I have been living in Denmark for the last eight months or so, and I thought it might be interesting to look at Danish culture and its peculiarities from an outsider’s perspective. This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts about all things Danish.

The picture we have of the Danes, and indeed Scandinavians in general, is that they are a fictional race of super-men who live in a very comfortable, government-sponsored utopia. Indeed, most of this is true, but there are some traits that jar with this God-like image.

It’s true that it’s normally the Germans we associate with efficiency, not the Danes, but you wouldn’t think INefficiency when you’re talking about Denmark. Please don’t get me wrong here – I love Denmark, the Danes, Danish food and most of Danish culture. However, there’s no denying that Danes love them some inefficiency. Things take longer than they should, and that’s just accepted as ‘the way things are’ or perhaps ‘the price of democracy’. It’s a bureaucrat’s dream. Today I want to show you three transport-related examples.

Wrong Way Ticket

In 1999 the Danish government started working to replace the ageing paper ticket system for public transport. In 2003, the decision was made that it would be a new contactless tickets which would be used on all public buses, the Copenhagen metro system and all Danish trains, and it would imaginatively be called ‘Rejsekort’ (‘Travel Card’).

Yeah this was a big deal, but how hard could it be? Many places around the world have successfully implemented electronic, contactless ticketing like the proposed Rejsekort. London has had its Oyster card since 2003, Singapore has had its EZ-Link card since 2002, and Hong Kong has had its Octopus Card since 1997. Heck, even the Queensland Government managed to successfully implement the Go Card system in Brisbane between 2003 and 2008.

In Denmark, the initial goal was to have the new system done and dusted and the old ones phased out by 2009, but there were many delays. In 2007, testing started in a small, regional area, but the project was plagued by teething problems. The country-wide implementation was pushed back to 2012.

An actor's recreation of the ticket lady's facial expression.
An actor’s recreation of the ticket lady’s facial expression.

As of 2014, 15(!) years after the first planning was started and six years late, the system actually now works quite well but few trust it. When I went to buy my own Rejsekort the lady at the ticket shop, whose job it is to sell tickets, seemed incredulous that I wanted to buy one and tried very, very hard to dissuade me. She took personal offence when I insisted that I did indeed want to buy one of them. Despite this, it really does work very well and is easier and cheaper than the other ticket options.

The official goal is to eventually have two million users of the system. In 2013, the number was less than 460,000 cards sold.

It Drives You Crazy

Australia is a big country. We have a lot of roads, so of course we have a lot of roadworks. And this is a good thing. Infrastructure is glorious, needed and useful. Bridges, tunnels, busways, railways, new roads – I love them all. Of course roadworks are annoying but all-in-all roadworks run fairly smoothly and the construction companies do some very clever things to minimise disruption as much as practical.

For the Danes, however, disrupting traffic seems to be somewhat of a sport.

The Danish roads department is adding two lanes to a motorway a little way out of Copenhagen. It’s a 14km section of road they are upgrading and it will take a full five years to complete. For a not-entirely-relevant comparison, the Airport Link and Clem Jones tunnels in Brisbane together are 13.5km long and were each the longest road tunnel in the country at the time they were built. They had to dig both roads out from the bowels of the earth. It still took them less than 6 years to build both projects, from start to finish.

Little Mikkel was very happy to be working for the Danish Roads Department.

Little Mikkel was very happy to be working for the Danish Roads Department.

To be fair though, this motorway is one of the busiest roads in the country, which is why you’d think they would consider the impact of works on motorists. One day recently, at around 11am, they had the speed limit reduced to 50km/h (in a 110 zone) for around 6km. This caused huge queues and traffic delays of more than 45 minutes. This was for one single truck scooping some dirt.

To give another local example, in Roskilde where I live they are upgrading the town’s central heating network and had to replace heating pipes in a 600m stretch of a somewhat busy road. They closed one direction down completely for six months, causing a small number of people a moderate inconvenience. But still, it’s the principle, isn’t it? Right?

New Trains Off Track

In 2000, the Danish national rail company DSB ordered 83 train sets from an Italian company, with the trains to be delivered in 2003. This was to replace a number of older-style trains, some of which had been running since 1991.

However, the manufacturer didn’t deliver in 2003 as promised. In fact, the first test set started running in 2007, with the first long-distance test completed in 2008. It took a full ten extra years to deliver the full order.

There were also a bunch of quality issues with the trains. They couldn’t be connected together into longer sets which meant they could only be used in off-peak times when there were already plenty of available trains. There was a problem with exhaust fumes; there were problems with some warning systems giving false warnings; there were other computer problems. Then a couple of trains ran through red signals when they should have stopped. I’m sure the warning system went off but at this point, who would’ve even listened?

Gaddafi was pleased with the generous gift.

Gaddafi was pleased with the generous gift.

In March 2013 it was reported that one of the train sets which was meant to be for Denmark turned up in Libya, as – and you couldn’t make this up – it had been given to the dictator Muammar Gaddafi as a gift from Italy by the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The 82nd and final unit was delivered in 2013, but the saga is not over. In February this year, one of the trains broke down inside an 18km-long tunnel and required all the passengers to be evacuated.

The moral of this story: don’t trust Italians who try to sell you trains.

Is There Any Redeeming Light?

There is one thing that Danes are very efficient at, that is the distribution of beer. Beer is sold in pretty much every supermarket, convenience store, 7-11 and service station. I’ve heard it said – and it’s entirely plausible – that in Denmark you are never more than 30 minute drive away from a place you can buy beer, right now.

My question is why would you really need a beer that urgently anyway? Perhaps it’s the Danish way of dealing with their commute home?

One Response to “Danes, Trains and Automobiles”

  1. aarondoyle says:

    That picture of Gaddafi is amazing.

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