Saturday, 22 June 2013


After exploring the urban rail systems of Helsinki, I took the modern Allegro train to St. Petersburg.When I visited Moscow in 2010, I was quite annoyed by the lack of order at the immigration procedure. In the U.S. you may find a long queue, too, but it is strictly organised and vigilated, so although you may have to wait, you know you will eventually get there. Not so in Russia (at least Moscow Domodedovo): there is a huge crowd waiting in front of numerous immigration desks, and you just have to keep your elbows out and you may eventually make it. Until a few seconds before it is your turn, you don't even know which counter will be the one available for you. The Allegro from Helsinki to St. Petersburg, which runs three times a day in only 3 hours and a half, seems to be the only civilised way to get into Russia, you just stay sitting in your train seat and wait until someone asks you for your passport, just like in Western Europe before Schengen. You need to fill in those little papers, of course (keep one half for departure from Russia). The border guards get on at Vyborg and then check people on the way to St. Petersburg.

Now for the real subject of this blog, St. Petersburg urban rail systems, primarily the METRO. There is not much I can say that hasn't already been said, so here's a little brainstorming (I'll add + and – to express what I think):

(–) it is extremely deep
(–) long distances between stations
(+) very clean
(+) quite frequent
(+) not too overcrowded
(+) feels pretty safe and civilized people
(–) extremely loud
(+) mostly well ventilated
(–) up to three different names for what is one interchange station!
(++) 'western-style' signage with colours and line numbers
(+) precious, though not too overloaded stations
(+) smartcard available
(–) rather long walks between lines
(+) most things written in English, too
(–) intransparent platform doors

Of course, one tends to compare St. Petersburg's Metro to Moscow's. I'd say the strongest point in favour of St. Petersburg is the new signage introduced some years ago. For purists, this may ruin the classic design of the stations, but I'd say, it's perfectly integrated and in fact the line colours add a special note. On older photos many stations look dull, with so much marble in all different tones, but nothing much more except the indirectly lit vault. So, now you have got a nice Russian metro with good global signage, which I missed in Moscow. The addition of English on virtually all signs helps a lot, but also makes one lazier when trying to get used to reading Cyrillic. I guess they had professional advisors from London Underground, as everything seems to be in correct English, although I don't know why they decided to use 'Subway' when everybody understands 'Metro' nowadays, whereas 'subway' still is a bit misleading for many British people and they may be surprised how deep those underpasses are.... Transliteration of station names from Cyrillic into Latin is often a subject of discussion, but here it is done at least in a rather consistent form (they use, for example, Ploschad' instead of Ploshchad' as I had learned and thus used on my maps).

One feature exclusive to the St. Petersburg Metro are the old-style platform doors, in many stations on line 3 and a few on the southern leg of line 2. Well, I don't like them at all, they give me a certain feeling of claustrophoby, like in a lift where can cannot even look through the door. Well, I guess I'm not the only one, and that's why both lifts and platform screen doors are always transparent nowadays. In St. Petersburg, these were installed in the late 1960s when the concept as such was unknown in other metros, so they were pioneers and used full metal doors to reduce the costs of the otherwise typical 3-nave tunnel stations. But when you're on the train, you are unable to see who is on the platform (as stations are always quite busy this is not so much of an issue here as it could be in cities like Berlin where you often find non-passenger people hanging round the stations), but when you wait on the platform, it is a kind of surprise whether the door that opens in front of you will lead you into a crowded or an empty car. Intelligent passengers like me 'scan' the train as it enters the station and try to get into the car that is less packed. So travelling south on line 3, it was kind of a relief to reach Proletarskaya, the first 'normal' station without these doors.

What I don't understand about Russian metros is why they are so loud. I know, they mostly use metal linings in tube tunnels, their tracks are not welded so like in London you get the endless clack-clack, but even in the stations you can hardly talk when a train enters. As a result, noone speaks on the train, all look rather serious and grumpy or play with their mobile devices as the entire systems seems to have coverage with several providers. What I like, though, is that acoustic announcements are exactly placed when the noise volume is the lowest and that not only the next station is announced but also the following one (acoustic announcements are in Russian only). But it will be quite relaxing to ride again on the Berlin U-Bahn, for some reason one of the quietest I've seen (but with often dirty stations, badly behaved people, etc.).

