Travel: How to enjoy a rail strike: go to Sweden: In the land of the midnight sun (well, drizzle), Rosamund Ridley and family found that an industrial dispute improved the service on the railways

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The Independent Travel
Two days after the solstice, we were travelling back by train from Narvik, in northern Norway, to Stockholm. The four children were all a bit mutinous. We had promised sun in the middle of the night and had failed to deliver. Act of God (or gods), we pleaded: not our fault that Thor, Wotan and co arranged 24 hours of grey drizzle. On the other hand, it did not actually get dark.

We very nearly stayed on in Narvik, in case the sun decided to show up the following night instead. But we were warned that there was a train strike. This was potentially very bad news, since we were travelling all the way by rail to Bergen, for the ferry to Newcastle. The elder children, Richard and Liz, veterans of Greek rail strikes, French rail strikes and almost daily Italian rail strikes, were philosophical; but the little ones wanted to get back to Stockholm as quickly as possible - or rather, to Stockholm station, which offers a family room packed with toys of every kind, videos in English, French and Swedish, a pool, a railway and everything you could want to bounce on or crawl through.

We need not have worried. As the staff at Narvik station explained in faultless English, it was not a drivers' strike but a technicians' work-to-rule. The Stockholm train would leave Narvik a little late, and might be a few minutes late into Stockholm. In other words (ie, British Rail's), we would be on time.

The Stockholm train duly arrived and we piled into what every Swedish train has, and every British train should have but does not: a carriage for families travelling with small children, with a mini-loo, a bottle warmer and restraints for carry-cots.

There is not much one can say about a 24-hour rail journey through Sweden. We saw several million pine trees, ditto lakes; the sun shone, all day, all night. Eventually, the children fell asleep from sheer boredom. So did we.

On a day-long journey, who would worry about being minutes, or even an hour or two, late? Answer: Swedish Railways. We had barely noticed night becoming day, except that the children seemed hungrier.

Staff came, checked our tickets, looked at their watches and appeared worried. Panic stations. Were the tickets out of date? Had we miscalculated? No: our tickets had two more days to go, Stockholm-Oslo and Oslo-Bergen. The problem was that we would be arriving in Stockholm well over an hour late. Were we all right? Had we enough milk for the baby? Not to worry, we said, we'll have a late breakfast in Stockholm.

No, they couldn't have that. We were chivvied off to the restaurant to enjoy a sumptuous breakfast at the railway's expense. We could not be allowed to go hungry when we should really be at our hotel.

Breakfast? We feasted on pancakes, cheese, yoghurt, fruit juice, milk and superb coffee. The little ones crunched disgracefully on pastel-wrapped sugar lumps. And our 'hotel breakfast' would have been bought in a food hall and eaten on a park bench in Stockholm's central gardens.

On the ferry back from Bergen, the captain had bad news. Britain was still having rail strikes, and we were docking in Newcastle on a Wednesday - rail-strike day. Rats] Trying to be green, we had parked our Land Rover at Oxenholme, 90 miles away, and travelled the rest of the way by train. The ferry landed us in Newcastle at tea-time, with four weary and hungry kids, and nowhere to go.

No one from BR or Railtrack met us at the docks offering cream teas and sympathy. The gates of Newcastle station were firmly closed to the public. No pickets, no aggro; but no trains until tomorrow morning.

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