So using a compass I walked north-east in the hope of finding something resembling a railway and/or a station. I didn't, but I was walking along a road heading north east. Fortunately I found a woman pushing a pram with a baby, so mustering my best Norwegian I asked where is the old Arna station for Gamle Vosseban. She said it's up there pointing up the road I was walking, and sure enough it was! The railway was pretty well hidden from view behind grass and other vegetation.

Old Arna station did not present a vary prepossessing appearance. It looked in need of painting, and there were weeds and overgrown vegetation about. The only information about the railway was a 2009 brochure attached behind a window. There were a couple of blokes inside who appeared to be cooking something, but they were not selling tickets, nor did they say hello.

Anyway a small crowd of potential passengers gathered, and I took up a spot to photograph the train when it came into view. A man beside me who had the same idea said something to me in Norwegian (I think) and I said "jeg er ikke Norsk, jeg snakke litt Norsk" (I am not Norwegian, I speak little Norwegian). And he said in broken English that he wasn't either, that he was German. So my mind was racing and I said "Sind sie ein Eisebahnfreunde?" (Are you a railway enthusiast?). At least my German was good enough for him to understand, and he replied in German, which I could not understand. So he explained in very broken English (but infinitely better than my spoken German or Norwegian) that he was, but he did not have a serious detailed knowledge.

After that interesting diversion the train came into view. It was a rather attractive, and very Norwegian looking, mainline 4-6-0 tender loco hauling about four traditional teak bodied Norwegian mainline passenger cars. We got on board and had a very pleasant trip to Midttun, where there was a platform but no station building. Only about ten minutes was spent here while the loco ran round the train, and hauled it tender first back to Garnes. In both directions the speed was extremely leisurely, certainly not the sort of speed the loco would have worked in it's heyday.

While we were boarding at Arna I noticed the two blokes who were in the station at Arna also got on board, with a lot of equipment, and it soon became apparent what they were up to. Shortly after leaving Arna they came down the train pushing a trolley, selling coffee and waffles. Large, petal-shaped waffles with jam, and sometimes cream as well, are a great favourite in Norwey.

We then spent 70 minutes at Garnes before the train made it's second and last trip for the day back to Midttun. The set up at Garnes is quite good, with a lot of effort having been made to recreate the pre-first world war period, with for example, a goods shed with a wide variety of goods of the era, a stuffed goods shed attendant behind an iron grill where he attended to customers, and his office set up as it would have been at the time.

Another interesting feature of the ride was that there was a theatre group of three actors, two women and a man, walking down the train hamming it up with the passengers. The women were dressed as they would have been 100 years ago, and the bloke was dressed up in full Norwegian State Railway (NSB) uniform of the same period, and he had a very impressive looking handle-bar moustache.

Back to the modern railways, the Bergen to Arna train service is a rather peculiar local service. It runs hourly on Sundays, and more frequently on other days. It is a distance of about 9km, and there are only two stations, Bergen and Arna. The reason there are only two stations is that the railway takes a direct line between the two places through a tunnel (part of the mainline to Oslo). It goes straight through a mountain, and provides the fastest route between the two places, as the roads all take a great way round to avoid the mountain.

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