Saturday, December 9, 2017

Tunnel Visions: The Helsinki Metro

Every once in a while I hop out of Toronto, land in some other city with some other light- or heavy-rail transit system, and look around at different ways of getting around by rail, whether it's on the ground, under it, or above it all.

In the land of confusion that is this twenty-first century, it's almost comforting to know that there's a transit system where smiling is specifically allowed everywhere -- because who doesn't love commuting, am I right? It's a system that reached further than any other, of a system orange like no other is orange, where some stations have three names and where you can be connected to the world while in the middle of a tunnel. I didn't know what to expect, not really, especially not from a language that was occasionally as reminiscent of Japanese as it was English -- somewhere there's got to be someone spinning conspiracy theories from the similarity of the Japanese kippu and the Finnish lippu, both of which mean ticket. But no matter what language you're speaking, metro means metro.

The Helsinki Metro was the newest of the Nordic countries' three metro systems, the smallest, and the least used -- at least until I remembered that Denmark is also a Nordic country, and that by opening the Copenhagen Metro in 2002, Denmark ruined everything -- but I'm not here to compare so crudely. I've never even been to any of the other ones. Riding it was the first chance I've had to evaluate rapid transit in a country outside the Anglosphere. Some things caught my eye, some things made me wonder, and some things I'd never even considered, let alone see before, but in the end, every metro is meant to move people.

Incidentally, a note: between taking the notes for this project and writing this post, the near-mythical Länsimetro extension opened, taking service west to Espoo and adding eight new stations to the map. As much as I'd like to incorporate the new bits into this work, flying from Toronto to Helsinki is a bit expensive. Having a system update itself while I'm still evaluating it isn't something I've ever had to worry about for one of these, but I feel like it's appropriate here. Out of all the metro systems I've touched on in this series, the Helsinki Metro took me further than all of them.


A train crosses the Vuosaari Bridge near Rastila station, bound for the western end of the line.

The Helsinki Metro is the northernmost rapid transit system in the world, and unless Reykjavik gets ambitious, that record isn't likely to fall any time soon. Its northernmost station, Mellunmäki, sits at 60 degrees, 14 minutes north, but you'd never know it just standing on the platform there. It's simple, straightforward, unpretentious -- much like the network as a whole. Finland isn't part of Scandinavia, but I can see echoes of that clean, no-nonsense Scandinavian design in the shape of the Metro. At the same time, there's an appealing roughness to it, exemplified to me by stone-strewn trackbeds that look like what you'd find on a regular surface railway.

European systems tend to have a reputation for complexity -- look at the multicoloured spaghetti plates of London, Paris, or Berlin -- but the Helsinki Metro is easy to wrap your head around even if you can't tell the difference between Finnish and Quenya. It's shaped rather like a tuning fork with trains running on two services, M1 and M2, but between Tapiola in the west and Itäkeskus in the east, there's a substantial service overlap. All trains service Rautatientori, connected to Helsinki Central Station and one of the city's gateways to the rest of the world, and the monolithic Kamppi Centre -- a bit of a change from when I was there, when the overlap ended at Kamppi and only half the trains continued on to Ruoholahti, which was the westernmost point in the system for twenty-four years. It reminded me of Boston's Blue Line, with one end of the line still in the central city.

To be honest, speaking as an Anglophone, the most complex part of the Helsinki Metro was getting the names straight. Names like "Rautatientori" were easy for me to stumble over with my English-language brain, and I often found the stations' Swedish names easier to remember, but that will only take memory so far. While Kamppi's Swedish name is "Kampen" -- not much of a stretch -- a lot of these stations are named not for streets, but neighbourhoods with actual, meaningful names. To an English speaker, Ruoholahti and Gräsviken may look like they have no relation at all, but they both mean the same thing; roughly, "Grass Bay." Helsinki's nature as a bilingual city makes it clear why the stations were named like this, but it's an interesting counterpoint to the other bilingual-city metro I've covered, the Montreal Metro. If Helsinki's naming policy was used there, Côte-Vertu station might be known in English as "Virtue Coast." In the interest of keeping things straightforward, I'll use the Finnish station names throughout this article.

