Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A newly revived rail plan could see Denmark’s trains catch up with its reputation for other types of green transit.
If Denmark’s transportation minister gets his way, future train rides between the country’s five major cities will take no longer than an hour.
Transportation minister Benny Engelbrecht announced plans earlier this month to revive a 2014 plan to slash travel times between the country’s major population centers. If it goes through, travel times across the country could be halved, making it easier for the modestly-sized country to function as if it were a single unified (if wide-ranging) metro area.
The plan also reveals something that might surprise outsiders who recognize Denmark as a non-drivers paradise: By the (extremely high) standards of western Europe, Denmark’s rail network is slow.
It’s not that Danish rail is bad, exactly. Services are dependable and frequent, but they aren’t especially fast. Currently, the fastest train from Copenhagen to Odense—Denmark’s third city—travels the 100-mile span in 76 minutes. That’s respectable, but it’s far behind, say, France, where trains between Paris and Lille travel 140 miles in just 59 minutes.
Go farther away from Copenhagen and things get worse: It takes four hours and 21 minutes by train from Copenhagen to the northern city of Aalborg, a distance of 258 miles. This is longer than it takes trains to go from London to Edinburgh (400 miles apart), made slower by the almost total absence of electrified lines on the Jutland Peninsula. This means it’s frequently quicker to cross Denmark by car than by rail—an unusual situation by European standards.
Some reasons for this relative slowness are geographical. Denmark is a watery country of islands and peninsulas, threaded together with long bridges and ferries. To go from the island of Zealand (where Copenhagen and almost half the country’s population are located) to the far north of the Danish mainland, you need to take a fairly slow ferry or do a detour south over bridges via the island of Funen. This slows things down considerably, a fact Danes tolerate because the distances and journey times are still never all that long.
There are some pretty straightforward ways to speed up travel times. One would be renovating and replacing a slow signaling system. Another would be full electrification of all lines across the country. Some new connections, such as a time-saving bridge or tunnel across the mainland’s Vejle Fjord, could also speed things up without obliging the country to install high-speed lines.
Connecting Copenhagen with Odense, Odense with Aarhus and Esbjerg, and Aarhus with Aalborg, the one-hour services would also break a major psychological boundary. They would make regional cities more accessible and thus less likely to play second fiddle to Copenhagen when it comes to companies choosing their headquarters. Shaving almost 90 minutes off a train journey from one end of the country to the other also means connecting those cities better to neighboring Sweden and Germany.
The proposal still isn’t guaranteed. A plan along these lines has been in the works since 2014, only to be stymied earlier this year by the extreme-right People’s Party, which had a part in Denmark’s last coalition government. With a new center-left coalition elected last month, and a politician from the country’s Red-Green Alliance given the transit portfolio, the plan is back in the running. The parties who support it now possess enough representation in parliament to see it through.