Island Railways north of Europe

By Peter Bowyer

These notes were written in August 1993 after a voyage in July 1993 andwere revised in July 2001 after reading some notes from Eljas Pölhö. Therailways are described in a roughly north-south order and, where appropriate,notes from the 1993 voyage are included.

Zemlya Frantsa Iosifa, GUS (Franz Josef Land)

Bukhta Tikhaya, Ostrov Gukera (Tikhaya Bay/Hooker Island) (80.20N 52.50E)

The base was used by several scientific expeditions in the area.  TheRussians gained control in 1926 and before World War II established apermanent base. They only recently ceased to keep staff there. However,two modern buildings can be hired out to interested bodies even now.

An older hanger exists, with two Russian tractors in attendance (oneby Stalinski). From this a 600 mm line descends to the sea and was usedto bring in stores, and, rumour has it, to tow a seaplane out of the sea‑ the hanger supports this theory. Unfortunately the hanger is fullof a huge ice block 30m x 30m x 10m so one cannot see if there is anythingat the upper end of the line.

Mys Flora, Ostrov Nortbrok (Cape Flora, Northbrook Island) (79.58N 50.40E)

Behind (northwards from) the shore the cliffs rise c. 360m. About halfwayup (180m) is a band of coal; this was mined by a party led by Zieglerwhich had to overwinter (twice) 1903‑05 unexpectedly after theirship sank in Teplitz Bay by Rudolph Island (some 200 km away). I suspectthat they moved here as this is the point at which or past which mostexpeditions call.

I was not able to determine which part had been mined though there appearedto be coal just below the lava at about the right height. This band ofcoal extends over a considerable horizontal distance. An Austrian groupthere also reports finding no traces of the area used. The likelihoodof there ever having been a railway is low.


Svalbard (Spitsbergen)

Around 35 mines have operated in this Archipelago, some for iron andother metals, the majority for coal. Less than a century of exploitationhas resulted in a complex story. It starts with several small operationsand finishes with two major operators who lease sites to one another.

With the Treaty of Svalbard, ratified in 1925, the sovereignty of thearchipelago passed to Norway but all signatories obtained equal rightsto establish mining claims. Currently the concessions are in the handsof just a few companies.

Northern Exploration Company, New London or Camp Mansfield, Blomstrandhalvøya(79.58N 12.04E)

The site is located in the northern side of Kongsfjorden.

This, one of three sites opened by this company which was formed in 1910,was employing 40 workers by 1911. The product was marble. A 2 foot gaugerailway was constructed between the quarry and quay. The operation didnot last long as the product cracked and broke when transported to warmerclimes. This site was closed in 1913 and the equipment moved to Bellsund,which in its turn closed in 1919.

The company ceased production in 1926, became insolvent in 1929 and wastaken over by the Norwegian government in 1932.

We saw the site but did not land.

King’s Bay Kull Kompani A/S, Ny Ålesund (79.57N 11.56E)

Set up in 1916 on the south side of Kongsfjorden this company, whichstill exists, founded the village and mine. The mine entrance is someway north‑east of the village.

The mine is unusual for Svalbard in that the seams are not horizontaland high up a mountain, but twisted and below sea‑level. Methanegathers easily and there have been several accidents which culminatedin the closure of the mine in 1962. Since then the majority of the externalrails have been lifted (leaving the sleepers) and the mine entrances sealed.The settlement remains as a scientific centre and the company operatesthe village and organises flights to it.

One locomotive ‑ and a train of an increasing number of skips ‑is preserved in an Arctic tern colony by the pier. Two flat trucks standon the track in the village. There is a museum, and three other steamlocomotives and two steam cranes can be identified in the photographson show there. The locomotives appear to be an 0‑8‑0T, a 2‑4‑0Tand an 0‑4‑0T.

900 mm (there are claims of it being 891 mm, but that is not the gaugewhich I measured)

2                                              0‑4‑0WT               Borsig                                                   displayed

Trust Arktikugol, Pyramiden (78.44N 16.21E)

This is situated on the inner reaches of Billefjorden on a northern branchof the Isfjord.

The mine was started by the Swedes. It became part of "SpetsbergenSvenska Kolfält" in 1917 and was sold firstly to the Russians in1926 (Russky Grumant) and in 1931 to its present owners.

Coal production continues here. Almost certainly a railway system remainsin use. It is reported that horses were used up till 1955 and batterylocomotives since.

This site was not visited.

?, Billefjord

Opposite Pyramiden across the fjord are the remains of a mine (tunnelentrance, rails and building)

The site was not visited.

