Every American transportation planner should spend a week in Helsinki (part 2 of 3)

In this post, I’m going to cover the commuter-rail network serving Helsinki, and also (for lack of a better place to discuss it) show a few bits of mainline railway as well — since they share facilities and are operated by the same company, VR Group, it seems only fair. Back in 1988–89, when I first went to Finland, VR was an initialism for Valtion Rautatiet, State Railways, but since Finland joined the EU it was required to split off the operating functions of VR into a separate enterprise. The tracks, bridges, and rights of way are still directly owned by the state, through an agency in the transport ministry, but the actual passenger and freight operations are now called VR Group, a legally separate (but still state-owned) enterprise. State-owned companies are subject to EU restrictions on subsidies, whereas state-owned physical assets are not, and this structure is duplicated in many other European countries. In Central Europe, this allows for private (commercial) operators to run passenger and freight rail systems over the state-owned rails, in competition with each other and with the national railway company, but VR still has a monopoly on passenger transport in Finland. Because Finland’s railways were originally built during the 19th century, when Finland was a Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire, they were largely built to Russian standards, including the broad (1524 mm) track gauge, and this is true on the Helsinki Metro as well. (Helsinki trams use narrow (meter) gauge instead.)

[Here I would have embedded a Google Maps view showing the rail lines heading north from Helsinki Central Railway Station, but Google Maps is apparently no longer supported on any browser other than Google Chrome so I can’t get an embed link.]

The northern and central parts of the city of Helsinki are divided in half by the railway lines, which terminate at Helsingin päärautatieasema, Helsinki Central Railway Station, on the north side of the old city and central business district. The Töölö area, to the west of the tracks and north of the CBD, is home to Parliament and many cultural institutions; Finlandia Hall, the Music Hall, and the future location of the Helsinki Central Library are immediately to the west of the tracks as they exit the station, and the Linnanmäki amusement park is on a bluff overlooking the railway cut from the east, a short distance to the north. As with many American cities divided by a downtown freeway, there are few east-west crossings of the railroad right-of-way, which narrows from 19 tracks wide at the terminus to 10 tracks through Pasila station, where all commuter and most long-distance trains stop, about 5 minutes north of Helsinki Central, and it’s at Pasila where we will begin our tour.

Six tracks head north and west from Pasila station; four more tracks enter the station from the main line to the north and east, on the other side of Hartwall Arena, out of frame to the left.

The coast line to Karis and Turku heads northwest out of Pasila towards Ilmala station. To the north, tracks lead off into the remaining (still massive) part of Pasila yard complex. The six-track line quickly merges down to two tracks west of Ilmala, with a flying junction for the Airport Ring Line.

A telephoto view of part of Pasila yard as seen from the coast line just past the divergence.

An inbound “I” train from the airport heads south along the coast line from Ilmala towards Pasila station.

The Airport Ring Line was inaugurated in 2015 after a 770-million-euro construction project, involving five new stations, 8 km of tunnel, and 18 km of track. The Ring Line connected the end of an existing commuter branch (off the coast line to Vantankoski) to the airport in northern Vantaa and then back south to the main line at Tikkurila. Service on the Ring Line is operated rapid-transit style, every five to ten minutes in both directions during the daytime, with the clockwise route designated “P” and the counterclockwise route “I” — for trips from Helsinki Central to the airport, the “I” service makes fewer stops and runs five minutes faster. All of the new stations were planned for transit-oriented development, and have platforms long enough to support three trainsets (currently, HSL commuter service uses only one or two trainsets per train). Aviapolis station, at the southern end of the airfield, is surrounded by office parks and highways, and is a bus transfer away from residential areas and a large shopping mall. Because the main line and coast line serve platforms on opposite sides of Helsinki Central Station, “I” and “P” trains will swap designations when they reach the terminus and change ends for the next outbound trip.

The Airport service is operated with class Sm5 EMUs, which are a version of the Stadler FLIRT adapted for the Finnish broad gauge. Other commuter-rail services use a mixture of Sm5 and older rolling stock, all EMU. Older trainsets are painted in VR colors rather than HSL’s purple. The Sm5 is configured as a permanently-articulated four-carriage trainset, with a capacity of 260 passengers, and have a maximum speed of 120 km/h (99 mi/h); all trains include toilets and wheelchair zones, with level boarding at all doors but some high-floor sections.

Off to the right is part of the Pasila railyard complex which has been demolished as part of a massive brownfields/air-rights development that will replace Pasila station and add thousands of square meters of office and retail development.

The new air-rights development is called “Tripla”, and it will anchor the newly-designated neighborhood of Keski-Pasila (Central Pasila). This view is taken from the parking deck of Hartwall Arena looking south along the railway right-of-way.

VR still operates car-carrier service on several of its long-distance routes. Tracks 21 and 22 at Pasila station, southeast of Hartwall Arena, are the Helsinki terminus.

At the Pasila car-carrier station, ramps allow vehicles to drive directly onto (near train) or into (far train) the car carrier. VR uses two styles of car-carrier, both bi-level; one which is all-enclosed and one with an open upper deck.

This train is in VR livery and it’s clearly an EMU of some sort, but I’m not sure what sort of service it’s actually operating.

A pedestrian walkway and cyclepath connects Hartwall Arena with Pasila station. Figure skating fans leaving the arena after the event head down a ramp leading to a ground-level passageway interconnecting the station platforms and Ratapihantie to the east.

Fans coming down from Hartwall Arena are greeted by video departure boards in the connecting passageway. Barrier-free ramps lead up island platforms between each of the ten tracks.

Just before 6 PM on a weekday, and seven northbound commuter trains depart in the next eleven minutes! Note that commuter trains mostly use the outer tracks, and long-distance trains use the innter tracks.

All trains heading south from Pasila go to Helsinki Central Station, which is the end of the line. Long-distance trains stop only to discharge passengers, but there are plenty of commuter trains to handle that traffic: ten trains in twenty minutes!

The challenge here is to figure out which platform to wait on — with the most frequent service, on the Airport Ring Line, serving opposite sides of the station at both Pasila and Helsinki Central, it is difficult if not impossible to catch one after missing the other. But service is so frequent that you might as well wait for the next one rather than switching platforms. In my week at the World Figure Skating Championships, I found that it was never helpful to run for a train shown on this display as “boarding” (bullet next to the departure time): by day 4 I had learned to skip down to the next train due to arrive and head for that platform. The displays are located below the platform for tracks 5 and 5b, which do not see many commuter trains, but at various times during the week I ended up taking “E”, “K”, “N”, and “R” trains in addition to the more frequent “I” and “P”, simply because they were the next departures. (There are 14 different commuter-train routes in all, but many serve the same ultimate destinations; the designations vary depending on which intermediate stops they make. For example, the “Y”, “X”, “U”, and “L” trains all run to Kirkkonummi, but the “Y” and “X” are express trains, the “Y” runs one stop farther [and outside the HSL commuter zone], the “U” runs express within Helsinki city limits, and the “L” makes all local stops — compare the New York City Subway’s distinction between “lines” and “services”. See the map.)

Pasila station serves an area which is heavily trafficked by both locals and visitors alike: Linnanmäki is an amusement park just south east of the station, the convention center is on Ratapihantie to the northeast, and Hartwall Arena is northwest, in the bowl of the “Y” junction between the coast line to the west and the main line to the north and east.

Inside the departure hall at Pasila station, a variety of commuter-oriented businesses serve rail passengers for a few more days, before the station is closed permanently and demolished.

The westernmost track remaining at Pasila station is track 9. I’m standing on the platform (between tracks 8 and 9) and looking across the tracks at signs for the new development under construction on the former railyard brownfields and air rights over the tracks. The sign at right translates as “Western auxiliary 1st stage construction work completed 2019”; Liikennevirasto is the government office which owns and manages railway infrastructure;. The left-hand sign describes ongoing work to remediate contaminated soils in the former railyard.

The view here is north along track 9, the westernmost remaining through track, toward Hartwall Arena. The letters hanging along the platform coordinate with the video arrival monitors, indicating where along the platform the arriving train will stop.

Looking southwest from track 9, amidst the construction cranes, the viaduct carries Asemapäällikönkatu (“Stationmaster Street”) over the former railyard. It also carries the 7A and 7B tram routes.

This coach is still painted in the old green-and-blue livery; “JKOY” indicates that it is owned by the joint venture of VR Group and HSL. The route display alternates Finnish and Swedish text, and in Swedish says “Helsingfors / Biljettförsäljning” (Helsinki, ticket sales). The destination sign of a northbound P train to the airport is reflected in the window.

