We were intrigued to read a recent account in an English newspaper of a journey along ‘the most northerly railway in the world.’ The Ofoten railway from Kiruna in Sweden to Narvik in Norway is certainly way up north - even beyond the Arctic Circle. And it is without doubt one of the most remarkable train journeys anywhere in Europe. Indeed we have written about the trip in hidden europe and more recently in a compendium of essays published by Time Out Guides entitled Great Train Journeys of the World.
Yet, for all its merits, the Ofoten railway is certainly not the most northerly in the world, nor even the most northerly in Europe. There are three passenger trains every day from Moscow and St Petersburg to the Russian port of Murmansk which at 69 degrees north is closer to the Pole than anywhere on the Ofoten line. But there is a branch line from Murmansk to Nikel that goes even further north, and we think that Zapoliarna station on that route is the most northerly railway station in Europe with a regular scheduled train service. It is served by a once daily train from Murmansk to Nikel and return. Quite likely the station’s record-breaking status is recognised by the Russian Railways - how else could you explain why the daily train to Murmansk stops at Zapoliarna for 2 hours and 38 minutes?
Of course there are other railways in Europe which are even further north than the Murmansk to Nikel route - like the iron ore railway at Kirkenes or several mineral railways in the Svalbard archipelago - but none we think with regular passenger services. There a rail line that leaves the Murmansk to Nikel route at Luostari and runs north to Pechenga, but that, as far as we know, has no regular passenger trains. If it did, it would accord to Pechenga the distinction of having Europe's (and indeed the world's) most northerly railway station still in use for passenger services. So we'd love a local report from Pechenga, but for the moment we stick with Zapoliarna for the European record.
In hidden europe 15 we featured the most northerly train in the world, located at nearly 79 degrees north in Ny Alesund (Svalbard). But the train, which was once used to transport coal from the local mine, has not moved for over forty years, and stands rather forlorn on an abandoned stretch of track.
A lot of detail, to be sure, but underpinning all this is the sad fact that many writers just copy facts without checking them. We keep on stumbling across myths that get carried forward from one guide book to another. And one of the old favourites is the tale about the railway to Narvik. The only record we can see that it breaks is that it is the most northerly rail route in Sweden. But why do so many folk get it wrong? We can only assume that they don't have access to decent maps. And train timetables too of course.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries