The Iceland Guide

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The land and the people

The economy and infrastructure: Transport

For about a thousand years after the Settlement, there was little real progress in building and maintaining a network of tracks between the settlements. Rivers were the main obstacles to travellers and the first big bridge was only opened in 1891. Until the age of the motor vehicle, the only means of transport was the horse, which proved remarkably good at crossing the highland areas, rivers and even the glaciers.

The first vehicle was imported in 1913, but by 1924 there were still only three hundred of them, travelling on roads that were usually tracks strewn with rubble and deeply rutted. This situation lasted for quite some time as the main consideration was to increase the extent of the road system rather than to improve its quality and even today most of the ring road has a gravel surface which is often badly rutted. The three main roads out of Reykjavík (to Hvolsvöllur, Keflavík and Hvalfjörður) have a modern highway surface, and there are some good stretches in other places. In addition, the settlements usually have a reasonable surface. Today the road network is about 9,000km long with another 4,500km of roads that are open in summer only. The Icelandic bus routes cover some 7,000km of this total.

The southern coast of the country was where the last stretch of the ring road was completed. Such is the formidable might of the river Skeiðará that it was only bridged in 1974. This has made a great difference to the road distance between towns; for example, Höfn to Reykjavík used to be 971km round the northern coast, but now this has been shortened to 476km by travelling along the southern route. The completion of the ring road, which is 1,414km long, means that the tourist industry can now really begin to grow as visitors can bring their own vehicles and travel right round the island.

Iceland has never had a railway system, though a locomotive was used earlier this century to help in the building of the Reykjavík harbour. There was once, however, a plan to build a railway line from the capital to Thingvellir, with lines going to Selfoss and the Thjórsá.

Before 1914, almost all the imports and exports were carried in foreign ships, mainly Danish and Norwegian. Today, nearly all the ships are Icelandic–owned, although they are not always Icelandic–built; it was not until about 1965 that shipbuilding really developed in the country. The main port is Reykjavík, which has frequent sailings to many foreign ports.

Coastal shipping carries a high proportion of the heavy freight round the country, but the completion of the ring road has reduced the coastal passenger service. The coastline is very inhospitable especially in winter when gales lash the island. The first lighthouse was built on Reykjanes as late as 1878 and the second one some twenty years later, although now numerous lighthouses and navigation masts provide information to passing ships. Should shipwrecks occur, there is a chain of rescue huts dotted along the coast, especially on the southern sandur where there is little shelter.

Iceland's first aeroplane was imported in 1919, and Icelandair, the national airline, was founded in 1938. The international airport of Keflavík at the western end of Reykjanes peninsula is very large for such a small country, since it is the site of a NATO base as well as a refuelling stop between America and Europe.

Reykjavík and most towns have airports, while there are many unmanned airstrips around the country. These landing sites are very important in the winter, since many communities become snowbound when the roads are impassable and doctors, mail and food supplies are often lifted in during these dark and dangerous months. The small aircraft are put to very good use during the rest of the year as they provide a fast and efficient network of services round the country. While in other European countries flying might only be used for longer distances, Icelanders will often fly between towns as it is faster and more comfortable, and there are now some forty regular internal air routes operated by Icelandair and some smaller firms.

What`s in the website ?


The land and the people

The first explorers
The Age of the Settlement
The conversion to Christianity
The discovery of Greenland and America
The collapse of the Commonwealth
The Dark Ages
The nineteenth century
The twentieth century
Culture in the Icelandic environment
Old Icelandic literature
Eddic and skaldic poetry
The Sagas
Later literature
Modern literature
Painting, sculpture and music
The Icelanders
Traditional living conditions
The seasons
Changes in the modern world
Independent minds
Superstition, morality and the media
The land
On the edge of Europe
The shape of the land
The volcanoes
The glaciers
The natural world
The climate
The economy and infrastructure
Industry and energy