December 08, 2015

The Networked City: can rail help Helsinki grow inwards?

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Finland's capital has drawn up an ambitious long-term urban plan which seeks to accommodate population and employment growth while halting urban sprawl and reducing carbon emissions. Keith Barrow looks at why rail is central to this bold vision of a 21st century city.

FINLAND's economy may be going through tough times, but the country's capital Helsinki is a city gearing up for growth. With the population forecast to increase from around 600,000 to 820,000 and the number of jobs within the city's municipal area expected to reach 560,000 by 2050, the city is exploring radical options to ensure it can support more homes and more jobs in its central districts while maintaining or improving the quality of the urban environment for the people who live and work there.

 

At the end of 2014 Helsinki City Council issued its draft city plan Vision 2050, a bold strategy which outlines how the city can sustainably accommodate population and employment growth over the next 35 years. The plan envisages densification of the city centre with 45,000 new homes and 65,000 new jobs in this area. The inner city will be extended 3km northwards towards Pasila, with the development of a new business district along the Pasila - Vallila - Kalasatama axis.

KruunusiltaDensification of the core is not a new concept - as recently as the 1950s, most of Helsinki's housing was located in central districts. However, the plan notes that over the last half century, suburbanisation and the development of non-urban centres have radically altered the capital's spatial structure, with the role of the city centre diminishing and fragmentation of the urban area as the population has spread out over a wider area. There is now a consensus that Helsinki cannot continue growing outwards and can only become a liveable low-carbon city in the future if it grows inwards.

Sustainable mass transport is central to the success or failure of the densification policy and rail therefore plays a central role in the plan. With the focus on humanising the city and giving priority to pedestrians and cyclists, Helsinki is looking at drastically reducing vehicular traffic and cutting road capacity in some areas while simultaneously enhancing public transport to offer practical, attractive, and flexible alternatives to the car.

Helsinki already boasts an excellent radial public transport network, with tram, metro and commuter rail lines reaching outwards from the city centre, but the city suffers from a lack of high-quality transverse links, which means many journeys are made by car with public transport users being funnelled through city centre interchanges. The city plan envisages the construction of new light rail lines which will not only bind the radial routes into a cohesive network but also help suburban centres grow into vibrant urban hubs supporting more jobs and new residential developments. By 2050, all parts of the city should be within easy reach by sustainable transport, with walking and cycling receiving the highest priority.

In order to meet these goals, the light rail network will be expanded significantly with the addition of several new lines. The 25km Raide-Jokeri line will link Keilaniemi, Otaniemi and Leppävaara in the neighbouring city of Espoo with Haaga, Pakila, and Oulunkylä in northern Helsinki before terminating at Itäkeskus in the east. The 33-station line will closely follow the route of Line 550, Helsinki's busiest bus line with peak services operating at intervals as short as three minutes. Line 550 carries up to 40,000 passengers per day, but the light rail line would accommodate up to 80,000, running largely on a segregated alignment with services operating at 5-10 minute intervals.

"We are operating the maximum number of services that can be realistically be operated using buses," explains Helsinki City Transport (HKL) CEO Mr Ville Lehmuskoski. "This is difficult to operate reliably and we need more capacity, which could be achieved through light rail." With significant capacity constraints and the contract for the operation of the bus route due to expire by 2022, this line is considered a priority for early construction.

The cities of Helsinki and Espoo have appointed Ramboll and WSP as planning consultants for the project and a final feasibility study and general plan is due to be completed this month, which will enable the two cities and the Finnish government to discuss when construction should start on the €300m project. "There is a strong political will among the ruling parties to get this line built sooner rather than later," Lehmuskoski says.

A further east-west light rail line dubbed Jokeri 2 is also proposed further north, which would replace bus Line 560. To the south, the "Science Tram" line would link Aalto University metro station in Otaniemi with the main line station in Pasila and the University of Helsinki's Kumpula campus, intersecting en route with several key entry routes into the city. The Helsinki Regional Transport System Plan envisages the conversion of this bus route to light rail in the late 2020s.

