Helsinki’s Trams and Infrastructure: foresight and strategy

15 November 2010 | blog, cities, strategy

Variotram - Helsinki's modern tram operating in snow

This short article was originally published in the Guardian Edinburgh under the title ‘Spotlight on trams: Helsinki’. The Guardian has given up its local experiment so this post, together with a similar article on trams in Bordeaux may disappear at any time from the Guardian’s pages – hence they are republished here.
In the latest of an occasional series looking at trams across the world’s cities, guest blogger Willie Miller discovers Finland’s capital mirrors Edinburgh in many ways, yet trams are just a fraction of its transport aspirations

Imagine a country with around the same population as Scotland that builds Metro lines and high speed rail links, that has the ambition to build a 50 mile undersea tunnel link to another country and is built around an extensive welfare state.

Imagine the same country regularly topping international comparisons of national performance in health, education and quality of life, as well as being the seventh most competitive country in the world.

Imagine its capital city, with a similar population to Edinburgh, with an extensive district heating system, the foresight to introduce a vacuum powered district waste disposal scheme that eliminates bin collections and which is extending its tram based public transport system with six major new lines over the next few years.

Helsinki is a city of 480,000 people with a surrounding metropolitan area of around 1.3 million people. It is very similar in size to Edinburgh (478,000) and it also the capital of its country with a population slightly less than that of Scotland at 5.3 million.

It is a remarkable and beautiful city with big plans for the future which include a fast rail link to St Petersburg, promoting and developing its airport as a European hub to China and investigating a 50 mile tunnel link to Tallinn in Estonia. This is a city in which seventy percent of the land area and almost all development land is owned by the City Council. This is a city with big plans and the ability to implement them.

The city also has ambitious plans for its own expansion, particularly on to waterfront areas previously occupied by docklands and inner harbours which have moved out to a new complex at Vuosaaric on the eastern edge of the conurbation. It is expected that an additional 100,000 people will be accommodated in these new developments. A key factor in planning these new development areas is integrated public transport by Metro in part but mainly by tram.

Helsinki’s tram network is one of the oldest electrified tram networks in the world. It forms part of the city public transport system organised by Helsinki Regional Transport Authority and operated by Helsinki City Transport. The trams are the main means of transport within the city centre and 56.6 million trips were made back in 2004, which is more than those made with the Helsinki Metro.

The Finnish capital has 12 tram lines and six more on the wayThe Finnish capital has 12 tram lines and six more on the way | pic: Creative Commons

The first tram network was established in 1890 and electrification took place in 1900. In common with many other European cities, the trams and infrastructure was under threat from buses in the mid 20th century and the city decided to close the system in the early 1960s. However this decision was reversed during the early 1970s and by 1976 the network was being expanded again. Today the tram is a key part of the city’s infrastructure.

The city has a current total of twelve lines with a further six lines planned over the next few years. As well as owning almost 70% of the land area of the city, the Helsinki authorities also own the public transport system and critically, the energy company that supplies power for the tram network. This degree of ownership of the core elements of the system means that it is relatively easy to extend the network and guarantee connections to new housing areas without having to haggle with different land owners, developers, public utility owners and contractors.

Another aspect of infrastructure provision in Helsinki is the way in which it seems to happen efficiently and painlessly. Not for them the contractual disputes, delays in implementation or flaws in construction which are leapt upon by a triumphant public and trumpeted in the media elsewhere.

Perhaps it is in the dour uncomplaining Finnish character to just let other people get on with things in the knowledge that they will eventually be successful. Or perhaps they are just used to doing infrastructure provision really well.

Original article and comments