The network is growing steadily, and most of the new stations are also quite attractive, although two of them have clearly been made 'cheaper', Volkovskaya in the south and Komandantskiy Prospekt in the north, well they are a bit in the 'global' style, although the arches add some Eastern touch, too. My favourite is probably Obvodniy Kanal, although I was surprised that the new stations are all smaller than the rest, well, again, they have a more 'global' size, the size you would encounter in most western metros, too. The colourful signage, of course, adds a certain Viennese or Boston touch. Of the older stations, I like, for example, Akademicheskaya, simply because it is different, whereas many of the other stations, though elegant, they lack this individual touch which helps passengers recognise their station at once, when the train arrives there. The newest station, Mezhdunarodnaya on M5 was almost 'too much' with its massive golden columns!

When praising the cleanliness of the stations, I'm not just referring to the ever polished floors or handrails, but also to hidden corners or surfaces hardly accessible and only visible from escalators, where in other cities dust and dirt would pile up for years without anybody caring. I guess also the tunnels are washed regularly as even after a day of photographing in the stations I did not observe any dust in my nostrils, whereas they are all black when I do the same in London!

It's amazing how much Russian people have to walk and how much time they have to spend on escalators, would be fun to calculate that for a typical lifetime. The long distances between stations even in the city centre, and often just a single access, require long walks to reach the stations. Also bus or tram stops are not located very near to metro entrances, when I thought they could have been. The new tram line 3, for example, stops south of Pl. Sennaya, although the trams have to go to the square to reverse anyway. If you want to get to Moskovskiy Vokzal on a Nevskiy Prospekt trolleybus, you need to walk some 500 m until you actually get to the railway station. The car lobby seems to be the only lobby here. So, the overall impression one gets is that passengers have to bear with what is there, and they are used to it. But it is certainly not a passenger-friendly transport system.

Fares are relatively low for western standards, just 28 roubles for one metro ride (some discounts with smartcards), so that's just around 70 eurocents, but if you travel a lot there is no unlimited pass, it seems, less so for the entire transport system. The only piece of integration is the Porodozhnik smartcard, you add value to it and then you can use it on Metro, trams and buses, but each time you pay a new fare. A passenger who is lucky to work and live in walking distance from a metro station, will only pay two fares a day, but someone who is not lucky enough, will pay at least double, which seems not much for one day, but adds up to a big sum over several years. I would consider it simply unjust that someone whose daily trip requires more than one vehicle (well, you can change between metro lines as often as you like), pays many times more than those with a single vehicle. This is not only so for metro/tram/bus transfer passengers, but also if you have to take two trams. And sometimes it appears that lines are broken up on purpose, like the long tram line 41 which terminates somewhere 'near' the centre, while line 16 would be a logical extension (although now it was extended to Narvskaya metro station), but this way, most passengers will have to pay twice.

The TRAM system is quite a case anyway. It is still the second largest in the world after Melbourne and before Berlin, but its network looks very much reduced, especially in the central area, where it was virtually banned. The first tram I took was line 6 from Sportivnaya metro station to Primorska metro station. I was hardly able to identify the stop, there was a shelter, but without any information. While waiting I realised that from the overhead line hangs a board which lists the trams that stop there at a height of some 10 m. A tram logo sign also hangs above the street, but later I learned that this is not meant for passengers but for car drivers. The tram stops where the numbers are hung. All without any platforms, of course, in the middle of the street, car drivers slow down more or less, but you'd better watch out! When I stated that in the Metro everything is clean and tidy, tram vehicles look worn out and dirty. After a long day's walks I found it also difficult to climb the high steps. Like on buses and trolleybuses, all trams carry a conductor, mostly female, who checks the smartcards or sells single fares like in the old days. So this is a way of creating a lot of jobs, although the few times I was on trams and buses I observed several people who simply ignored the conductors, so they do lose control when things get busy. The ride is slow and bumpy, too many cars prevent a fluid trip. Stops were announced acoustically and correctly, also with the following stop included. The track is often in bad condition, and as in Tallinn, I preferred riding trolleybuses, at least they speed up when they can. I haven't been to the suburbs on the trams, I guess that there they play an important role as a feeder to metro stations, but overall the picture was not good. Line 3 that was implemented a few months ago on some recuperated section along Sadovaya ulitsa is slightly better as it is operated with quite acceptible new double-articulated and partly low-floor trams. The low-floor element is only of limited advantage as the step from the street into the tram is still quite essential, some 30 cm. So I guess, it's time for St. Petersburg to upgrade what they want to keep of their huge tram system, and give trams priority, at least with marked off or separated lanes, but this is certainly only possible if their is a political consensus to reduce car traffic in the city centre. If this is not possible, I suggest to change most lines to trolleybus operation, which is much more flexible when there are parked cars or, as I observed on two ocasions within this short time, there is a minor car accident which blocks an intersection forever while they are waiting for the police to clear things.

What I have been criticising again and again is the lack of using the full potential of suburban lines to create a proper S-Bahn/RER type of metropolitan railway in Russia. In St. Petersburg, a sort of Passante seems obvious to me: If Baltiyskiy Vokzal is the busiest terminus for suburban trains from the south/southwest, and metro line 1 is the most overloaded, then it should only be logical that instead of spilling virtually all passengers from the Elektricky into the metro, those trains should go directly into the city centre. My spontaneous proposal would be for a tunnel from Baltiyskiy Vokzal to a city centre station at the Sennaya Ploschad hub, then to Pl. Vosstaniya to serve the Moskovskiy Vokzal, too and finally join up with the suburban lines that head north from Finlandskiy Vokzal, and you've got the "Peterburgskiy Krossrail". At least, the Metro is fairly well connected to suburban rail stations at three termini and several other stations, too. Devyatkino at the northern end of M1 even provides same-platform interchange!



Sunday, 16 June 2013

HELSINKI Tram - Metro - Suburban Rail

[Edit May 2018: After another visit 5 years later I have made some updates you can find here]

Besides doing a bit of sight-seeing, of course, I had four full days to explore the Greater Helsinki transport system (11-15 June 2013 – 1 day taken off for a day trip to Tallinn – see separate blog entry). I already knew Helsinki from a visit in 2003 in preparation for my book 'Metros in Scandinavia'. At that time I focussed mostly on the metro, although I did ride the tram and suburban trains too, but now I had more time to see it all again. Not too much has changed since my first visit, lots of new trains are in service on the suburban lines, and the tram system has been expanded with short extensions mostly in the West Harbour area.
Helsinki has a well-integrated fare system, which distinguishes between fares for Helsinki only (or any of the other adjoining cities) or a 'region ticket' for Greater Helsinki (or the Capital Region) which includes the cities of Vantaa in the north (where the airport is) and Espoo and the small town of Kauniainen in the west. A day ticket for Helsinki alone would be 8 EUR, and for the entire region 12 EUR. To be flexible enough, I bought a 5-day region ticket for 36 EUR. Yes, fares are higher than in Central Europe, but compared to other things, tickets are only slightly more expensive. On buses, those passes (sold as smartcards) need to be held against the card reader at each boarding, but on trams, metro and trains they just have to be shown to ticket inspectors. The metro does not have access barriers. People who use a smartcard as a cash card need to select the fare zone before touching in. Metro and tram run exclusively within the Helsinki boundaries, so the zonal system is only relevant for trains and regional buses (those with a 3-digit number, if I understood it correctly).
Maps (a blue one for Helsinki and a green one for the region) can be picked up at several HSL information centres like inside Rautatientori metro station. The problem with the Helsinki hand-out map is that on one side it shows all bus lines on a city map, but NO tram lines, and on the other it shows only tram lines and NO buses, so changing from buses to trams and viceversa can become quite a tricky business if you're not familiar with the city (and I picked up the English/German edition certainly produced for visitors). Also, the geographical tram map shows stops, but no names for these stops, instead there is an additional diagram map with stop names. This map, however, does not show the destination which is actually displayed on the trams, as it mostly does not coincide with the name of the last stop (a thing I will never really understand! But this happens, unfortunately, in a lot of cities). The large tram maps posted at tram stops do include bus routes, too. All rather unsatisfying, and with a lot of room for improvement. I hope that the planned renumbering of tram lines 3B and 3T into lines 3 and 2 will take place during this summer as it is indeed confusing (at the railway station, both lines use the same stop!). I never got it right in my head, probably also because the T in 3T doesn't mean anything to me. And while on line 3 the distinction is between two halves of the circular route, on the othe circle line 7, the 7A and 7B denotes the direction of the route taken, clockwise or anti-clockwise. 