?, Tempelfjord

In the most easterly part of Isfjord are the remains of a mine (rails,funicular and mine entrance).

The site was not visited.

Spitzbergen Coal & Trading Co., Advent City, Revneset (78.18N 15.35E)

This site lies opposite Longyearbyen on the Adventfjorden, a southernbranch of the Isfjord.

Originally owned by the "Bergen Spitzbergen Kolgrube Kompani",it was sold to the above Sheffield company in 1906.

Production ceased shortly afterwards, and the equipment was transferredto Hiorthamn.

Hiorthamn (now renamed Moskushamn) (78.15N 15.35E)

There seem to conflicting histories for this site, or it is confusedwith the near-by Revneset. My interpretation is that it was operated bythe "Spitsbergen Coal and Trading Company Ltd" 1904-8, and thenby "A/S De Borske Kulfeter Spitsbergen" 1917-21 and experimentalmining till 1960. It had a 2 ft or 600 mm line 4.4 km long and accessto the mine was by funicular from the valley floor. The site is visiblefrom Longyearbyen, but I did not visit it.

Store Norske Spitzbergen Kullkompani A/S, Longyearbyen (78.14N 15.40E- 78.08N 15.52E)

By far the largest of the settlements is Longyearbyen with about 20 kmof road between the extremities, both N ‑ S and E ‑ W.

After some very small workings in the area, the "Trondheim‑SpitsbergenKullkompani" was founded in 1901. A sell‑out to the Americansstarted in 1904, culminating in the formation of the Arctic Coal Companyin 1906 with J. M. Longyear as president. The company set up LongyearCity, the present Longyearbyen, on the west side of Adventfjorden. Theoperation was transferred to the present company which was set up by theNorwegians in 1916.

A feature of these workings is that after a mine is opened it has a fixedworking life, by the time that it is closed another is in production,and so on.

The mines ceased production between 1941‑46 as a result of WorldWar II and, in common with those at Sveagruva, were shelled by the warshipsTirpitz and Scharnhorst in September 1943. A visitor in the winter of1950 recalls one of the mines still burning from this attack and the rattlingof the aerial ropeways as being straight out of Danté´s Inferno.

Most, if not all, of the mines had a man‑carrying funicular connectionto the valley floor as well as an aerial ropeway to take the coal awayfrom the mine locations some 200 m up the side of the valley. I was notable to determine if rail was still used in the two working mines. Thebooks noted below contain the following, sometimes slightly different,information:

Mine 1 1906‑39                     Photos seem to show firstlya double‑track 600 mm line to a quay not far away and later botha funicular and an aerial ropeway.

From 1920                              Electric trolley locomotives byJeffrey & General Electric. Closed 1920‑39 due to an explosion,and finally in 1958.

Mine 2 1913‑41                     This is the mine which burntfrom 1943 till 1962. Photographs show a railway line coming out.

Mine 2A 1947‑52                  Closed due to explosion.

Mine 2B 1960‑64                   Fairly limited life span.

Mine 3 1969‑                         This mine is near the airfieldat Hotellneset, adjacent to the present stocking yard. It continues inproduction.

Mine 4 1954‑70                     Photos show rail workings inside.

Mine 5 1958‑72                     (not in full production forall this time) The was the first mine to be opened outside Longyear valley,in Endalen. Photos show a single inclined plane for transport of personnel.

Mine 6 1965‑81                     Located in Todalen. Photos showan incline up to the mine, which need not be a rail dependant one.

Mine 7 1965‑                         Located in Botterdalen. Photosshow conveyor belts in the mine. Reopened in 1981 after a period out ofuse, and still in production.

The area is dominated by the remains of the aerial ropeways, linkingthe mines to the pier. These joined at "Taubanesentralen" andclosed in 1987. They were partially dismantled in 1988. All coal is nowtaken by lorry to Hotelneset for sorting and transfer to freighters.

At the museum there is:

900 mm (also quoted as 891 mm)

                                                4wWE                                                                       displayed

Trust Arktikugol, Grumantbyen (78.11N 15.08E)

The mine is situated on the Isfjorden. west of Longyearbyen. It was operatedby the "Anglo Russian Grumant Company" from 1920-26, passedto "Sojusljesprom" in 1931 and was then operated by the presentowners 1932-41 and 1947-61.

The mine sent its coal from Colesbukta, to which it was connected byrailway. This settlement is now closed.

We passed and saw no sign of activity, or railway.

Trust Arktikugol, Barentsburg (78.04N  14.15E)

The site lies in the Grønfjorden near the mouth of the Isfjorden.

