IIt rarely happens that I voluntarily do without the comfort of a real bed on a night train journey. But a midsummer foray into Norway’s Arctic Circle is one of those rare occasions when a night watch at a regular site really fits the mood of the moment.
Some trains are perfect for meditating, and the night train from Trondheim to Bodø is sure to provide hours of gentle musing or focused thought. There’s no big drama here. The subdued beauty of the Nordlandsbanen (Nordland Railway) doesn’t require breakneck concentration. Just sit back and watch the rocks and skerries go by, watch the trees get smaller as you head north and let communities like Majavatn, Mosjøen and Mo i Rana drift away at night.
If you are lucky enough to be on a fairly empty train, a night of monastic tranquility awaits. There is only the hint of twilight. Believe me. It’s a beautiful way to mark the solstice. Pack some atmospheric music and a good book for the slow northbound journey on the 10-hour drive to Bodø.
sunset and dawn
Trondheim is not an easy place to leave. With its atmospheric central area defined by a loop of the River Nid and dominated by one of Scandinavia’s most notable cathedrals, it cannot be rushed. But the sun is slowly setting and the night train to Bodø is ready to depart. It leaves every evening at 23.05.
This is a trip I have taken both day and night. And it’s really worth staying awake to enjoy the silent spectacle of the shifting shadows during a night that subtly darkens but never darkens. On Midsummer’s Day, the sun sets over the Trondheimfjord at 11.30pm as the night train pulls through the ill-named and inevitably much-photographed Hell station. Darkness never comes.
Less than three hours later, as we glide further north through a gentle landscape of fjords and rolling hills, the top of the sun peeks over the horizon for an early sunrise. The appeal of this midsummer voyage is experiencing this solar cycle in a changing landscape where every dip and ripple in the rocky terrain is flattered by low sun angles. There are no large mountain peaks, and even the summit of the Nordlandbahn is at a modest 680 meters above sea level.
The journey runs entirely on Norwegian territory, but since the summer of 2020 this service has been operated north of Trondheim by an offshoot of the Swedish state railways called SJ Nord. There is a choice of day and night services. The night train has standard class seating and sleeping cars. The day train offers standard class and premium class, the latter with generous space and unlimited supply of coffee and mineral water. Both trains have a basic bistro car offering the inevitable mashed meatballs and other light meals. There’s decent beer from a boutique microbrewery in Bodø and half-bottles of French wine at staggeringly high prices.
Beijing or bust
The first train left Trondheim Central Station in the summer of 1882 on the route that today goes to Bodø. Norwegian folklorist and engineer Ole Tobias Olsen intended the railway to run up the coast from Trondheim to Mo i Rana and then run east-north from Sweden and Finland to Russia and China. That first train only went as far as hell 140 years ago, just under 20 miles outside of Trondheim. The expansion of the route to Mo i Rana took another 60 years (achieved in 1942, 18 years after Olsen’s death), by which time all thoughts of a route to Beijing had long since vanished. At the train station in Mo, a beautiful bust of Ole Tobias Olsen honors his status as the father of the Nordland Railway, a route considered one of Norway’s most beautiful inland routes.
Over time, this railway was extended north along the Norwegian coast. Through trains from Trondheim to Bodø – a total of 455 miles – were introduced in 1962 and there are now plans to extend the Nordland Railway to Narvik and Tromsø. The Norwegian Railway Directorate is expected to report on the plan in the summer of 2023. Most passengers on the night train opt for the comfort of a bunk in the two rear carriages of the train. When I traveled, only a handful of people made the end-to-end journey in regular seats. Most passengers made short hops, although it’s hard to understand why anyone really needs to catch a 2:05am train from Grong.
The train crosses the Arctic Circle at around 6:30am, against a backdrop of the most impressive scenery of the entire journey – the gaunt mountain of Saltfjellet to the west, its dark bulk offset by patches of snow even on midsummer’s day. Here, just a few kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, is the highest point of the Nordlandbahn. The arrival in Bodø is on time. I opt for a hearty cup of black coffee and wait for the Hurtigruten onward ship to Lofoten, which is ready to board at lunchtime in Bodø.
An Interrail pass is a good option for this route. A pass that allows five days of travel in a month in Norway and 32 other countries costs £234 with good discounts for youth (up to 27) and seniors (60 and over). The fully flexible one-way standard class fare from Trondheim to Bodø is 1,274 Norwegian kroner (£106). However, there are non-refundable pre-sale tickets that offer savings of up to 50% over regular fares. There are sometimes real bargains along this route. Since Easter, for example, SJ Nord has been offering a one-way ticket from Trondheim to Bodø for just 199 kroner (£17). It only applies to departures on Tuesdays through mid-June. The full range of tickets for SJ Nord connections in Norway can be booked online at entur.no or sj.no.
Nicky Gardner is co-author of Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide. The 17th edition of the book is available from the Guardian Bookshop for £16.52. Shipping costs may apply