Generally the TRAM system is in a good shape, although it is a very classic system with a lot of street running, but many sections are marked off from the road lanes or have even been slightly raised or separated by a curb. Only a few outer sections are on a dedicated right-of-way lined by trees, most notably along Mäkelänkatu, the main entry road from the airport shared by lines 1 and 7. Line 1, however, is the odd line within the system, and does not operate after 19 hours or on weekends! And the unprefixed line 1 only operates during some off-peak hours terminating in the city centre, whereas at times line 1A is extended down to Eira. Some of the busier lines even run until 01:30. Riding trams is, however, rather slow, due to numerous traffic lights and no priority for trams. I always hate it when even left-turning cars are given priority although they have a separate lane. Most stops have next-tram indicators of various types, which is good as the timetable is not strictly followed... Line 4 appears to be the most frequent with trams about every 5 minutes serving the Katajanokka branches alternately most of the day. This morning, I observed that the 4T branch to the ferry terminal gets extremely busy with ferry passengers when a ship arrives and apparently HKL does not react to this regular influx by sending more trams, which could just shuttle between the terminal and the city centre, instead all trams run to Munkkiniemi.

With the first of the new Transtech low-floor trams just rolled out for testing, the tram system is currently operated with two generations of vehicles, the older Valmet high-floor trams, a lot of which have meanwhile been retrofitted with a low-floor section, which doesn't really give them much more capacity but helps to speed up boarding especially for the large numbers of prams in this child-friendly country. It was certainly wise to extend the lives of this older stock as they are quite comfortable to ride.
The newer Variotrams, which were already in service in 2003 but at that time rather scarce due to many teething problems, are now regularly seen especially on lines 3, 6 and 9, if my observation is right. I would say, they are o.k., although Variotrams anywhere aren't among my favourites, mostly the seats are not very comfortable, both the way they are placed on top of the wheelsets, and the upholstery they used, so all in all a tour on the older trams is more pleasant, but on hot days the Variotrams may be your choice due to the air-conditioning. Generally the tram provides a good service in the inner city, an area most tourists would not leave anyway, and as most lines are frequent and easy to understand, the trams are in fact frequently used by tourists.

The METRO's function is quite different as it is only of very limited use for trips within the central area. Located between Stockholm and St. Petersburg, Helsinki also opted for a deep-level metro, in this case (unlike St. Petersburg) it was fairly easy to dig (or rather blast) through solid bedrock and thus avoid too much disruption on the surface. The negative consequence of such a decision is that passengers may find it too cumbersome to go down so deep just for a few stations and instead opt for the surface tram. On the other hand, the metro is a fast and reliable service to reach the eastern districts of the city. The trains ride very smooth, the track is well-laid, just the plastic seats are a bit hard. Overall I like the strong orange identity present in everything, a proper logo, large signs, etc. The stations are mostly o.k., but in the deep-cavern stations, a hung-in ceiling mostly doesn't let you appreciate the cavern as they would in Stockholm. Most of the surface stations look rather plain, although Siilitie has nicely been rebuilt a few years ago. The fill-in Kalasatama station is also very modest, and it looked quite dirty from the dust coming from the surrounding construction sites; it is still waiting to develop its full potential as many areas of the large port redevelopment are still underway or hardly started.
Along with the metro's western extension, the existing line will be made driverless. The only preparation for this that is visible are the platform screen doors installed for testing at the Vuosaari departure platform edge. They already calculated that travel times will actually increase slightly, probably because of the door opening and closing procedure. And they still have to educate users, as I observed one woman who even tried to force the doors with her pram. These people not only put themselves and their babies at risk, but are also responsible for the delays as a driverless system may be halted for quite a while until someone interferes manually at the control centre. Maybe people will be convinced that it is better to wait for the next train, as they are promised to be more frequent. Right now there is a train every 10 minutes on each of the eastern branches, this should be reduced to half the waiting time, resulting in a train every 2.5 min on the trunk section.