No, what's really striking about the Helsinki Metro is that more so than a lot of other systems I've used, it feels almost like a system of wormholes. From what I understand, Helsinki didn't start developing in earnest beyond its 19th-century core until the 1970s, and it shows. Take Sörnäinen station, only a few stops away from the central railway station, deep enough in the core to be connected to Helsinki's streetcar network. Two minutes east puts you at Kaisatama, an infill station surrounded by what feels like a completely new urban district under construction. Two minutes past that takes you to Kulosaari, which serves a leafy green island with a quiet, suburban feel. It's a significant difference from Toronto, where subway lines built under former streetcar routes gives a certain continuity to the shape of the city, and where big divergences come mainly from past city boundaries or line extensions.

Helsinki Central Station, Rautatientori and Kaivokatu, looking east. If only I'd thought to take this picture on a day that wasn't overcast.

The metro is well-integrated with the rest of Helsinki's transit infrastructure. From Rautatientori, for example, you can catch a ring rail service to the airport, one of the commuter trains that reach across much of southern Finland, or long-distance trains to Rovaniemi or even to Russia. Seven of Helsinki's streetcar lines serve Rautatientori as well, connected to the underground station by a transferway in the median of Kaivokatu, similar to the transferway that existed at Yonge and Bloor in Toronto before the construction of the Bloor-Danforth subway. Every station from Ruoholahti to Sörnäinen is served by streetcars, and beyond them, bus connections are available. The level of integration between services is closer to Vancouver's style than Toronto's, though -- whether transferring to a streetcar or a bus from a metro station, there were fare-paid zone lines in between.

Incidentally, one issue about that transferway -- it's not entirely prepared for the sudden, drenching rain that seems to be no stranger to Helsinki, because otherwise my encounter with it during my time there must have been an extremely lucky roll. Hell, if there's more than one streetcar waiting at the stop, and yours is the one parked behind the one in front of the shelters, you'd better be ready to get wet.

Nevertheless, this integration helps ensure that a lot of people use the metro. In 2016, it carried 64.1 million passengers in a service area with a metropolitan population of 1.4 million, or 45.7 passengers per person per year; this is close to Toronto's figure of 51.3 passengers per person per year. It's not a system that's easy to get lost in, and with only nine stations not served by both lines, if you do take a wrong turn it's easy to correct it. In my experience, the Helsinki Metro didn't demand much cognitive effort to get around. It was only when I was aiming for Mellunmäki or Vuosaari that I ever had to pay attention to where I was going at all, and that's one of the critical tests of a transit system. People have enough to worry about in their lives without having to negotiate a maze of a metro.

Still, if you need some help finding your way, you won't lack for information. This wasn't the first time I'd been on a system that used more than one language, but in many places, the Helsinki Metro is trilingual; beyond the translated station names, the signage is provided in Finnish, Swedish, and English. I even saw one or two that were quadrilingual, with Russian being added into the mix, but these tended to be of the "danger, do not touch" variety. You can get around easily while knowing barely a word of Finnish, because I did, and I do; though I'd recommend at least "anteeksi," because it's better to excuse yourself if you have to navigate a crowd. You'll likely also pick up "kielletty" within the first twenty-four hours, considering how often it shows up in signage.

My only regret is that while an English speaker can tease an understandable meaning out of the Metro's Swedish signage, Swedish doesn't play by the same pronunciation rules. Kulosaari's Swedish name is Brändö, but no matter how much you might want it to be otherwise it only has electric lights, and not electrolytes.


Daylight and shadow meet on the Rastila station platform.

I have my suspicions that if I do ever end up accidentally killing myself, it'll probably be in a subway station rushing for a train. See, in Toronto a lot of the system is still not only grounded in a mid-century aesthetic, but a mid-century sense of what's feasible, and what wasn't easily feasible in the 1960s were next-train countdown timers. When I first arrive at my station, the only sense I have of an incoming train is that subtle shift in air pressure and a whispering breeze coming from below -- the sort of information asymmetry that leads me to take the stairs two at a time. Sometimes I hit the platform just as the train's pulling in, sometimes with just enough time for the train's doors to close in my face, and sometimes the wind was just an eastbound train pulling in. The point is that I don't know, and the longer I do it for, the greater my odds of missing a step and breaking my neck.

That wasn't the case in Helsinki, and not only because there I was a tourist with no demands on my time. But I'll get to that.

