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Helsinki City Transport: West Metro up and running in October, probably

The head of Helsinki City Transport (HKL) expects the long-delayed handover of the western Metro extension this week, with the public opening "a bit more than two weeks" later.

Ville Lehmuskoski
HKL chief executive Ville Lehmuskoski at the Metro's nerve centre in Herttoniemi. Image: Mårten Lampén / Yle

Ville Lehmuskoski, CEO of Helsinki City Transport (HKL), tells Yle News that he believes that seven new Metro stations will be handed over by the Länsimetro company this week. After a test period of 2-3 weeks, he expects it to open to passengers sometime in October.

"Actually nobody knows the exact answer at the moment, but I believe it will happen in October," he said late Monday. "It’s impossible to say exactly when, but it will take several weeks from now."

"It's quite possible that the handover will happen this week. Then HKL will run its own test period. The Metro needs to work without major problems for two weeks. After that has been successfully carried out, we can inform Helsinki Region Transport Authority (HSL) that the Metro is ready for passenger transportation."

HSL split off in 2010 from HKL, the city-owned municipal enterprise that operates the Metro and trams.

Lehmuskoski emphasises that the system must be test-run for "two weeks’ continuous time without major problems," adding that "it's quite probable that something will still arise that needs to be repaired. So I believe that the period will be a bit more than two weeks, but not much more."

Last-minute hitches

Länsimetro was supposed to have handed the system over last Friday. A day earlier, though, testing was halted due to a series of unresolved problems.

What then is the main hold-up at this point?

"Last week we had test drives with the Metro but the power supply system didn’t work well in the West Metro section. So that’s one point that needs to be repaired. And the other important topic for HKL is that the systems in the control room in Herttoniemi need to work in an appropriate way. And there are still several things to be fixed before we can say that it works."

Last week's hiccup was just the latest in a long string of delays.

The West Metro has been in the works for more than a decade. It was approved in 2007 and was originally scheduled to be online in 2013. After many delays, transit authorities announced with great fanfare – and changes in other transport schedules – that it would begin a year ago. That turned out to be premature, as have several other start date announcements since.

Longer travel times for some

Helsinki Metro is being extended westward with seven new Metro stations, two in Helsinki and five in southern Espoo, extending as far as Matinkylä. Eventually there are to be 13 new stations, reaching Kivenlahti in south-western Espoo, some 40 kilometres – and 50 minutes – from the easternmost station in Vuosaari.

Some Espoo residents have already suffered from cutbacks in bus service since last year, and will in future face longer travel times into Helsinki because of such reductions.

"That’s true for some," agrees Lehmuskoski.

"But there was the same kind of discussion when the current Metro was opened in Eastern Helsinki in the beginning of the 1980s. People were saying 'the Metro is bad, we want to have busses'. And what happened? In a few years almost everybody liked the Metro. And if you now ask people in Eastern Helsinki, they like the Metro very much. It’s reliable, fast and easy. And I believe this same phenomenon will also happen in the West Metro section."

Ihmisiä metroasemalla.
Waiting for the Metro. Image: Jyrki Lyytikkä / Yle

And while many commuters will still have to take busses to reach the Metro, he assures them that "those bus services will be reliable, because the lines are quite short and they have very tight intervals, running very frequently, so people will be able to reach the Metro very easily."

Driverless trains a decade off

Metro officials had planned to automate the whole system with driverless trains at the same time as the opening of the western branch, but that proved to be too ambitious. Tests carried out with Siemens dragged on until they were more than a year late, at which point the project was cancelled in 2015. This resulted in a legal dispute between Siemens and HKL. In May a court ruled partly in HKL's favour.

Now Lehmuskoski says HKL won't return to that effort until after Phase 2 of the West Metro is completed. That was meant to be in 2020, but he suggests it will probably not be completed until a year or two after that.

"At the moment it seems that we will have driverless Metro in 10 years, or at the end of the next decade," he says.

Phase 2 timetable up in the air

Lehmuskoski is clearly becoming more cautious in answering timetable questions because there have been so many confident predictions over the years that have turned out to be wrong.

Asked when Phase 2 will be completed, taking the West Metro all the way to Kivenlahti, he replies:

"That’s a question you have to ask somebody else, maybe Länsimetro Ltd. That’s not my role."

As to when he hopes it will be ready, Lehmuskoski says: "In the first half of the next decade.”

So before 2025?

"Well, lots before that."

The early 2020s?

"Yeah."

So at least 3-4 years?

"Yeah, more than that."

Public sees blame game

To the public, the series of delays and contradictory announcements give the impression of a number of companies and cities that are bickering and blaming each other.

"I think that at least those players or stakeholders that are part of [the public sector], I mean HKL, HSL, Länsimetro Ltd, the City of Helsinki and the City of Espoo, these players are putting their effort to get West Metro running as fast as possible. It’s not important for them who's responsible for what. We all try to help each other," he says.

"Of course we try to be as fast as possible but all the time we need to remember that the Metro needs to be safe and reliable. Those are the most important things."

He concedes there are still "lots of uncertainties because the West Metro is totally completely different from the current Metro system," on which construction began in 1969. It finally opened 35 years ago in August 1982.

"So all the technical systems are two steps ahead of the current Metro’s systems. We’ve never used them before. They're very advanced but we’re not sure what kinds of things will arise. And the reliability is very important to us; we really do all that we can to ensure that."

On the bright side, the four-year delay in Phase 1 of the West Metro is relatively brief compared to the decade-long delay on the Olkiluoto 3 nuclear reactor, now set to open at the end of next year rather than 2009.

Meanwhile West Metro is projected to end up costing around seven billion euros, compared to OL3’s estimated 8.5 billion euro price tag.

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