All railway lines (in Finland, anyway) lead to Helsinki, and most terminate at Helsinki Central Station, which has 19 tracks to handle the volume of commuter and long-distance trains here. In the middle of the station, under the glass roof, are mostly long-distance trains waiting for their next outbound departures. Commuter trains are relegated to the outer tracks, exposed to the weather, except for certain routes late at night.

Under the trainshed but outside the station building proper, a display board shows arrivals and departures from Central Station, as usual alternating Finnish and Swedish station names. An indicator light shows that one train is currently boarding, and an airplane icon indicates the three upcoming departures for the airport.

An Sm5 train operating on the “E” route to Kauklahti waits at Central Station for its scheduled departure from track 15. Across the platform, a long-distance train also waits.

On platform 12, train 961 boards passengers for Turku. Trains for the coast line use the western half of the station to avoid crossing the busy commuter routes between Helsinki Central and Pasila.

Train 961 operates as part of the high-speed “InterCity” service, which uses locomotive-hauled trains and is somewhat slower than the premium “Pendolino” service. This service has assigned seating, even in “Eco class” (we’d say “coach”), so passengers need to check the coach number to find their seats. The InterCity service to Turku is operated push-pull, with the locomotive leading westbound trains and trailing eastbound.

Each track at each station has a video destination sign like this one indicating the next scheduled train by identifier (in this case, a commuter train on the “U” route), destinations in both official languages, and departure time. When I took this photo, an “E” train had just departed, and the 16:43 “U” train had not arrived yet.

Inside Central Station, hanging over the newsstands and restaurants, a large video board informs passengers of upcoming arrivals and departures for long-distance trains, with destinations and major station stops.

VR uses a variety of letter designations with train numbers indicating the particular service class a train operates as. The top-class “Pendolino” service, named after the Italian-made tilting trainsets used to provide the service, uses “S”, and lower-speed locomotive-hauled “InterCity” service is designated “IC”. The “P” overnight train to Kolari, in Lapland, is a class of service called “Express”; the regional “H” trains don’t serve Helsinki, and the St. Petersburg express Allegro service would be designated “AE” if there were any shown here.

Between the long-distance and commuter train departure boards a diagram shows the arrangement of tracks, with track 1 in the east and track 19 in the west. The 16:35 “Z” train is currently boarding on track 8 — you might make it in time, whereas you’ll probably have to run 200 meters to make that 16:36 “K” train on track 1!

The entry hall to Central Station has a set of video departure monitors, displaying the same information as the large departure display in the main hall. The green ticket vending machines sell tickets for VR long-distance trains and also a limited selection of HSL tickets valid on commuter trains.

This “I” train is waiting on track 1 at Central Station for its scheduled departure to Helsinki Airport. I will be taking it only as far as Pasila station.

I’ve caught the destination sign of this Sm5 in Swedish mode. Note the U-shaped route map over the door, which accurately reflects the division of commuter services between the coast line (to the west) and the main line (to the north and east). On the route display, outside temperature alternates with the current speed, and the curious slashed-out icon indicates that ticket sales are not available on this carriage.

I didn’t think to get a good photo of the carriage vestibule. The yellow box is a stamping machine for validating paper tickets, and the black box next to it allows holders of stored-value travel cards to pay for their fare.

Back at Central Station, I’m about to board a high-speed “Pendolino” train to Turku. The Italian-made trains operate in fixed trainsets with a hydraulic tilting mechanism allowing them to take curves at higher speeds than conventional carriages, similar to Amtrak’s (TGV-derived) Acela trainsets; they have a maximum speed of 220 km/h.

I’ll be back in a few days with some pictures of the Helsinki tram network, as well as some photos from my trip to Turku, more photos of Helsinki, and some photos of Reykjavik. There will hopefully also be a food post about a delicious Finnish bakery item as well.

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1 Response to Every American transportation planner should spend a week in Helsinki (part 2 of 3)

  1. ”This train is in VR livery and it’s clearly an EMU of some sort, but I’m not sure what sort of service it’s actually operating.”

    That’s an Sm4, used on longer distance regional routes. Here probably coming in from Riihimäki or Lahti.

    Thank you for this series! It’s always fascinating to get an outsider’s view of something familiar and mundane.

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