The Ofotbanen, also known as the Ofoten Line or Arctic Train, is a railway that runs from the border between Sweden and Norway, so between the villages of Riksgränsen and Bjørnfjell, to the port of Narvik. From Riksgränsen it continues through the wilds of Swedish Lapland under the name of Iron Ore Line (swedish: Malmbanan), until it reaches the Kiruna Iron Ore Mines, the largest in the world.
The Ofotbanen: the legendary Iron Ore Line from Sweden to Norway
The Ofotbanen is one of the most incredible engineering works carried out between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, with the aim of connecting the Kiruna Mines with the port of Narvik, built at the same time as the railway as a shipping port for iron ore.
The Ofoten Line, the Norwegian section of the railway, is 43 km long from Narvik to Riksgränsen. From there the Iron Ore Line continues for over 400km to Boden, a town located 36km southeast of Luleå on the Swedish Gulf of Bothnia coast.
Often the same name indicates the entire line including its two branches, namely the Ofoten Line to the north, and the Main Line Through Upper Norrland from Boden to Luleå, for a total of more than 500km of rail that runs transversely through Swedish Lapland.
The Ofotbanen is single-track and is still used today by the iron ore freight trains of LKAB, the company that owns the Kiruna Mines. But in addition to iron ore, some passenger trains also pass on this line: the Artic Circle Train that goes from Stockholm to Narvik via Kiruna and Abisko and the Arctic Train, a tourist train that runs only the Ofotbanen section, from Narvik at the border.
5 Interesting Facts about Ofotbanen
1. THE MINERS TRAIN ACROSS THE FAR NORTH
The presence of iron ores in Kiruna and the surrounding villages of Svappavaara and Malmberget was discovered in the 17th century. In Svappavaara the first minings began in the mid-17th century while in Kiruna it began only in the 19th century.
The presence of iron ore in the mountains was already known to the Sami long ago and some geographical expeditions confirmed it, but the minings were not started because the location was considered too remote and the climate too harsh.
The train had not yet been invented at that time, so reindeer were used to transport iron ore overland, which was then loaded onto boats and transported across rivers and lakes. In the 19th century, a railway line was built to Kiruna, which initially headed for the Baltic Sea.
During the cold winters the Gulf of Bothnia was blocked by ice that prevented navigation and blocked the iron ore trade. So it was decided to build a railway line up to the ice-free coast of Norway. Despite its latitude and harsh climate, that part of the Norwegian coast is mitigated by the Gulf Stream and therefore free from ice all year round.
And that’s how Ofotbanen and the town of Narvik were born.
2. The Challenging Project for a Railway in the Heart of Lapland
Ofotbanen was initially financed by the British, who were very interested in the mine. Thus in 1882 work began on the railway and the port, and the port town of Victoriahavn was founded, named in honor of the (British) Queen Victoria.
But the works did not go well, and the British company went bankrupt. When the British abandoned the project in 1898, only 8km of railway had been built. It was then that the works on the mine, the railway and the port were taken over by the government of Sweden-Norway (which were one nation at the time). Thousands of workers worked tirelessly in the harsh climate of Northern Norway to complete this marvelous work, which was finished in 1902.
3. The ghost village of Rombaksbotn
The construction of the line was not easy, because most of the work at the time was done by hand and the Arctic landscape and climate made the job particularly difficult. The construction employed over 5,000 workers who moved to the Ofotfjord area. Over 700 of these were housed in a town built for the occasion and called Rombaksbotn. In a short time this desolate place underwent considerable development, and houses for workers were built here, as well as shops, hotels, a police station, and even a bowling alley and a brothel.
Building materials and workers were brought to the construction site via a construction road that ran from Rombaksbotn to the Swedish border, passing through the valley and mountains. This town, however, had a short life, and was abandoned only 5 years later, as soon as the works were finished. It was later destroyed by fire and flood, and now only a few ruins remain.
The old construction road from Björnfjell to Rombaksbotn is called Rallarveien and is today one of the most famous hiking trails in the region. Hikers can walk the stretch from Bjørnfell (15 km long) or from Katterat (7 km long) to visit the remains of the old village of Rombaksbotn. This beautiful hike can be done by reaching Bjørnfell or Katterat stations aboard the scenic Arctic Train from Narvik.
4. Ofotbanen played an important role during WWII
During the Second World War, the Kiruna Mine and the Ofotbanen were of vital importance to Germany: over 70% of the iron used by the German war industry came from this mine. Losing control meant no longer receiving this important supply and, consequently, no longer being able to carry on the war.
Therefore the Germans had to avoid at all costs that the Allies take possession of the Iron Mine of Kiruna, or that they manage to destroy the Ofotbanen. The Germans occupied Narvik by sea, but at the same time the Allies also launched a ferocious naval attack on the German fleet stationed in the town.
What are known as the Narvik Naval Battles lasted 62 days, costing the lives of thousands of men. To protect the railway, Norwegian troops had been deployed from the fjord to Bjørnfjell, a few kilometers from the Swedish border. The battle ended with the defeat of the British, but the port of Narvik was severely damaged, so the mine began exporting its iron ore from the old port of Luleå. The Germans occupied Narvik until the end of the war.
5. Ofotbanen still works (and is one of the most beautiful train journeys in Scandinavia)
The Ofotbanen is still traveled today by about 12 iron hour freight trains that go from the mines of Kiruna to the port of Narvik, just like more than a hundred years ago. Since 1902, the railway has transported over 1 billion tons of iron. They’ve been shipped from Narvik all over the world, and maybe there’s iron from Kiruna in your house too.
If you’re traveling to Narvik or Swedish Lapland, don’t miss the chance to take a train ride along this legendary railway. Since 2020, a tourist train called Arctic Train runs 43km of Ofotbanen from Narvik to the Swedish border, through breathtaking landscapes and stunning views of the fjord and mountains.
The train makes photo stops in the most suggestive places and an audio guide allows you to learn more about the history of the railway. The Arctic Train is also a good way to reach the famous Navvies’ Road (Rallarveien) hiking trail and then return to Narvik by boat (in summer). Prices start from 520 NOK and tickets can be purchased at Narvik Central Station. More info here.
For those traveling on a budget, a good alternative could be to take the Arctic Circle Train, the train of the Swedish Railways that operates the regular passenger service between Narvik and Stockholm. It’s the exact same route, and you can get a ticket from Narvik to the Swedish Border for half the price.
The trip to be made at least once in a lifetime, however, is the entire route of the Arctic Circle Train: this epic night train travels along the entire Iron Ore Line, from Narvik to Kiruna, passing through Abisko, and from there it runs through all of Sweden to Stockholm. Travelers typically depart Stockholm in the late afternoon and arrive in Kiruna the next morning.