North Sweden’s contribution to the European Parliament's study on transport infrastructure in the EU's low density- and depopulation areas

The European Parliament's Transport and Tourism Committee has published a study on transport infrastructure in low density- and depopulation areas, where North Sweden has participated. The study highlights the main elements of these areas, which often exhibit unique demographic and geographical characteristics, and assesses the challenges in providing an effective and fair transport policy.

North Sweden has participated in a study on transport infrastructure in sparsely populated areas "Transport infrastructure in low- density and depopulating areas" commissioned by the European Parliament's Transport and Tourism Committee. The study examines the main challenges and trends in the provision of transport policy and infrastructure and provides a comprehensive assessment of relevant transport policies and projects implemented in these areas. Finally, it makes a series of policy recommendations aimed at overcoming the identified challenges and gaps. 

The geographical scope of the study covers all EU Member States, with a central focus on depopulation areas and low-density areas, including rural areas, islands, remote and mountainous regions. Particular attention is paid to the main social groups affected by the transport shortage in all the above areas. That the quality of services and well-being in these areas is in fact also based on the condition of transport infrastructure. 


Mainly rural and remote regions are found mostly on the Iberian Peninsula (especially the border between Spain and Portugal) southern France; the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, many parts of Ireland; northern United Kingdom (especially Scotland); The Nordic and Baltic countries (Sweden, Finland, and Latvia); southern parts of Central Europe (Austria, Slovakia, Croatia); and throughout Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece. 

Northern Sparsely Populated Areas  

The issue of low-density and sparsely populated areas (or the specific competition agreements) was already introduced in the European debate on cohesion policy in 1995, as part of the Accession Treaties of Austria, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. Extensive parts of Northern and Eastern Finland and Northern Sweden (also labelled as northern sparsely populated areas – NSPA – Northern Sparsely Populated Areas) were recognized as belonging to less prosperous areas of the European Union due to the lack of a wide range of economic and social activities, as well as the lack of basic infrastructure.  

This categorisation helped the European Commission to establish a more objective and fair approach to identifying regions eligible for financial assistance. 

Challenges for sparsely populated areas  

Sparsely populated areas pose challenges linked to its economic development and due to the lack of certain types of location advantages, according to the report. Examples of these challenges include:   

  • Merger of the labour market   
  • Less access to a range of local suppliers  
  • Lack of knowledge exchanges  
  • Limited opportunities for commuting, among other things  
  • High transport costs 

The study has chosen to conduct a case study of upper Norrland  

  • Road networks  

Northern Sweden is very dependent on cars, mainly due to the lack of transport options for many communities. Roads are the main internal channel of communication between widely dispersed cities in the region, for the transport of people and goods, as well as for cross-border mobility. In addition, vehicles are crucial because of their role as the "last mile" of transportation. Road maintenance and safety must be improved. The climate and the mountainous landscape require strict protection of infrastructure, and the increased traffic at the major tourist destinations exacerbates these challenges. 

  • Railway network  

Sweden has one of the largest rail networks in the world, but the infrastructure and services in Upper Norrland have many shortcomings, the report states. This requires an important modernisation, the most important of which is to improve the Malmbanan line, new railway extensions and the introduction of ERTMS signal systems. As well as reinvestment on overhead contact lines and tracks, and a bridge over the Kalix River.   

  • Airway connections  

Air passenger transport amounted to 2.2 million in 2018, maintaining the increasing trend recorded in recent years. On the other hand, air freight transport has decreased for the first time in several years, from 6 000 tons in 2012 to 4 000 tonnes in 2018. These figures underline the importance of reliable access to high-frequency domestic and international air links for regions heavily dependent on exports, with test beds and SMEs interconnected in global value chains, as well as a growing global tourism industry. 

  • Boat and other water transports 

Passenger transport reached 212 000 in 2018, continuing the growing trend observed in recent years. Similarly, freight transport by sea has remained stable. With 13 244 thousand tonnes loaded and unloaded in 2018, northern Sweden accounts for approximately 7.4% of national maritime freight transport. The sea corridor in the Gulf of Bothnia is essential for transport and the Baltic Sea is a direct link to the rest of Europe. Yet, the city of Luleå is the only TEN-T Core Network port in Upper Norrland.  

  • Local public transport  

Local public transport is very limited, especially in the western part of Upper Norrland. The sparse population makes cross-border mobility even more important, as some cities are closer to services and markets in adjacent countries. 

Key issues and challenges  

The large distances, a sparse and aging population, harsh weather conditions and an economy based on natural resources are some of the most important issues related to Upper Norrland and Northern Sweden in general. All of these have an important effect on the provision of transport. The deterioration of infrastructure poses a threat to safety, especially in the case of roads and railways, as they are more exposed to the weather and, in some cases, abandoned due to low traffic. Roads can also often be closed during snowstorms and snowfall in the mountains, for example, which hinders people and freight transport.   

Furthermore, there are no reasonable alternatives to aviation in the European Arctic, as the rail and road networks are not sufficiently well developed and maintained. These are clear obstacles to the development of the tourism sector, which has grown rapidly in the region and is expected to continue to rise. In this respect, public transport is poorly adapted to the needs of tourists. 

Prominent trends   

Some positive prominent trends that the report points to are:  

Upper Norrland is devoting great effort to the transition into sustainable transport. The focus on clean transport and the stimulation of alternative fuels are remarkable.  

Digitalisation is another important trend in the region. The deployment of Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) is intended to help optimise traffic, improve its reliability and safety in all conditions.  

There is an important development in intermodal and combined transport. Cross-border cooperation in the field of transport in the Barents region is also supported by initiatives such as common platforms for the publication of transport information, integrated ticketing systems, or the development of a common emergency plan in cooperation with bus operators. 


The successful roll-out of broadband and the strength of the regional innovation ecosystem are driving the development of digitally based mobility solutions. The aim is to optimize travel times, reliability and more overall; improve services. The sustainability of transport is also a major objective in improving the system. These initiatives are accompanied by major investments both at national and European level. Investment in the rail system is particularly significant. Similarly, cross-border transport within the Barents region is strengthened. Efforts to promote multimodal transport are also of great importance.  

The main results of the study suggest that regional and cohesion policy cover the bulk of EU support for transport policies and projects in low density and depopulation areas, those financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). Except for certain references granted to sparsely populated and outermost regions (parts of the territories of some EU Member States located in areas geographically far from Europe). In the context of cohesion and regional policy, traditional modes of transport still carry considerable weight in EU policies in low-density and depopulation regions.  

Link to the entire study  

Read more about NSPA 

/Andreas Stenlund

North Sweden in the EU

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