Kiruna is renowned as a ‘Can Do’ culture. It’s said that the reason there’s a rocket launching site (Esrange) nearby is the combination of empty land (handy when you don’t know where the rocket will land – and yes, it happens) and people around who can make things work.
Esrange is like a model from a ‘Wallace and Grommit’ cartoon, all shiny red buttons and formica surfaces, nothing technologically flashy in sight. This, we were told, is because space activity is so expensive that you don’t try anything new and fancy unless you have to. And when things stall, you need people with a positive, practical, can-do attitude. The launching shed (and yes, it is a shed) looks like a fairground helter skelter, with a trapdoor roof that opens (think, ‘A Grand Day Out’), and some rail tracks to push the rocket into place. They needed a system to get the rocket into place, and Kiruna is a town that famously built a railway track to the Norwegian coast in 1903, through extremely difficult terrain. People here know a thing or two about rail tracks, so it was obvious that the engineers would think of using them to solve the problem of how to move the heavyweight rocket. Can Do, it’s what makes the town tick.
Until now, when we must officially declare that a Can Not Do culture has crept into town. Or at least, even worse, a Will Not Do culture. And shamefully this culture has come to Kiruna through, of all people, the railway company.
This week, all rail services have been suspended between Boden (350 km south of Kiruna) and Narvik (Norwegian coast). That famous railway, built in very tough conditions by contracted ‘rallare’ (navvies) in the early 1900s, which has carried iron ore from the mine to the coast for over a hundred years, and passengers since 1910 – that railway, it now appears, cannot function when the temperature drops below minus 30 degrees celsius.
This means that our French guests, who left us for a few days in Abisko (a magnet for tourists, because of the national park, and the sky station) have been stranded there, and this morning had to pay for a taxi to come and collect them. Some Chinese tourists they met there had missed their flight to Stockholm, and a connecting flight to China. They’d bought a return ticket to Abisko in good faith, believing that a company that sold you such a ticket would have some kind of responsibility to bring them back. Apparently not.
‘Ah,’ you say, ‘but these things happen.’ Indeed this is just what our guests said when they arrived this morning, a good deal poorer for the experience. After all, who knows what happens to mechanisms at minus 30 degrees? Well let me tell you, we know, because it was minus 30 degrees last winter and the trains continued to run.
So – you’re thinking – a train broke down, ice on the tracks, points failing to work, something like that – it happens. But on this occasion it hadn’t happened; the rail company just decided to stop running the trains. Not only that, they also chose not to provide an alternative bus service, which they would normally do if a train broke down. The reason for this was the possible danger to passengers or their staff if a train or bus did break down.
You’re thinking, well – minus 35 degrees must be tough for vehicles too, and perhaps the road was, um, very cold, so hard to drive on? As it happens, we drove down the very same road yesterday, on a day when all the trains and buses were cancelled, and all we noticed was that the inside of the car took a while to warm up. Our other guests were also out driving in a hire car – unprofessional drivers with no experience of ‘arctic conditions’ – and they had no trouble at all with driving in minus 35 degrees.
No, the truth is that at this time of year the trains and buses are only half full, and the company (Sweden’s national rail company, SJ) saw a get-out clause (in a contract to provide services all year round) which allowed them to suspend services and save themselves a bit of money.
So Kiruna is now the town that can’t provide a rail or bus service in cold conditions. No Can Do – it’s very sad.