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Jokeri light rail

Construction of the new light rail bridge across the E75 highway. The University of Helsinki's Viikki campus can be seen in the background. The single lane former railway bridge to the right has been used by bus line 550 and will soon be dedicated to walking and cycling. Image courtesy of Jokeri Light Rail Alliance.

Net zero – it is certainly a buzz term of the moment. Yet while discussions on how to make economies less damaging to the environment might now be taking place across the globe, in Finland they are a few steps ahead of the game with practical steps already being made to ensure the vision of ‘net zero’ truly becomes a reality. This Nordic country, already a leader in environmental issues and holder of the European Union’s presidency from July 2019, has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2035.

Finland’s capital region includes not only Helsinki itself, but also the surrounding municipalities of Vantaa, Espoo and Kauniainen. By 2050 it is expected that this area will be home to around two million people – approaching double the current figure – as well as hosting more than a million jobs. A key policy goal therefore is to ensure that the increased travel that will arise from the presence of these growing numbers is steered into sustainable modes: public transport, walking and cycling.

Against this background, the region is currently building its first modern light rail line. Due to open in summer 2024, the 24.5km (15.2-mile) Jokeri Light Rail (JLR) is expected to cost EUR386m.

Construction of this long-awaited project began in June 2019, following the approval of a revised cost estimate in April. Running from Itäkeskus in the east to Keilaniemi in the south-west, JLR is planned to increase the reliability, capacity and passenger comfort of public transport across the northern inner suburbs of the city. It is foreseen as a crucial component of a reconfiguration of the transport system as a whole; while JLR will directly replace the region’s busiest bus route, trunk line 550, its arrival will also be accompanied by a wider reorganisation of the bus network in the future.

Yet this project is also about future-proofing the city’s transportation systems to cater for a major expected uplift in usage: 40 000 people a day currently use bus line 550, but it is anticipated that during a typical weekday in 2030 around 91 000 passengers will use JLR.

Nor is it just bus routes that are to be developed to tie in with the new LRT service. Existing Helsinki tramway corridors will also be developed in future projects to offer connections and interchanges with the new line and it is planned to expand and modify the system to better match light rail standards. The most advanced of these schemes is a new line along Vihdintie from Munkkiniemi; known as the Western Helsinki Tramway, construction on this scheme could begin in 2025. Another line would run alongside the Lahti motorway (E75) via Viikki to the Malmi airport redevelopment area.

Although it is intended that JLR and the tramway will be physically connected, the current proposals only foresee this being for stock transfers and non-revenue services.

HELSINKI’s TRAMWAY JLR might bring modern light rail standards to Helsinki for the first time, but the Finnish capital has long been home to tramway services. Its metre-gauge city system dates from 1891, initially horse-drawn, with conversion to electric traction beginning in 1900 and double-tracking completed in 1901. The system now operates at 600V dc. The system is worked by city transport operator HKL, under the wider aegis of the regional transport authority, HSL, and is a vital component of city transport. Still very much a traditional street-running system, today’s tramway covers 48.8km (30.3 miles) and carries over 60m passengers a year. Stable for decades, the 21st Century brought some system expansion, including prolongation of lines 6 in 2004 and extensions to line 2/3 in 2009. A new line 9 opened in 2008 and was extended first by 1.9km (1.2 miles) in 2012 (coinciding with a 700m extension of line 8) and by a further 630m in 2017. Line 7 was extended around 500m to connect Länsiterminaali (West Terminal) 1 and Länsiterminaali 2 in 2017. Two further extensions, totalling 1.9km, are due to open in 2021. Various vehicle designs currently carry the traditional green and yellow livery of HKL, the most recent example being the Transtech Artic. The first prototypes of the type arrived in 2013, following the placing of an order for 40 vehicles; that was later raised to 70 through the exercise of options (not including the 29 Jokeri vehicles). Subsequently, the prototypes moved to the Schöneiche-Rüdersdorfer tramway (SRS) in Germany (TAUT 978) to be replaced by new vehicles. Now known as the ForCity Smart Artic after Transtech’s acquisition by Škoda, LRVs of this type have also been ordered for Tampere, Plzeň and Ostrava (Czech Republic) and Rhein-Neckar Verkehr (Germany). A third vehicle, this time new, is also to be acquired by the SRS. Helsinki’s tramway is not the only rail-based urban mode in the Finnish capital. The city also has a 35km (22-mile) metro, opened in 1982. This 1522mm-gauge system (the national rail network is 1524mm, but the rails on the metro are nominally tilted slightly inwards, although interoperability of maintenance vehicles is still possible) runs east-west from Vuosaari and Mellunmäki – in the eastern area of Helsinki – via the city centre to Matinkylä (in Espoo). Mellunmäki has the distinction of being the world’s most northerly metro station. Construction on a 7km (4.3km) western extension from Matinkylä to Kivenlahti began in June 2018. The regional transport authority, HSL, covers not only Helsinki, but Espoo, Vantaa, Kauniainen, Kerava, Kirkkonummi, Sipoo, Siuntio and Tuusula. Altogether, some 370m journeys are made per year – not only on trams and metro, but also on commuter trains, buses and ferries.