Experimental mining started in 1900. The "N.V. Nederlandsche SpitzbergenCompagnie (Nespico)" operated here 1921-32 and sold out to the Russians,who operated the mine 1932-41 and again from 1947. It is reported thatthe use of rail ceased in mines 1 and 5 in the mid 1980s. Now road trucksbring coal from a mine (Finneset) about 2 km south while the miners goto work at another site 2 km north. There is an active railway behindthe pier between the two. Additionally the principle mine entrance liesabove the settlement and a ventilation drift with a 600 mm access inclineto the north. My interpretation is that the at majority of the coal ismoved by conveyor and lorry, but supplies for maintenance are taken inby rail, and some coal may be brought out that way.

The railway in the settlement runs totally in a covered way (bar onecovered level crossing). There is a pit‑prop yard at the south endand a workshops at the north, while a drift comes in midway, which isthe area of the principal installations. Coal can be tipped and conveyedto the stock pile at that point. A battery charging point is adjacent.

Locomotives seen were:

600 mm

 3                                             4w+4wBE

 4                                             4w+4wBE

 5                                             4w+4wBE

12                                            4wBE

14                                            4w+4wBE

The locomotives normally run as permanently coupled pairs, but it wouldnot be too difficult to separate them and maybe this is what happenedto number 12.

The light is not too good within the shelter but the plate on locomotive14 appeared to be: STEKT 0B03 CEKU__ BTO_A

Isfjord Radio (78.04N 13.40E)

The site is located on the south side of the Isfjord where it runs intothe Atlantic. A 300 m long manually operated line served the radio stationfrom about 1933 till about 1960.

We did not visit the site and passed by too far away to distinguish anyfeatures.

Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani A/S, Sveagruva (77.54N 16.44E)

The mine is situated in the inner reaches of van Mijenfjorden and isabout 35 km from the nearest outpost of Longyearbyen; some 51 km via thehiking trail. Operated by the Swedish "Aktiebolaget SpetsbergensSvenska Kolfält" 1916-21 and "Svenska Stenkols AB, Spitsbergen"1921-25, this mine was sold to the Norwegians. It closed during WorldWar II but reopened 1947 to close again in 1949. Reopened in 1969 it isnow on care and maintenance again. The story seems to be that SNSK areonce more investigating reopening the mine, possibly with a road fromLongyearbyen.

Steam locomotives were used there. The maps show quite a long railwayline.

We did not visit the site.

Northern Exploration Company, Kamp Martin, Bellsund (77.47N 13.59E)

Situated in van Mijenfjorden this was another Mansfield’s "NorthernExploration Company" site, see Blomstrandhalvøya. Further along thecoast is Camp Morton (77.48 N 14.58E), it is not known if a railway wasestablished there.

Neither site was visited.

Hopen Island (76.30N 25.00E)

A narrow gauge, human powered, line 300 metres long serves or servedthe radio or weather station on the island.

When we passed, on the wrong side of the island, visibility was downto a few hundred metres and the sea was full of ice-flows. No observationwas made.


Bjørnøya (Bear Island)

Bjørnøen A/S, Tunheim (74.29N 19.18E)

This mine was set up by German interests in 1917. The railway opened1919 and closed in 1925. Alistair Maclean dramatised it in the novel "BearIsland". We did not land there due to the weather conditions butsaw some video made a month before. On the beach is one of the two locomotiveswhich certainly made it there. A third one was intended, but may neverhave been delivered. This site is about half way down the east coast whilethe scientific and meterological base is on the north.

1000 mm

                                                0‑4‑0WT               Borsig                            7392              1909

                                                0-4-0T                    Ljunggrens                        34              1919

                                                0-4-0T                    Ljunggrens                        35              1919          not delivered?

Closing remarks

Acknowledgments are made to the National Trust of Scotland for organisingthe cruise which has led to these notes.

Anyone wishing to explore these northern sites, should note that awayfrom the settlements care should be taken not to cause polar bears toattack. You should have a rifle at the ready but, should you shoot a bear,you will later have to justify the action in a court of law or pay a hugepenalty.

Further reading

Guide to Spitsbergen, Andreas Umbreit, Bradt Publications, 1991 ISBN0 946983 33 X
Store Norske ‑75 år‑ Stoe Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani A/S,1991
A Short History of Svalbard, Thor B. Arlov, Norsk Polarinstitutt, Oslo1989 ISBN 82‑90307‑55‑1
Pa Sporet Nr. 35 Desember 1982 ‑ 14. årgang
Pa Sporet Nr. 36 Mars 1983 ‑ 15. årgang