With the November 2017 opening of the first phase of the Länsimetro extension, there are now twenty-five stations on the Helsinki Metro with another five under construction, from Matinkylä in the west to Mellunmäki and Vuosaari in the east. In August only sixteen of them were open, and I visited all of them. Between them, the stations make a good introduction to design philosophies of the last thirty-five years, from the subterranean entry plaza at Rautatientori to the bright, uplifting combination of earth and sky at Rastila and the cave-like nature of Ruoholahti. You won't find any of Toronto's mid-century washroom aesthetic here, nor the ISO Standard Outer-City Metro Station. There's no architectural sameness, and aside from Herttoniemi, none of them struck me as ugly.

Most of the stations are either underground -- and where they're underground, they tend to be deep underground -- or on the surface. The main exception is Kalasatama, an elevated station that stands three or so storeys over a construction zone that looks like it'll be a hyper-modern glass-and-steel neighbourhood in a couple of years. Kalasatama is also one of only two side-platform stations, an artifact of it being an in-fill station built around existing rail; the other, Itäkeskus, serves three tracks from its two platforms as it's where the northern and southern branches diverge.

In keeping with its centrality, Rautatientori was my introduction to the system, and my first response was amazement at the sheer scale of the place, with its platform level having as much space available as half a dozen Toronto stations. To a degree the same is true of the other central-city stations, with Kamppi, Ruoholahti, and Helsingin yliopisto in particular sharing this design ethic, feeling less like built environments and more like natural caves that were converted into stations. As cities with metro systems go, Helsinki isn't that large, but these stations could easily accommodate morning crowds at Bloor-Yonge and still have room for a symphony of buskers. There's a good, if sobering, reason for this openness, and it doesn't have anything to do with planning ahead for future demand patterns -- these stations were meant to double as attack shelters. After all, the system first opened in 1982, one year before the world nearly stumbled into nuclear war twice, and the Soviet Union was then less than a hundred kilometres away. Still, this gives them a wide-open, welcoming feeling that I've rarely experienced underground.

Even before I entered Rautatientori proper, I was impressed. It reminded me strongly of the Montreal Metro -- maybe that feeling of openness combined with a lot of concrete. Its main entrance is in a sunken plaza beneath the railway station, surrounded by retailers, with enough space to keep rush-hour crows flowing. What's more important, both here and elsewhere, is that there's no need to rush ahead without knowing what's coming. Because the system tells you what's coming.

The main entrance hall of Rautatientori. And a giant digital billboard with English-language advertising.

Flanking that advertisement, not entirely readable thanks to my phone's camera, are eighteen minutes of train arrival times. There's going to be one bound for Ruoholahti in a minute, then a Vuosaari-bound in three, and another making the trip west in four. With the length of those escalators, I'd be hard-pressed to make it down to the platform in under sixty seconds.

You'll find similar signs outside the other stations, complemented by screens above the platforms themselves counting down the next two trains' arrival times. Plenty of systems do this now, but Helsinki's way stands out because it's optimized for clarity and information. In Toronto, the next train arrival timer is smashed down into the bottom tenth of a TV screen that's otherwise dominated by news, weather, and advertisements -- and that's if there's one of those screens at your end of the platform. In Helsinki I always knew what I was getting into.

Even waiting around was an opportunity to let off stress, because the Helsinki Metro's internet infrastructure is like nothing I've ever seen. Not only was its easily accessible, no-login-needed free wi-fi a lifeline for me, but even with so many other people on the platform hooked into it, the service was faster and smoother than what I often get at home. Considering Finland's telecommunications heritage, I'm not surprised; just impressed. My experience with in-station access in Toronto tends more toward rolling into a station while the page steadfastly refuses to load.

The tight integration of stations with retail was something I saw again and again in the system -- Helsingin yliopisto's entrance is in the middle of a modest underground mall, reminiscent of Vancouver's Granville station, with everything from a convenience store to a casino -- but with a particular twist to it that I don't often see. Beyond the ubiquitous R-Kioski convenience stores and near-ubiquitous Hesburgers, I could see a grocery store from either the platform or the main entrance of most stations I visited. To me, it echoes how corner grocery stores prospered along streetcar lines, allowing people on their way home to stop in quickly for staples rather than making food shopping a once-a-week, car-filling odyssey.

