You’ve been hearing about it for years now. You probably thought it was never going to happen. But now it looks as though the legendary train between Keflavík International Airport and downtown Reykjavík will soon be a reality.
Runolfur Ágústsson has been working tirelessly to get this project off the ground for the past four and a half years now. The train, dubbed Lava Express, could be accepting its first passengers as soon as 2025.
“In the beginning, people thought we were crazy,” he says. “They thought this was a very unrealistic idea. They didn’t think there would be enough passengers, and in the beginning, the profitability of the project was OK, but nothing great. However, over the last four years, as you know, the development has been quite rapid in the number of tourists. We assume about 75% to 80% of the revenue will come from people using the train to connect Reykjavík and the airport. So of course, the project is more profitable now than it was four years ago. We’ll be updating our business plan in August, for the third or fourth time. Basically, as the project looks now, it’s profitable for the investors and for society as a whole. New ideas take time to sink in. Sometimes the public has to think about it a bit.”
On the right track
This is not some kind of John Henry scenario, where all one needs to do is simply plough through the lava, lay down some tracks, and you’re ready to go. In a country with no trains, getting the first modern version of a train built here means going through some considerable red tape.
“We’ve been trying to get the approval of the municipalities as well, and we are gaining that now,” Runolfur explains. “The train goes through seven municipalities. We’ve already got an agreement with five of them; Hafnarfjörður and Kópavogur remain, but they will hold a meeting in their town councils in July and August. So we hope that by the end of the summer, we have an agreement with all the municipalities about the project, and then we can start the planning and design phase. Following that we start the environmental assessment. I hope that all the pieces are falling together now, so we can start the next phase in the autumn, which will take about three years. Then we can start construction, which should take four to five years. So it’s a huge project and takes a lot of time.”
But what if the tourism industry declines?
With so much riding on tourism numbers, one might be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at the premise of the Lava Express. What if the tourism crash, which many are predicting is on the horizon, gets here before the train is finished? Not to worry, Runolfur says.
“The train will still have other applications,” he says. “It won’t just connect the airport and the city centre. It’s connecting the people who live in Suðurnes with the people who live in Reykjavík, bringing those two societies together. It’s quite popular now to live in the municipalities around the airport and work in Reykjavík. The train will decrease the travel time from around an hour down to twenty minutes. Actually, our estimates for the number of tourists in the coming years are quite conservative.”
No Ring Road train anytime soon, though
All that being the case, it is still highly unlikely that the train line will expand beyond the Keflavík-Reykjavík corridor. While it will connect with the proposed City Line light rail system, you won’t be taking a leisurely train ride around the country any time soon.
“Basically, this is the only kind of possible line in the country that can fulfill this,” Runolfur explains. “Like, if you think of a train between, say, Reykjavík and Borgarnes, the number of passengers wouldn’t be enough. Right now, we’re receiving a bit less than 2 million people. There are about 10,000 people now working at the airport, many of whom have to go there daily. With the current number of tourists and the current situation, and with a conservative
estimate of growth, we have the number of passengers we need right now. So we don’t actually need a boom in tourists to go on for our project.”
All this said, we will still have to wait until 2025 until the train opens its doors for the first time, if everything goes well. Until then, we still have the Flybus—a decidedly less romantic way to travel.