In Espoo, the construction of the Länsimetro (West Metro) is clearly visible at many sites, but as this section is also blasted through bedrock, construction sites are only necessary at selected locations, for shafts and accesses. But as all sites are protected by metro-orange boards they can easily be spotted. It's actually a pity that also the section between Lauttasaari and Keilaniemi is deep underground, because a surface bridge alignment would have provided a nice view of the island hopping between Helsinki and Espoo.
What seems a bit exaggerated on all rail systems is the equal treatment of Finnish and Swedish on all signs. This is, however, quite useful if you have some notion of Swedish, which for German and English speakers is at least a sort of cousin language, so many things are easier to read as most of us will not understand many words in Finnish. But although Swedish (only spoken by some 6% in the Helsinki area) is always listed in the second place I'd suggest to use Italics to make it clearer distinguishable what is what. Sometimes you get a Spanish/Catalan effect and only one letter is different as in Kaisaniemi/Kajsaniemi, mostly it is a direct translation of the name like Ruoholahti/Gräsviken (Grass Bay), and sometimes it looks like two completely different things (Pasila/Böle). Anyway, it's fun to learn some of these languages through station names. And Finnish is pretty easy to pronounce, just put the accent on the first syllable....

The service VR provides on the suburban lines is quite metro-like on some routes, with trains every 10 minutes stopping at all stations to Kerava, Vaantankoski and Leppävaara, where these trains have their own dedicated pair of tracks, and I think, no level crossings at all. Suburban trains that run further out and skip the inner stations, run on the mainline tracks shared by long-distance trains. The metro-like routes are now mostly exclusively served by new Stadler FLIRT trains, which have low-level access throughout, although with steps between carriages, but generally a very pleasant train.

There are two things I don't like about this suburban service:
1) the lack of a proper identity like S-Bahn, S-tog or Pendeltag, instead these trains are just listed as 'local traffic' (Lähijunat/Närtrafik - in English they actually use 'Commuter trains', a term I don't like at all except for real American commuter trains which only run inbound a few times in the mornings and back home again in the evening). So, I would hope they used some sort of trendy image for this excellent service, maybe even 'metro' and although it is still part of the VR network, it could form a unified metro system with the HKL Metro in the eyes of the passengers. With the completion of the airport ring line, it should even become more metro-like on the inner sections.
2) the excessive use of route identifying letters, almost as complex as the 4-letter codes on the Paris RER system, almost intransparent for the occasional user. But the current system obviously has a long tradition and may not easily be overthrown, but maybe some letters used for only a few services should be phased out for the sake of simplicity. I have not studied the different stopping pattern enough to make a suggestion, but I'm sure something could be done. I don't know whether the Vaantankoski line, which is quite metro-like and a new edition from 1975 was given the letter M for Martinlaakso (where it initially terminated) or to insinuate its metro character, as additionally it is also identified by the orange colour. Well, in fact it's older than the proper metro (1982).
3) A third point I would make on the negative side would be the long way you have to walk to actually catch one of the more frequent services. But as a solution is already in the making in the form of an underground loop that will even more create a proper metro line, I will only describe the current situation. A and M trains depart from some added platforms on the western side of the central railway station, but these are some 200 m further north than the older tracks, the same is true for the N etc. services to Kerava on the eastern side. So if you happen to be at the rear of one of these trains and you need to catch the tram or the metro, you easily have to walk 500+ metres, i.e. almost a typical inner-city metro interstation distance. The future loop will have a 'Keskus' (centre) station further south, actually to the south of the present metro station, and while interchange with trams should also get easier, most people will also be carried closer to their final destination in the city centre. There will be two intermediate stations, one at Töölö, the other next to the metro station at Hakaniemi. As interchange with long-distances trains is available at Pasila anyway, it shouldn't be a problem that the central railway station will be a bit far from Keskus station. I don't know what the current plans are, but I assume that the airport line will operate as a proper ring (a sort of 8-shaped route) while the Leppävaara (or Espoo) and Kerava lines can form another through line. So, between Huopolahti and Tikkurila or Hiekkaharju there should then be a train every 5 minutes during most of the day. Outer suburban services are planned to continue terminating at Helsinki station.

