From Iceland — Ask An Expert: What Happened To The Trains In Iceland?

Ask An Expert: What Happened To The Trains In Iceland?

Published July 23, 2023

Ask An Expert: What Happened To The Trains In Iceland?

We turned to Árbær Open Air Museum for answers

Public transport certainly is…a thing in Iceland if the nice yellow buses are any indication – although most people seem to prefer getting stuck downtown in the comfort of their own car.

We even have another small airport in town for more long-distance domestic voyages. This has left many travelers and locals alike occasionally posing the question: why are there no trains in Iceland? Hold on to your cute little conductor hats now, because it turns out there were trains in Iceland about a hundred years ago! This begs the follow-up question: what happened to them? For an answer we turned to Sigurlaugur Ingólfsson, project manager at the Árbær Open Air Museum where one of the old locomotives is displayed.

“It’s quite unique that we have preserved the two locomotives ever to have been operated here,” Sigurlaugur says. “It was a period of about 15 years that we had an operational railway in Reykjavík. The trains were brought here by a Danish company that was contracted to build the harbour, but there was so much inflation – which sounds familiar today – so Reykajvík bought the two locomotives and some other machinery, which hasn’t been similarly preserved. So, that’s how they ended up here and they were operated by the town as late as 1930.”

The Reykjavík harbour was built between 1913-1917 with the help of the locomotives Minør and Pionér, the former is still on display at the harbour and the latter stationed at Árbæjarsafn.

“They ran on two different sets of tracks and they were mostly hauling rock for the harbour construction,” Sigurlaugur explains. “They were used later for the expansion of the harbour but also for freight movement after the first phase of the harbour was constructed. Harbour construction was a huge undertaking and if Reykjavík hadn’t built the harbour we would probably see Hafnarfjörður as the biggest city in Iceland today because they had such excellent harbour facilities. But the harbour in Reykjavík was poor, all the ships had to dock outside the bay and then move everything by boat to land. This, of course, hampered Reykjavík’s growth, so harbour reconstruction was the most important development in the city’s history and sealed its fate as a capital as a result.”

But if the locomotives had proven so vital, why were they not further pursued?

“There had been plans for further railway use,” Sigurlaugur says. “There were mainly foreign companies that suggested building railway lines in the late 19th century and it had some support among Icelanders. There was even a magazine called Eimreiðin, which means ‘the locomotive.’ It was a magazine about everything really, but the name was connected to the editor’s interest in railways. But all of these plans were vetoed by parliament or didn’t go through parliament, maybe because people didn’t trust these companies fully.”

Additionally, any plans after 1930 took a big hit from the Great Depression, so plans for a railway between Hafnarfjörður and Reykjavík or towards Selfoss were dead on arrival due to lack of funding.

Fun fact, despite the short stay of railways in Iceland, locals still managed to derail one of the trains once, according to Sigurlaugur. “Icelanders were always putting something on the tracks to see what would happen, mostly coins and things, but on one occasion they managed to derail one of the trains by putting a chain across. It was something Icelanders had never seen before and it turned full grown men into children.”

Maybe that’s why they’re hesitant to bring them back.

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!

Show Me More!