Ticket To Ride: Länsimetro Finally On Track For Capital Region

After several years of construction delays and budget overruns, the first new metro train will run for passengers early on Saturday morning from Espoo to Helsinki.

Card reading machines are in place and ready to be used

On Saturday morning just after 5am, the first Länsimetro train is scheduled to leave Matinkylä in Espoo, and head towards Helsinki.

At Ruoholahti it merges with the existing metro line, and cements a decades-long ambition to connect the Finnish capital with its western suburbs and Espoo, the country’s second largest city located only a few kilometres away.

The launch of Länsimetro – Western Metro in English – has been plagued with spiraling budgets, launch dates that slipped, changes in the management team, and frustration from residents all along the route who watched start date after start date fall by the wayside.

“We’ve been waiting for Länsimetro three decades or more, but in a concrete way, we have been waiting since construction started” says Ville Lehmuskoski, Managing Director of HKL the company that will run the new train service.

“Of course nobody was happy” about the delays he says, in a typically understated Finnish way.

Some final construction work was underway during August

Summer False Start

During the summer of 2016, signs started appearing at transport hubs announcing the start date for the new western metro extension would be August 15th that same year.

In Espoo, bus stops had their schedule information changed, in anticipation of the day when the buses which plough up and down Länsiväylä motorway feeding the Espoo commuter towns along its path, would soon stop and be replaced, in large part, by the new metro.

So when the news came with just a few weeks notice that Länsimetro would not launch, but instead be delayed indefinitely, there was a public outcry. And it had financial implications too. Bus contracts had already been canceled, and were hastily reinstated at an estimated cost of more than €1m per month.

Small businesses that opened up near stations along the metro line, including restaurants, coffee shops, and convenience stores, didn’t have the expected volume of customers they’d built a business case around.

Even shopping centres like the newly expanded Ainoa Centre in Tapiola, which was counting on increased traffic from the metro, were caught short when the metro’s promised start date failed to materialise. Several business owners there tell News Now Finland they’ve been struggling without the extra customers and hope for improved business when the stations open on Saturday.

The anticipation is clearly there for many people living west of Helsinki.

“I’ve had more contacts from people who don’t use the metro so far, but who would use it. People from Lauttasaari, people from Espoo. They have been asking questions more than people who are traveling today in the metro in Helsinki” says HKL’s Lehmuskoski.

“I think quite many people have been choosing their jobs, or choosing their housing based on the assumption that metro would start operating, and they are very eager for it to get started” he adds.

Exterior of Tapiola metro station

Cost Overruns

In 2005, the estimated cost of Länsimetro was €454 million. By 2007, the estimated opening date was 2012. And by 2008 the cost had jumped to €714m. Today, the final price tag is likely to be closer to €1.2 billion.

For that amount of money, the metropolitan area gets eight new stations. Another five stations going further west are due to open in 2020. There’s also twenty new trains coming into service for Länsimetro traffic.

Below ground, the stations have the familiar signage and feel of other Helsinki metro stations. Above ground they are all uniquely designed to be a standout feature of their surroundings.

“I am a construction guy, but I also am very keen on architecture and I think that is something quite often the construction guys don’t focus on enough” says Länsimetro CEO Ville Saksi.

“We are making something for the coming generations, and for the coming hundred years at least” he adds.

School of Rock

Digging a tunnel under Espoo might be a mega project, but in civil engineering terms it’s not overly complicated.

“The metro line is quite close to the surface, about 30 metres, and in a technical way it’s challenging only because we don’t know exactly the bedrock and how thick the soil is” explains Mikael Rinne, Professor of Rock Science at Aalto University.

Low population density; rock that’s relatively straight forward to tunnel through; and open areas which don’t put too many surface buildings at risk during blasting are some of the favourable conditions that Länsimetro construction enjoyed.

“It’s very old crystalline rock and mainly it’s very good to work and engineer, the bedrock is very good to make excavations and caverns, and very economical” says Professor Rinne.

“Finnish engineering know-how comes from the mining industry. We have been mining for several hundred years in this kind of rock, we have good equipment and good knowledge about it” he adds.

Shiny escalators lead down to the platforms

Details, Delays

So while the big engineering aspects of Länsimetro moved forward, project managers found the devil really was in the details. And in the summer of 2016 the project was much further behind schedule than any of the stakeholders on Helsinki or Espoo City Councils were told.

Länsimetro’s Ville Saksi has only been in the role of CEO for the last year, so doesn’t want to address shortcomings of his predecessors.

“One and a half years ago, there was so much to do, and I can’t say the reason the project manager didn’t have a clear picture. Of course I worked in construction sector more than 20 years and therefore of course if you visit on site you can see with your own eyes what is the situation” Saksi tells News Now Finland.

“I focused on the last phase, and pushed very hard to do everything ready. During this year we have made a lot of construction work and we have done many types of tests” he says.

Those tests were exhaustive, including fire drills, smoke tests and extractor fans, real life rescue scenarios, flooding drills. But more final construction details pushed the opening back several more months, with Länsimetro forced to change the date they’d hand over operational control of the new track to HKL more than once.

There will however likely be repercussions for the delays and huge budget overruns. Someone has to pay, but there hasn’t been a lot of transparency so far from Länsimetro, who decided in April not to publish the report they commissioned into what went so badly wrong with the construction timetable.

File photo of Länsimetro train departures / Credit; News Now Finland

All Aboard

Operating company HKL certainly imagines a more modern, efficient western metro system when everything is up and running on Saturday.

Trains will run every 2.5 minutes on the new section of track. The infrastructure is several decades newer than the current metro line – officials say part of the problem has been integrating new state of the art technology in the Länsimetro section of the metro with the more antiquated systems currently in place. The new trains have more powerful engines, and their acceleration is better. Passengers should notice a smoother ride.

And by the end of the 2020s things will change even more.

“It seems that passenger volumes will increase, and the train intervals need to be shortened to two minutes, and at that time the plan is to automate the metro, about a decade from now” says HKL’s Ville Lehmuskoski.

Länsimetro’s Ville Saksi feels that they’ve delivered a metro system that will fit the needs of residents along the route.

“The Länsimetro target has been that we build the most safe metro in the world, so that you can sit calm and enjoy the architecture, you can use mobile phones, and you are in good hands”