Death by Train:

The Swedish Railway Tracks Putting Eagles at Risk

By Rita Cruz, Jody Fish, and Sara Silvennoinen

Jan. 10, 2022

This article contains graphic images of dead animals.

Near the towns of Högsjö and Kilsmo lies one of Sweden’s beautiful nature reserves, Sottern. This lake and forest area is only 40 kilometers from Örebro, and it’s home to bathing sites, campgrounds, and a diverse ecosystem. What most people don’t know about this typical Swedish summer spot is that it also is defined by a very real problem – dead eagles. Two of Sweden's biggest birds of prey, the golden and white-tailed eagles, face many threats: habitat loss, lead poisoning, poaching, and wind farms are some of the issues affecting their populations. But there is one particular human-related activity putting eagles at a higher risk of death – train collisions.

According to Trafikverket (The Swedish Transport Administration),  618 eagles have been run over by trains in Sweden between 2012 and 2020. But Anders Sjölund, an ecologist who is the national coordinator at Trafikverket, says this number is only the tip of the iceberg, warning that “there is a large number of deaths that we do not know of.” Navinder Singh, a senior lecturer and associate professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, who has done extensive research about golden eagles in Sweden, agrees with Sjölund, claiming, “[The number] is huge, but it is an underestimate. We have evidence that it's a serious issue, but we do not know the scale of it.” According to Sjölund, one reason for the underreporting is that train drivers “may not notice that they’ve hit an animal,” but the causes of unreported collisions can vary.

As seen above, the number of deaths have relatively increased over time, peaking in 2019. This does not necessarily mean more eagles have died that year. It could also be a matter of more active reporting of deaths.

Eagles are hit by trains when doing what comes naturally to them – scavenging and hunting. “Usually, there is a primary wildlife accident, involving animals such as moose or reindeer, on the railway, which in turn attracts the eagles,” Sjölund explains. Eagles are intelligent birds that have learned to look for food along the tracks, a skill not always working in their favor. “They know there will be food there,” he says. 

It is not only the eagle's ability to find food in risky places that puts them in danger. In her master’s thesis about what makes eagles prone to traffic accidents, Michelle Etienne found that the bird's ability to fly is affected when feasting on the remains of run-over animals. She explains that an eagle’s body weight is “too heavy to allow them to gain enough height,” meaning they can’t fly away in time. This, combined with lead poisoning that negatively alters their flight behavior, puts them in danger of death.

A dead eagle lies by the tracks. Photo: Bosse Forsling


This story is all too familiar to Bosse Forsling. The ornithologist cares for eagles in his free time, bringing them food during the winter months. A contact person for the police for many years, he is regularly called to go check on birds spotted on the railways. Some of his photographs of those animals have made it to the press. They show severely injured and dead eagles, sometimes with gruesome details.

Forsling doesn’t understand why the eagles need to have such a tragic ending. Some of the pictures in this article report back to one of those episodes, near Axmarby, in east-central Sweden. "First, there was a moose accident on a Saturday. On Monday, there were forest workers [who were logging on the site], and one of them saw a large [injured] bird sitting on a tree stump. The bird did not want to fly away. The police called me on Thursday and wanted me to go and check it out," he says. "I was going to drive the eagle to a place for treatment, but it was not possible because the whole back end of the bird was gone. There was nothing left to do to help it.’’ The delayed action of the authorities left the bird alive for almost a week, according to Forsling’s testimony.

The suffering the animals endure until they die, or until someone like Forsling decides to euthanize them, is something he is used to witnessing: "He's alive in the pictures. I took the photos as fast as I could before putting him to rest.’’ These experiences make Forsling skeptical of the current strategy of the authorities. He says he has found at least five dead eagles by now and is left in disbelief of the system: "It's hopeless. I have been fighting the authorities for a long time, asking them to clean up the carcasses. Sometimes they are not picked up and can lie there for a whole week. It shouldn't have to be this way.’’

The injured eagle that Forsling had to euthanize. Photo: Bosse Forsling

Eagles get killed by trains all over Sweden. But when looking at specific areas, it's evident that some are more problematic. Several factors contribute to this imbalance, such as a higher frequency of train traffic. Singh says that part of why there are more reported deaths in the South of Sweden is because there are "more trains" and "faster trains", leaving less time to respond. There are also seasonal differences: the majority of eagle and train collisions happen in the winter. When there is a lot of snow, "moose and deer may find it easier to move on the railway tracks", Singh explains, making them more vulnerable to being hit by trains and becoming food for eagles. During winter, eagles also tend to move south in search of food, which can explain the higher number of deaths. Only 593 eagles are shown in the map below, contrary to the official number of 618. The exact location of the 25 missing eagles is not recorded.


In the stretch of track between Högsjö and Kilsmo in Örebro county, central Sweden, 31 eagles were killed in the past 8 years, making it the deadliest stretch in Sweden. 11 eagles have been reported dead near Kilsmo, and 20 near Högsjö. All of the 20 reportedly killed near Högsjö were actually killed on the way from Högsjö to Kilsmo, according to Trafikverket. And 10 of those reportedly killed near Kilsmo were killed on the way from Kilsmo to Pålsboda, while another death was reported at the exact location of Kilsmo station. This shows what is generally expected with these collisions – they most often happen between the stations, and they're just classified as having happened by the nearest station.