A complex route

A majority of the JLR’s route will fall into the territory of Finland’s capital itself: 16km (ten miles) will be in Helsinki, with the remaining 9km (six miles) being in Espoo. On average, JLR stops are to be located around 750m apart, giving the line 34 pairs of stops; the decision to place them further apart than those on the existing city’s tramway emphasises the design aim of creating a high-speed regional service.

The biggest single traffic generator for the new line is anticipated to be the Aalto University’s campus in Otaniemi, with other major sources of patronage including the Viikki campus of the University of Helsinki, office developments in Keilaniemi and Leppävaara, and major shopping centres in Leppävaara and Itäkeskus. Heavy rail interchanges in Keilaniemi, Otaniemi, Leppävaara, Huopalahti, Oulunkylä and Itäkeskus are also all expected to drive traffic.

Approximately 1.9km (1.2 miles) will be shared with general road traffic on street alignments, with a further 2.1km (1.3 miles) shared with buses and taxis in dedicated rights of way. The vast majority of the line, 21.5km (13 miles), will be segregated from other traffic, variously using central reservation, beside the carriageway or dedicated alignments.

The route features multiple bridges (including over the River Vantaa), as well as a 400m rock tunnel; all of these are complex structures. Particular challenges include the existence of multiple protected habitats along the line. For example, the Vantaa is home to the thick-shelled river mussel (Unio crassus) and is part of the ‘Natura 2000’ environmental network – agreement had to be obtained for divers to move the mussels before construction of the new bridge could take place. In addition, the corridor includes several habitats for the strictly-protected Siberian flying squirrel (Pteromys volans) that have delayed construction – a ruling from the administrative court is expected by the end of the year, so there is a risk of further delays depending on this outcome and any appeals.

This species holds a particular significance for the region, being the emblem of Espoo’s Nuuksio National Park. Incidentally, its habitats also forced amendments to the route of the new light rail project in Tampere, approximately 180km (112 miles) to the north of the capital region (see TAUT 982).

Utility diversions to be undertaken include a large gas main, major sewers, and high voltage lines that are to be buried. In some locations, a radical approach has been chosen of closing some streets either completely or to automobile traffic except access; while this causes increased disruption during construction it will allow the work to be completed more quickly. A special emphasis has been placed on providing clear diversionary routes for all forms of transport and the provision of detailed advance communication plans  for affected residents and businesses.

Moving the gas main and constructing the tracks in Pirkkola within the street space is a further challenge. It was decided to close the road to cars for 26-28 months, allowing the duration of the works to be cut by at least four months over using a phased approach. The scheme even includes withdrawing pedestrian and cycling access for some months.

Specialist vibration and EMC protection measures were also needed in the Otaniemi and Viikki campus areas. Defining and agreeing a suitable level for these measures has been complex and required specialist advice from Germany.

Creating new guidelines

During the planning process, numerous design guidelines that did not previously exist needed to be created, with one new requirement for Helsinki being the isolation of stray current. Other guidelines could be adapted from existing procedures used on Helsinki’s tramway.

Aside from the creation of the new line itself, the JLR scheme includes the delivery of significant improvements to cycling provision, including bike paths, lanes and ‘superhighway’-type routes. Some of these have their costs included in the project budget, with others to be funded separately. Each light rail stop is to be provided with at least 20 cycle spaces and new pavements will also be constructed on streets that currently only have a pavement on one side.

No new park-and-ride sites will be built, however. Existing railway and metro stations already have such facilities and this requirement was not considered appropriate for smaller light rail stops. Looking more widely, in general the  goal is to see more urban development along the line, with limited space for car access.

As well as sustainability improvements and reducing congestion, the economic case for JLR is very strong. New housing and workplaces are planned along the route in areas including Itäkeskus, Myllypuro, Viikki, Oulunkylä, Maunula, Haaga, Pitäjänmäki, Perkkaa, Otaniemi and Keilaniemi, and even conservative estimates suggest that such development will be worth several hundred million Euros annually for the next 20-30 years. While no separate charges are being levied specifically for projects along the line, developers are charged when new developments are given planning permission and these will take into account whether and how the value of the developments will be increased by their proximity to the new light rail service.

In addition, Helsinki is the largest landowner within the city and so will receive significant income from leasing and selling land – it is estimated that the present value (NPV) of additional land use income for Helsinki alone will be EUR367m over the next 30 years.

Australian-style alliance

The planning process that led to the current delivery of JLR dates from 2012. The ambition for a modern light rail service along this busy corridor has a much longer history, however. The first suggestions of a tram-based solution for what will become JLR was presented in the early 1990s, but the early Benefit Cost Ratio was considered insufficient at 0.8. This led to the development of trunk bus line 550, which has now reached capacity.

A preliminary LRT feasibility study was completed in 2009, but at that time priority was given to metro expansion. A preliminary masterplan proposed a line serving Tapiola via Laajalahti, but after further study the route was set as Leppävaara to Otaniemi and Keilaniemi. This version reaches a greater number of potential passengers in Espoo, without extending travel times.

