When a railroad was built to connect the major Norwegian cities of Bergen and Oslo, advocates and residents of the more rural region of Sogn saw an opportunity: Why not also construct an additional line that would lead visitors to the gorgeous Sognefjord and allow those who live in the countryside easier access to the rest of Norway? The result – the astonishing Flam Railway – is a man-made wonder where nature steals the show.
The distance between the railway’s starting point of Myrdal and its scenic terminus of Flåm, which gracefully rests on the edge of a fjord, was a mere 12 miles. But the incline to connect the two points was so steep—rising to almost 3,000 feet—it seemed beyond what a train could handle. Norway’s best engineers decided that the only way to pull it off would be to create a route that twisted and turned, not just hugging mountainsides but burrowing through them. After years of debate, a plan was finalized to carve 20 tunnels out of the rocky mountainside—18 of them by hand.
Construction started in the 1920s, eventually employing 280 builders at once. Local farms got an unexpected bonus: Suddenly, their horses and wagons were in high demand for hauling materials, filling the bank accounts of rural families more than their fields alone ever had. Tourists also came to watch the construction itself, pouring more income into the local economy. It was quite a show: Workers drilled into the rock walls, stuffed dynamite into the holes and blasted away. Each foot of progress required roughly 40-50 hours of backbreaking work. All this was not without danger; twice, construction was briefly halted when workers were killed in accidents.
Once the rail line’s ten stations were built and tracks were laid, the pace picked up. By the end of the 1930s, the first freight train was rolling along the route three times a week. World War II actually hastened construction as the occupying German forces wanted the route for steam locomotives, too. After the war, the Flam Line was a commercial hit as trains ran in both directions twice daily. It was the fastest way for people, goods and mail to travel between the region of Sogn and Oslo and Bergen.
Now, the tracks are maintained by the Norwegian rail authorities. In a route that takes you from sea level to 2,847 feet in the span of a single hour, you are treated to an endless array of vistas. Waterfalls plunge down steep slopes to wide verdant valleys. Peak after snowcapped peak etch out the horizon, while bucolic farms overlook flower-filled pastures. At one point, there is a thrill ride element, as the train emerges from a 2,000-foot tunnel onto a clifftop shelf with a staggeringly sheer vertical drop. It is easily one of the world most breathtaking train journeys.
Showered with accolades by National Geographic, Lonely Planet, and others, the Flam Line is now one of Norway’s top three most visited sites, no longer a route toward a destination, but the destination in itself.