Helsinki at UrbanRail.Net
HKL - Metro & Tram Operator
HSL - Greater Helsinki Transport Authority

[Edit May 2018: After another visit 5 years later I have made some updates you can find here]

Thursday, 13 June 2013

TALLINN Tram & Trolleybus

Staying in Helsinki for a few days to explore the different urban rail systems, I took one day off (12 June 2013) to hop across the Baltic Sea to Tallinn, only an hour and 40 minutes on a Linda Line catamaran ferry (82 km). But this was not just a leisure trip, but also real work, as Tallinn and the other Baltic cities will also be included in my forthcoming 'Tram Atlas Northern Europe' scheduled to be published in autumn 2013.
    The Estonian capital (with about half a million inhabitants) has both a tram and a trolleybus network. Together with normal buses, these can be used with the same ticket, a day pass is just 3 euros, but you need to buy a smartcard for 2 euros (theoretically there is a place somewhere, where you could hand this smartcard in and they would give you the 2 euros back). For local residents, public transport has been free since the beginning of 2013, but visitors still need to pay. The smartcards are available at kiosks. I didn't see a customers office anywhere, not even inside the underground Viru bus station. I managed to get a good geographical map with all lines and in English at the Tourist Office. So Tallinn now has a very modern electronic fare system, which must have cost a significant amount of money to implement, but now with hardly anyone requiring to pay a real fare, the system was probably a big waste of money, which could have been spent elsewhere. What I don't like when look at the overall system, and this happens in many Eastern cities, that the same line number is used for trams, trolleybuses and normal buses. This could lead to confusion, especially when for some reason a trolleybus fails and is replaced by a diesel bus. And most Western European tourists don't even know what a trolleybus is. For Tallinn it would be quite easy to use no. 1-9 for trams, 10-19 for trolleybuses and 20+ for diesel buses without going into excessively long 3-digit numbers. Local trains are not included in the urban fare, but although electrified, the suburban service is rather limited anyway.

The tram system is operated with an almost homogenous fleet, all Tatra KT4's (some extended with a low-floor middle section to make them KT6's), but what appears to be homogenous is a rather diverse selection of more or less the same model built for many different cities, both in the Soviet Union and in East Germany, and some have even served in different cities before ending up in Tallinn. So, for Tatra-lovers, a real paradise. Some carry the local blue/white livery, some carry adverts, but some still carry the livery they had when they left Erfurt in Germany, i.e. red/white. I guess the Soviet model can most easily be distinguished from the German by their larger top windows (in Germany these are always rather small because otherwise babies or kids might fall out of the window....). All trams I have been on are in quite an acceptable state and although the lines are rather short, they get busy most of the time.
   What makes riding trams in Tallinn rather unpleasant is the poor state of the track on most sections. The route towards Ülemiste was rebuilt some years ago between Paberi and Lubja, so that's quite o.k., although the ride is hard, all other sections are pretty bumpy and urgently require a complete overhaul. This was annouced for the rest of tracks served by line 4 as this line is supposed to take the new CAF low-floor trams on order.

   The system is also far from modern standards when it comes to tram stops, as most of them (except those on the upgraded section mentioned before) actually require boarding from street level, even the busiest stops in the city centre like at Viru where passengers even have to cross two road lanes to reach the trams. There are no traffic lights to hold back car traffic, instead the trams wait or slow down to make their stop coincide with a red traffic light. Local people are probably used to that, but as Tallinn has developed into a busy tourist destination, these deficiencies should be solved as soon as possible. Many visitors come from or via Helsinki, and in Helsinki all tram stops have proper platforms. The situation is slightly better on the Kopli leg as this route was initially built as a kind of light railway anyway. It is also quite surprising that no stop has been established in the inbound direction on the long section of the Kadriorg branch between J. Poska and Tallinna Ülikool, despite the fact that the tram runs along the curbside and lots of new housing has appeared (I don't know what the area was like before, maybe a factory).

One positive thing I would like to point out as a heritage of the Soviet times, is the habit of announcing the following stop along with the current one.

Riding trolleybuses is therefore more enjoyable than riding trams. Most trolleybuses are new Solaris Trollino buses, both single and articulated ones, and it seems that more has been done to road than to track maintenance. 

All in all, now that Tallinn has decided to keep the tram system by upgrading the first section and ordering new rolling stock, a lot of investment is required to actually convert it into a modern tramway, plus extending the existing lines and finally building the eastern route to Lasnamäe, for which a right-of-way of several kilometers was left along the dual-carriageway called Laagna tee (from some bridges even staircases were built down to the median).