The project is being delivered using an alliancing model, with client partners being the cities of Helsinki and Espoo and service providers YIT Suomi and NRC Group Finland – formerly VR Track – as well as the design and engineering organisations Sitowise and Ramboll Finland. (Swedish consultancy Sweco is in the process of acquiring NRC’s engineering business, expected to reach financial close on 1 November).

Finnish project alliances are based on similar Australian models, with influence also taken from US lean-construction principles. Further experience has been drawn from a number of Swedish
co-operative schemes.

All parties first work together on a ‘cost plus’ basis to develop the plans to a level where a joint target cost and scope are agreed. At this point the promoters choose whether to proceed. If they do, all parties are bound to the target cost, related scope and a set of key performance indicators with associated bonuses and sanctions set. Any cost increases or savings are shared, while changes in scope are priced using the same unit costs as the main contract to avoid additional fees.

It should be noted that the alliance is not a limited company; the arrangement is based on a mutual contract. All parties are represented in the alliance steering group and all decisions must be unanimous. If an issue cannot be resolved, the alliance could be dissolved with only the costs that have already been incurred being reimbursed – this collaborative and transparent approach ensures that all the parties commit to no blame and no litigation.

Useful experience has been gained from the fact that the Tampere light rail project (of which the first phase is nearing completion – see TAUT 982) is also being delivered under an alliance structure, which includes many of the same private sector partners as JLR.

During the project’s development phase it became clear that the owners’ objectives could not be met within the previous cost estimate and so a new cost had to be approved – at December 2018 prices, the delivery of JLR is now budgeted at EUR386m.

Finance is being provided from multiple sources: EUR84m is covered by the national government (30% of the initial cost estimate), with the remainder funded by the cities of Helsinki (EUR210m) and Espoo (EUR92m). The increased costs will be financed by the cities, something that will likely involve additional capital borrowing. Finnish municipalities enjoy wide autonomy and taxation rights, so financing investments is a normal part of their operations; it is however possible that Helsinki and Espoo will apply for an increase of the government’s share to 30% of the revised estimate, although this is not yet certain.

Operations and maintenance

The JLR project includes depot construction and the procurement of a new LRV fleet. The depot will be developed by the alliance and will be located in Roihupelto, close to the eastern end of the line and next to the existing metro facility. Indeed, a section of disused metro access alignment to the depot will be repurposed and rebuilt for JLR.

Although a location closer to the middle of the line would have been ideal, there was no suitable site available. As the site currently performs the same function for buses, a replacement bus facility is to be built nearby.

The programme includes a stabling building for the initial fleet of 29 LRVs, each of which will be 34.5m-long double-ended variants of Škoda Transtech’s Artic ForCity. Ordered in November 2016, economies of scale were achieved with the exercising of an option under an existing contract placed by Helsinki’s city transport company HKL for Artic vehicles. There is future provision
to extend the stabling building if the JLR LRVs are later extended to 44m – this option is included within its rolling stock contract.
All vehicles will be stored indoors in a 4500m2 stabling facility due to Helsinki’s harsh winter climate, and each will accommodate up to 256 passengers (crush loading, for practical purposes assume 175), 78 seated, with multi-purpose areas for wheelchairs and pushchairs.

The depot is expected to cost EUR69.5m (at November 2018 prices), a figure not included in the main infrastructure cost. HKL is financing the rolling stock and depot and these will be repaid as annual operating costs by the regional public transport authority, Helsingin seudun liikenne (HSL).

HSL will decide later during 2019 whether to directly award an operations and maintenance contract to HKL, or whether it will competitively tender for a third-party operator. In either case, fares are to be fully-integrated with the regional public transport ticketing system.

In general terms, it is intended that fare revenue will cover half of the operating costs and a quarter of the infrastructure investment.

The target for the line’s commercial speed has been set at 25km/h (15.5mph), with current simulations indicating an achievable 23.9km/h (14.8mph). The precise timetabled speed will be determined through test running and operational experience.

Although travel times are expected to be broadly similar to those on the current bus route, 60 minutes from end to end, a major benefit is expected during peak periods when the segregated and traffic-signalled nature of the light rail line should allow it to maintain a punctual timetable. In contrast, congestion causes delays and bunching for the current bus services and this is forecast to worsen without a major intervention.

The average JLR journey is estimated to cover 4.2km (2.6 miles), similar to the current 550 bus line. As much of the line will run on new lanes, the 550 will continue to operate during light rail construction.

Leading the way

Although still four-and-a-half years from opening, the Jokeri Light Rail project will be a game-changer in encouraging modal shift in Finland’s capital region. It further demonstrates the country’s leadership on environmental issues, an agenda that will be driven further by the nation’s Presidency of the European Union.

Ambitious targets are required if the EU is to meet its stated objective of reducing carbon emissions by 90% by 2050, and a shift to more sustainable urban transport is a key element in driving this transition. Current (conservative) modelling suggests that JLR will replace more than a million car journeys per year, as well as catering for growth and expansion of the Finnish capital.

Images courtesy of Jokeri Light Rail Alliance. Aerial images by Antti Inkeroinen. Find out more at www.raidejokeri.info/en/

Article appeared originally in TAUT 983 (November 2019).