To the east of the city centre, a new 143 hectare residential district called Kruunuvuorenranta is planned on the site of a disused harbour and oil terminal on the island of Laajasalo, which could ultimately house up to 15,000 people. Road links between Laajasalo and the mainland are limited and the existing bridges would not cope with such a large increase in the island's population, which is likely to require a new rail link. After ruling out a metro extension as too costly, Helsinki City Council adopted light rail in 2008 as its preferred option for linking the island to the city centre.

The preferred alignment for the city centre section has not yet been finalised, but the project will require the construction of three major bridges totalling 2km. The longest of these, the 1.2km Kruunuvuori Bridge, will be the longest bridge in Finland and one of the world's longest public transport bridges with pedestrian and bicycle lanes running alongside the tram line.

The line is forecast to carry around 30,000 passengers per day and will form part of Helsinki's core tram network with journey times of 10-25 minutes between the city centre and Laajasalo. Planning is now at an advanced stage and a decision on whether to proceed with the project is due to be made early next year.

Alongside the expansion of the system, the existing network will be reshaped over the next decade to maximise its potential and improve integration with other modes, reflecting the impact of new infrastructure such as West Metro and the recently-completed Ring Rail line.

Following a public consultation, the board of Helsinki Regional Transport (HSL), which is responsible for providing public transport services in and around the capital, approved a plan in February this year for a phased recast of the network, providing a 5-6-minute interval peak service on sections in central areas of the city which are served by two or more tram routes. The programme will also simplify cross-city journeys, reducing the need for many passengers to change between routes, and is also intended to make operations more efficient. These changes are expected to deliver a 10-20% increase in tram ridership by 2025 and will also help to reduce journey times on a network where average speeds are slow by international standards.

This would be a welcome development for a network which has seen a decline in tram ridership in recent years. "There are two major reasons why passenger numbers are falling," Lehmuskoski explains. "Firstly, the City of Helsinki has been encouraging walking and cycling through its transport policy, and this has been very successful. Tram trips tend to be short, so the bicycle is a competitor. The second is the economic recession, which has led to a decline in employment in the city centre, reducing demand."

Perhaps the most audacious element of the city plan - and also one of the most contentious - is the proposal to redevelop seven major entry roads into the city within the Ring 1 orbital road as mixed-use transport corridors. These so-called City Boulevards would cut capacity for car traffic to accommodate new tram lines, cycle paths, footpaths, and green spaces. Speed limits would be reduced to 50km/h and some flyovers and underpasses would be replaced with level intersections. This would be accompanied by high-density development - the city plan envisages up to 80,000 of the 220,000 people expected to move into Helsinki by 2050 will live along these corridors.

In June Helsinki Regional Chamber of Commerce dismissed the City Boulevards plan as "unrealistic," arguing it would make the city centre less accessible, contrary to the objectives of the city plan, although the proposals have support from across the political spectrum, albeit with differences on certain details.

"This divides people, and there is a lot of public discussion about whether we should go ahead with it," Lehmuskoski says. "The business community is concerned that if you make it difficult to come into the city by car it will be bad for business. Young people generally support the City Boulevards and feel it will be positive for Helsinki. We believe better public transport means we can move more people into the city more quickly. There's no doubt it will be a difficult decision but if the city says 'yes' it will be a big opportunity for public transport."

Helsinki City Planning Committee began discussing the proposals in October and approved it in November. A final decision on whether to adopt the plan - including the City Boulevards - will be made next year by the City Council.

Short-term investment

While debate continues over the longer-term aspirations of the city plan, a number of major investment projects are already underway which will bring improvements to the light rail, metro and suburban rail networks in the shorter-term.

On the metro, HKL is taking delivery of 20 new four-car M300 trains from CAF in preparation for the launch of the 13.9km West Metro from Ruoholahti to Matinkylä in Espoo, which is due to open in August 2016 (pX). The extension of the metro to Matinkylä is expected to increase public transport's market share by 1.1% or around 11,000 passengers per day.

