Ever since I had seen a video on the underground automatic trains at LKAB’s Kiruna mine, I have wanted to visit to see them for myself.
This week, my team of rail fairy godfathers – the exceptionally well-connected Jonesy and the incredibly obliging guys at the Swedish trade commission – made my Swedish rail dreams come true!
My first excursion was a train cab ride on an iron ore train from Kiruna, in Northern Sweden, to the Norwegian port in Narvik. Apparently, this opportunity is only offered to about 10 people a year, and they are usually important foreign dignitaries. (I told you all I was a princess!)
I travelled with a Norwegian driver who wasn’t accustomed to talking about train handling and supervision equipment in English, but he did an excellent job of explaining with gestures and pointing out the best parts in the journey for photo opportunities.
One of most exciting things pointed out to me was a majestic, white reindeer galloping along the corridor. I got a great photo of him… just before we ran him over.
I was very pleased to discover that the cabins are fully heated. This line is run as driver only with supervision by a system called ATC, which has a similar level of supervision to Westec ATP in that a violation in speed initiates an brake intervention. (This line will be the next line which Trafikverket will fit with ETCS, but it’s not underway quite yet.) Vigilance is achieved via a half-on-half-off dead man’s pedal.
The Swedish aspects are reminiscent of those in NSW with a something over something setup indicating the current signal and the next one. The mostly still yellow balises on the track provide location and signal information to the onboard equipment. Trackside equipment is stored in half width locs painted red with the Falun mine style iron ore paint (to match the rest of the buildings in Sweden). There are HBDs on the track the same as what one would find in Queensland but there were also signals interlocked with avalanche detectors on the Norwegian section of the track. The landscape was certainly different to my last journey on a commodity train in the Hunter Valley. I especially enjoyed the smell of woodfires which greeted us at many of the passenger stations and was fascinated by the “snow galleries”, above ground tunnels with glass windows designed to allow prevent snow fall and avalanches from affecting operations.
The train we were travelling in was a standard configuration, 746m long and 8454 tonnes. The route has a long of curves and hills with the gradients and level above sea level signposted next to the track. The driver explained how to feel when the train was stretching as we went up hill (the stretch is about 6m) and very soon I could tell from the train vibrations whether it was a positive or negative gradient. Running brake testing is completed before the downhill slope is reached. The driver prefaced this with, “If it don’t work, we jump.” Luckily, we didn’t have to jump.
It wasn’t a particularly cold or snowy day, but there was a little snow fall. In order to ensure that snow on the brakes doesn’t turn to ice, the brakes have to be used a little every 10 minutes. The driver showed me a photo of what the train looked like on a bad day.
The trip took just over 2 hours, travelling 60km/h in Sweden and 50km/h past the Norwegian border. At the border there are national flags painted in the rail tunnel, to signify the crossing, but if you blink, you’ll miss them.
The ore is unloaded quite quickly via six openings into a massive underground silo. This was where I left the LKAB train to do a little sight seeing in Narvik.
Unfortunately, Narvik wasn’t as exciting a place as I thought it was going to be, although I did love the view of the houses overlooking the fjord (enough to paint it). I went to two different shopping centres, took a few photos with statues and visited the very sombre war memorial museum.
I caught a passenger train back to Kiruna in the afternoon.
When I arrived, I had lost the internet connection on my phone so I trudged around in the snow for about 40 minutes until I saw buildings I recognised and bought myself a Risifruiti (my favourite Swedish kid’s snack) to celebrate my navigation success.
The next morning, I arrived back at LKAB for my underground tour, where I was assigned a personal tour guide for the day!
After getting kitted up, we drove down to the visitor centre at 540m, which was the original main level. This was the most beautiful underground space I’d ever seen. There were garden beds of iron ore pellets and blue lit rock walls.
I was ushered into an auditorium for a private viewing of a very glossy film about the mine.
Here’s what I learnt about the mine:
- There are approximately 2000 employees with about 500 on shift at any time
- RFID tags automatically keep track of employees’ movements throughout the mine
- LKAB produces 90% of Europe’s iron ore
- The mining method used is sub level caving, which leaves no voids with a very stable foot wall
- The mine is as deep as six Eiffel Towers
- Approximately 100,000 tonnes are mined each day
- The iron ore is shipped in pellets, including “green” magnetite pellets which oxidise to haematite during combustion, decreasing the energy required for processing
- The ore body extends under the town and the town will be moved a second time, to the east, when the mine extends too far under the town
- The two mountains on LKAB’s symbol represent Kiruna and Malmbeget (LKAB’s other mine)
- LKAB have rock bolts with wifi transmitters so that they can sense rock stability information
- This wasn’t from the film but until 1978 it was actually illegal for women to work in Swedish mines
In the evening, I caught the train south east from Kiruna to Lulea, which was the port city for the second LKAB mine. After a brisk walk in the fresh evening air, I arrived at my hotel, just before the restaurant kitchen closed for the night.
In the morning, I was met by Professor P-O, the rail guru of Sweden. He took me to visit Trafikverket, the rail and road infrastructure owner of Sweden, where I had the opportunity to ask the rail asset owner about their network, its upgrades and issues.
Then we visited the university, where the rail centre of excellence is located. I met some researchers who are working on cloud-based asset management, including bearings that transmit their state wirelessly and onboard infrared cameras (which I tested out).
P-O isn’t just a rail expert, he also is a brilliant tour guide. We had lunch at a mountain top restaurant, visited the port, saw Facebook’s European data house, went to visit the world heritage Gammelstad village of “church houses” with the church built of 80 different kinds of rock, and had princess cake at a cafe untouched by the passage of time.
This marked the end of my rail-geek adventures and I flew back to Stockholm that evening, for some Falun sausage pasta (al la Marcus), Swedish hockey ice hockey semi-finals and Toby snuggles.
If you’d like to read about more (less engineering) Grand Tour adventures, you can at my travel blog, Yvette on Tour.