Crossing the river

The fjord is a daily feature of Norwegian life. Some of these natural features can be both hundreds of metres wide and several kilometres in length; people therefore require the use of a ferry to get themselves and vehicles across the stretch of water within a reasonable time. Norway is home to many companies dedicated to regional ferry crossings but none is bigger than Fjord1 MRF, which has its main activity in the Møre og Romsdal county on the country’s north-western coast.

Fjord1 MRF began as Møre Fylkes Ruteselskap, a government-owned organisation established in 1920 to provide fjord-crossing services when local competition drove many of the private ferry firms into bankruptcy. At first it simply offered a way for passengers across the fjord but by the 1950s and 1960s had grown into a fully-fledged ferry company offering passenger, vehicle and cargo services.

Steady growth of population and economy in the area led to increasing business for the company until, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it started to branch into other transportation sectors. This was marked most significantly by its 2001 merger with similarly regional ferry company Fylkesbaatane, during which the Fjord1 Nordvestlandske group was established and its two ferry companies adopted new names: Fjord1 Fylkesbaatane and Fjord1 MRF.

Anker Grovdal, managing director of Fjord1 MRF, outlines the state of the company today: “Fjord1 MRF operates 38 ferries, most of which are double-ended, and in 2010 had an operating income of approximately 900 million NOK. In 2010, Fjord1 Nordvestlandeske carried approximately 18 million passengers and Fjord1 MRF can claim about half that share. We used to have cargo vessels sailing down the western coast of Norway and across to Denmark and Sweden but today we only offer passengers services: fjord-crossing being our main business, but we also possess a 49 per cent share in the fast ferry company Kystekspressen. That offers three fast ferries between Trondheim and Kristiansund.”

Fjord1 MRF is notable for being the first company in the world to possess a ferry powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG). Appointed by the government (because Fjord1 MRF remains under county-level control), the build was seen as an elaborate research project into the possibility of alternatives to traditional diesel-electric engines for the transport sector in general and the ferry sector in particular. Delivered in 2000, the MF Glutra was built by Aker’s Langsten shipyard to be a 100-metre passenger and vehicle carry with space enough for 85 vehicles.

MF Glutra proved a success and has paved the way for many more LNG vessels in its wake, including an additional four that were added to Fjord1 MRF’s own fleet over the last 18 months. Meanwhile, MF Glutra itself continues delivering passengers across the fjords of Møre og Romsdal and recently received an extension at Poland’s Remontowa Shipyard. The length of the vessel was extended with a 26-metre section that increased its vehicle carrying capacity to 120 cars, bringing it in line with the four newer ships that each carry 125. Additionally, the company is involved with a project that will transform old diesel-electric ferry engines into gas-electric models.

“We see LNG as an important fuel for the future,” says Anker. “At the moment LNG-powered ships are more expensive to build than ordinary diesel types by a margin of approximately ten per cent, but the operating costs are the same. As time goes on we believe that gas prices will become increasingly decoupled from oil prices because more and more gas deposits are being found. Therefore, some years into the future, we expect gas not to be linked to oil at all and to be much cheaper. Gas is also a much kinder fuel to the environment. Our LNG ferries have between 85 and 90 per cent lower NOx emissions, 25 per cent lower CO2 emissions and absolutely no particulate matter (PM) emissions.”

One of Fjord1 MRF’s key traits is the strong long-term relationship that it holds with suppliers. It has, for example, been partners with Caterpillar and Mitsubishi for many years now, the latter helping Fjord1 MRF in its development of the LNG engine. More recently it has started working with Rolls-Royce Marine, which owns a host of engineering workshops along Norway’s west coast and has been a key collaborator in the diesel-electric to gas-electric conversion project.

Another big advantage Fjord1 MRF possesses is its association with Fjord1 Nordvestlandske. The transport and logistics group comprises four different divisions operated through seven subsidiary companies. The previously mentioned fjord crossing and fast ferry companies as well as Fjord1 Buss Møre, Fjord1 Transport, Fjord1 Nordfjord-Ottadalen, Fjord1 Sogn Billag and Fjord1 Service provide services across the divisions of sea, bus, goods and land. Crucially, despite the independent each of these companies undertakes, all share information and knowledge with one another. The two fjord crossing companies, for example, both operate gas-electric vessels and share the discoveries they make and operational lessons learned.

A benefit that Fjord1 MRF enjoys in its public role is that the inland ferry sector has long-term stability due to a basic need for people to cross fjords. “The service that we supply has been growing by between two and 2.5 per cent each year for many years now, and has maintained steady growth since the end of World War Two,” explains Anker. “It’s a slow but steady growth area closely tied to GNP, so we have seen the need for our services grow in proportion to population and economy in Norway.”

Norway has a cycle of between eight and ten years on the provisions of its public ferry services and the new period of tendering is about to commence. The first round will finish soon and once the next stage begins, Fjord1 MRF will be looking not only to reclaim the services it currently provides but also gain several new ones from its competitors. This winning of tenders will be the company’s core strategy for ongoing expansion. Additionally, the senior levels of Fjord1 Nordvestlandske are beginning to look at opportunities for expanding sea services to Denmark and Sweden.

Pioneering the development and use of LNG engines
Provides essential public transport services
Part of a wider, multi-disciplinary transport group