The Högsjö–Kilsmo stretch is the deadliest, according to official numbers. There have been 31 reported deaths between the two stations. Illustration: Sara Silvennoinen

The Högsjö–Kilsmo stretch is not only dangerous for eagles but other wildlife as well. In 2015, it was the biggest hotspot for wildlife collisions in Sweden. Today, many wildlife accidents still happen on this stretch. Despite this, no concrete measures are in place to reduce accidents there. "We have planned measures there, such as fences and passages, but due to a lack of resources and difficulties planning, nothing has happened", Sjölund explains. 

What makes this stretch so deadly? According to Mattias Olsson, a biologist and project leader at Enviroplanning, the Högsjö-Kilsmo stretch runs through an area rich with wildlife. "There are also fast and quiet trains that operate the route", he explains. Another possible reason could be that the area around Hjälmaren, a lake close to the stretch, has a stable eagle population that may have learned to visit the site for food.

The authority's general strategy is to make improvements by identifying problematic stretches. Sjölund admits that he is unaware that eagles are disproportionately affected between Högsjö and Kilsmo, but agrees the stretch should be a priority when managing vulnerable areas. However, this work has not yet commenced. “It will take a long time", he says, "money set aside for mitigation measures in the long-term plan only covers 13 percent of the known mitigation needs." For those implementing these measures on the field, this means tough decisions on what to prioritize. Chances are, Sjölund admits, that this deadly stretch is going to be put in a long waiting list.


​​There are a number of ways to prevent eagles from being killed by trains. One of them is to avoid primary casualties, such as moose or reindeer, which can be done by increasing animal crossings and fencing close to the tracks. Sjölund believes that out of these options, animal crossings are the more efficient method, saying that “the fences don't stop the animals. They walk around, jump over or run through. What is missing in our infrastructure are safe passage opportunities.” He also claims that there are big flaws when it comes to the number of fencing and passages that currently exist in the Swedish railway network – “There are not many physical measures that have been done [in recent years]. Some passages were built, but there is not much fencing on the railways.” The good news is that from 2016 onwards, all newly built railways must have the appropriate number of fencing and passages.

Another way of preventing eagle deaths is by picking up the animal carcasses without delay. By doing so, eagles stay away from the tracks in the first place. Trafikverket is obliged to have the carcass removed from the railway tracks two hours after the incident has been reported to the police. But, in reality, the system isn’t working. Singh says, “There is a protocol in place, but people don't remove the carcasses early enough.” There are reports of remains being left on the tracks for up to 3 months.

The remains of run-over animals attract eagles to the tracks. Photo: Bosse Forsling

Sjölund agrees that the current system is flawed but believes it's a multifaceted problem. Trafikverket employs private contractors in different counties or municipalities to pick up the carcasses. However, not all contractors follow the same rules, and deadlines for picking up dead animals vary. Contracts last up to 5 years, and it wasn't until 2020 that the time for collecting cadavers was changed from several days to only a few hours. “It will take at least five years before everyone is following the same rules,” Sjölund says. 

It's also a matter of financing, he claims. In December 2021, Trafikverket presented its newest plan to the government to develop and improve the Swedish transport infrastructure between 2022 and 2033. "We wanted 15 billion [Swedish crowns] for roads and railways to reduce wildlife accidents, but we got 13 percent of what we needed." 


Both the white-tailed and golden eagle are classified as near threatened species, according to the Swedish red list. They are also protected under the EU birds directive, obligating member states to "undertake measures to secure reproduction and survival of the species."

White-tailed eagles almost became extinct in the 1970s. Photo: Steve Herring

If it hadn't been given legal protection in 1924, the golden eagle could have become extinct due to persecution. In the 1970s things were also looking bleak for Swedish white-tailed eagles when environmental toxins almost wiped out the entire population. With the help of protection of the species and bans on specific toxins, both populations have slowly recovered from those hardships. Today, there are around 1343 to 1702 golden eagles. There is no national inventory plan for white-tailed eagles, but Naturvårdsverket (The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency) estimates roughly 1000 pairs or around 2000 adults. But eagles are particularly vulnerable to disturbances, and there are several reasons why the number of eagle deaths needs to be reduced. 

There are 1343 to 1702 golden eagles in Sweden today. Photo: Jon Nelson

Being at the top of the food chain, eagles play a significant part in the ecosystem. They do so by controlling rodent populations, for example. "If you remove the eagles from the picture, the populations start to increase. Then another species might take over, which disturbs the balance of the ecosystem", Singh explains. In the worst case, collisions can affect the size of the population, ultimately making it crash quickly. For now, it's unclear whether the eagles hit by trains are young or adult birds. "If these are adults, then we have a big problem at the door." Because eagles reproduce slowly and don't mate until they reach sexual maturity, around 4 or 5 years old, adult individuals are crucial for keeping the population viable. Singh says, "depending on which part of the population is affected, it may determine the future of the population." Sjölund agrees that eagles are “important animals”, and that more measures are needed to protect the eagles from being killed by trains – "The eagle population is not huge, and never will be. The collisions need to be reduced."

Note concerning data:

The data this investigation originates from a request to Trafikverket. The Swedish Transport Administration has sent us a dataset containing information on number of reported dead eagles, date of reporting and location of the nearest station. The original dataset is available here. The cleaned dataset is available here.