Snapshots of Norway’s scenery flashed past the train window – steep rocky cliffs, deep blue fjords, lush green meadows, neatly painted red clapboard houses, snow-sprinkled mountains. I was expecting the Flam Railway, or Flamsbana, to be impressive – it is ranked as one of Europe’s most spectacular rail journeys after all – but we hadn’t even arrived at the start yet.
In most countries this would have been a famous scenic train route, but in Norway this was just the regular track between Bergen to Myrdal. It was hard to even imagine how much more beautiful scenery there could possibly be, but Norway is overflowing with it. So much so that it can be hard to take it all in, but a train trip on the Flam Railway is a good place to start.
About the Flam Railway
The Flam Railway was built in the 1920s – well it was started then at least. The huge engineering challenges involved in building a railway line on such a steep gradient meant it wasn’t finished until 1940. Around 200 men worked on the site at a time and it was tough going.
As well as the line itself, there were 10 stations, 20 tunnels and a bridge to build, and with no heavy machinery to help them back then, each tunnel had to be dug out by hand. It took around 150 man-hours of work to create just one metre of tunnel. The finished line is only 20km long, but travels a huge distance in height from 863 metres at Myrdal to sea level at Flam.
The Flamsbana was mainly used for freight to start with, but when that started to decline it was sold off and it’s now one of Norway’s top tourist attractions with around 600,000 visitors each year. You can find out more about the railway’s history in the free Railway Museum in Flam.
On board the Flam Railway
After leaving the Bergen train, our Flam Railway journey started off at its highest point in Myrdal. Even in May the ground was still covered in a thick layer of snow, so I was glad to see the train already standing on the opposite platform. Smartly painted in dark green with gold lettering, the carriages have a real vintage feel with wood-paneled walls and chrome luggage racks.
But there are mod-cons too, like screens at the end of the carriage to tell you what you’re seeing and about the history of the line. And even more importantly, each carriage has five different brakes, each of which can stop the whole train. Something you’ll be glad to know when you see the steepness of the track. I’d already read up on how the line had been built, but it’s not until you start on the journey that you realise what an amazing feat of engineering it really is.
The track zigzags its way down a gradient of 5.5%, meaning it descends one metre in height for every 18 metres it travels. The gradient wasn’t the only challenge though, the steep rocky cliffs and river gorges didn’t help – the construction team even had to redirect the river through tunnels inside the mountain. And this was all designed and planned on paper, long before computers, in an environment where landslides could wipe out weeks’ worth of work.
The beginning of the route runs through a snowy forest, dotted with red and yellow wooden houses. It passes by the Reinungvatnet mountain lake, which was just starting to thaw after being frozen for months. The track then starts to descend steeply and disappears into the first of many tunnels before stopping at the Kjosfossen waterfall.
The waterfall is over 90 metres tall and according to Scandinavian fokelore, it’s home to mythical creatures called the Huldra. These beautiful siren women bewitched passing men with their song and lured them out into the woods. Keep an eye out for them, as you might spot one or two dancing among the waterfalls (though they only seem to come out on busier train journeys!).
Back on the train again, windows cut into the tunnel walls give you flashes of the view down the valley and across the valley to the sinuous Rallarvegen. The name roughly translates as the ‘navvies road’ and it was originally built as a construction and access road for the railway track works. Today it’s used as a mountain biking track with 21 twists and turns on the way down.
By this point we had descended almost halfway and the snow had completely disappeared, replaced by green fields and cascading waterfalls full of meltwater. At Breikvam the track splits in two so that trains travelling in opposite directions can pass each other. Then towards the end of journey, the gradient smoothes out and the valley starts to open up.
Looking down on the old part of Flam it seemed like a model village, with miniature houses and a tiny wooden church on the riverbank. The newer part of Flam lies further downriver, along the banks of the Sognefjord. This is the end of the line for the Flamsbana train, where the passengers climbed off, slightly dazed from an onslaught of views and colours and dizzy from running from one side of the train to the other so as not to miss anything.
How much does the Flam Railway cost?
Tickets for the Flamsbana cost 360 NOK (£30/€36/$39) one way or 490 NOK (£41/€49/$53) return per adult. Or it’s 180 NOK (£15/€18/$19) single and 244 NOK (£20/€24/$26) return for children aged 4–15 years. You can buy tickets online at the NSB website. Interail/Eurail rail pass holders can get a 30% discount on one-way adult fares – these discounted tickets aren’t available online though so you need to buy them either at a station or by phone.
How long does it take?
The Flåmsbana runs four–ten services in each direction per day, depending on the time of year – see a full timetable here. The journey takes around 50 minutes.
Can I do the Flam Railway in a day from Bergen or Oslo?
You can combine the Flam Railway with a fjord cruise as part of the hugely popular self-guided Norway in a Nutshell day trip from either Bergen or Oslo. You can also take the train independently from Bergen to Flam which takes around three hours each way.
The Norway in a Nutshell trip gets really busy. So a good tip if you are doing the trip independently is to check out the Norway in a Nutshell timetable and avoid the trains they use – we had a carriage almost to ourselves on the Myrdal–Flam route by doing this!
Which direction is best?
We did the journey in both directions and although you see the same scenery, you get a different experience. Travelling downhill from Myrdal–Flam was much smoother and better for taking photos. Travelling uphill from Flam–Myrdal you could feel the train working hard so you get a lot more squealing of brakes and and lurching around. So it depends on which you prefer.