HSL signed a five-year operating agreement for the suburban rail network with VR Group earlier this year, which starts in April 2016 and seeks to achieve efficiencies of €30m compared with the current contract. The deal will also accelerate the introduction of new trains, which are being procured by leasing company Junakalusto from Stadler. This means all Helsinki suburban services will be operated by new trains by 2017.

By 2018 Helsinki Regional Transport (HSL) plans to introduce a new zonal regional fares structure based on municipal boundaries, superseding the existing distance-based system, while ticketing infrastructure and passenger information systems will be renewed to provide real-time information and journey planning on mobile devices. Social media also plays an increasingly prominent role in communicating with passengers. "This is becoming more and more important as a way of getting information out there quickly and reacting to service failures," Lehmuskoski says. "We have to recognise this is the way people interact now and as transport operators we have to take advantage of it."

HSL is also involved in another groundbreaking project, which brings together 23 organisations in Finland to provide tailor-made mobility services to consumers based on their individual needs. Mobility as a Service (MaaS) takes over the task of working out how to get from A to B, enabling the user to plan, book and pay for any multi-modal trip through a single smartphone or tablet app.

Such integrated solutions can only be achieved with open-access to timetables, real-time location information, and payment systems of all partners - potentially a massive undertaking for many cities, but one which could overcome many of the barriers limiting intermodality. Indeed, Helsinki sees MaaS as a step towards its target of achieving on-demand mobility by 2025.

HKL is also looking at how it can make services such as parcel collection and grocery shopping part of the everyday commute. "What can we do to make passengers' lives easier?" Lehmuskoski asks. "We have lots of free space at our metro stations which would enable us to develop click and collect services for parcels or groceries. We are working with passengers and universities to come up with new ways of developing our services."

Unlike many cities, Helsinki has benefited from a long-term and stable political consensus that urban rail investment is a good thing, but with pressure on the public finances, it is by no means certain that the city will be able to fund all of its proposed projects. "All the political parties in Helsinki support public transport and as a result we have seen continuous, positive policy since the late 1960s," Lehmuskoski says. "At the moment politicians are very keen to support public transport investment, and while there are risks, HKL looks positively to the future. West Metro will double our metro traffic and there's strong growth ahead, which isn't typical of the overall situation in Finland right now. Staff feel motivated that they are part of an exceptional situation and we should feel happy that we are working for a city that embraces rail transport."

 

New trams for challenging conditions

FINDING a low-floor tram capable of operating reliably in low winter temperatures and on the sharp curves of central Helsinki's tram network has been a major challenge for HKL, one it hopes to have solved with its latest-generation LRV, the Artic.

HKL took delivery of 40 24.4m-long Bombardier Variotram LRVs between 1998 and 2003 but the fleet suffered numerous technical problems including cracks in bogies and bodyshells, which have significantly impeded availability.

In December 2010 HKL announced that it had signed a €113m contract with Finnish rolling stock supplier Transtech (now part of Škoda Transportation) for 40 three-section Artic LRVs. Passenger feedback, operational performance, and ease of maintenance were key considerations, and these factors have been evaluated extensively during a two-year trial with two pre-series vehicles.

HKL says reliability, availability and customer feedback have been "extremely good," with only minor changes to the specification for the production vehicles, which will be delivered between 2016 and 2018.

Each 27.6m-long LRV accommodates up to 199 passengers, 88 of them seated, and features low-energy LED lighting.

Traction systems were supplied by Voith, and a separate motor-gear unit with a continuous output of 65kW drives each of the eight axles, which receive power via two EmCon double traction inverters. Voith also provided wheels, axles, bearings, drive-related vehicle control, and the diagnostics system.

The vehicles are equipped with an intelligent braking energy management system, which enables braking energy to be stored in specially-designed onboard heat exchangers for use in the heating system if it cannot be fed back to the grid via the overhead catenary.

The Artic is also able to automatically prevent excessive horizontal acceleration in curves by measuring the offset angle between the bogie and the vehicle to determine the curve radius. If the vehicle is travelling too fast, a control device automatically limits the speed, minimising centrifugal forces.

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