Not that the system bends its knee to drivers at every opportunity. Unlike North American systems, the Helsinki Metro doesn't feel like it was designed around the primacy of the automobile. Sure, there are allowances for parking, particularly at the terminal stations, but they're nothing compared to the commuter lots you'd find at the ends of the Toronto subway, even adjusting for population differences. Take Vuosaari, with space for two hundred and twenty-two parked cars, and two hundred and forty-three bicycles. At Kulosaari, not too far from the city centre, I counted forty-two spots on a Monday afternoon and a fair number of them were empty. Of course, part of this is a result of shifting priorities; Vuosaari opened for service in 1998, after all. Itäkeskus, one of the original 1982 stations, has room for two hundred and forty bikes and four hundred and twenty cars.

One aspect where the Helsinki Metro doesn't particularly stand apart from other systems I've been on, however, is the cleanliness factor. At first, when I was still taking in the basics, it seemed pretty clean to me, but the more attention I paid the more grit and disorder I saw, and the further I got from central Helsinki the more obvious it became. At Rautatientori, it wasn't much more than an anti-NATO sticker on a free magazine rack, but down the line graffiti and vandalism -- usually scratched into the station benches -- became more common. The trains themselves weren't spotless either, with the usual discarded commuter newspapers and plastic wrap and other crap that had made its way to the floor, the kind you find on pretty much any transit system. Herttoniemi was singularly impressive, in its way; not only was there a big, bright tag on the tunnel wall where an ad would ordinarily go, but someone had tagged the third rail. In fact, referring back to my photos, it appears to have been multiple someones.

That's... impressive?

Graffiti taggers looking for blank canvases have a lot of opportunity in Helsinki Metro stations, as well. Compared to other systems I've been on, it felt very ad-light, and not just because I couldn't read most of them. I didn't encounter any station domination campaigns, like how right now in Toronto, Dundas station is entirely given over to a radio station advertising its all-Christmas playlist to such a degree that the ads have escaped the poster borders and are coming out of the walls. Advertisement in the stations tends to be limited to wall-side posters that aren't packed nearly as densely as they could be, given the space, and the video ad screens that line the escalators in the deep underground stations.

What struck me most about advertising in the Metro was how much of it -- and here, "much" is "greater than 0%" -- was in English. Granted, most of them were by the same company, and you could make the argument that it takes more mental effort to process something that isn't in your native language, and so English-language ads in a non-Anglophone country get more unconscious attention for free. I couldn't help contrasting it to Toronto, though, where despite the galaxy of languages that lights up this city, pretty much the only things you'll find in the subway that aren't exclusively English are very occasional safety instructions and the rare government advertisement.

Fortunately, advertisements aren't the Metro's only diversion; there's a lot of art to be found in the system, from the tiled labyrinth motifs at Ruoholahti to the sharp, metallic "Roots of the City" at Kamppi and to Riikka Puronen's interactive Sirenan kielet sculpture just outside Myllypuro, the Metro hasn't been lax in taking advantage of its own blank canvas.

It's something to think about while you wait for your next train, unstressed because you know exactly how long you have to wait -- perhaps with a drink you got from one of the platform vending machines. Those machines are everywhere in the system, selling chips, chocolate bars, bottles of pop and energy drinks, and they accept euro coins and credit cards. If only I'd thought to dump all of my leftover change in one before I left the EU. Whatever you sip, just make sure it isn't the hard stuff; the Metro specifically prohibits drinking alcohol aboard.


M100 car 142 leads a train bound for Mellunmäki at Kontula station.

My first and, honestly, lasting impression of the Helsinki Metro's trains is simple: such orange. Orange exteriors, orange interiors, orange-dominant advertisements, and even the lighting felt tuned to emulate a K-type star. Maybe it's a simple case of complementing colours; blue is one of Finland's national colours, and in the eighteen-hour-long nights that Helsinki gets in winter, orange must stand out. There are three varieties of trains running on the system -- the oldest M100 cars came with the system when it opened, the M200s appeared in 2001, and the M300s only entered service in 2016 -- and their differences reflect the last thirty years in metro design.

From a traveller's point of view, the differences are slight. The seats are universally hard plastic without upholstery, and look like the sort of furnishing Ikea might make if they were in the train business. I found the M100 and M200 trains most reminiscent of Vancouver's Mark 2 SkyTrain sets, with trains consisting of multiple individually-articulated cars rather than the whole-train articulation you see on the Toronto Rocket, the London Underground S Stock, and other Bombardier Movia trains. Only the new M300 trains have that kind of end-to-end access, and while they're as orange as the others, observant transit riders can recognize them from the dotted white bicycle silhouettes and from the car numbers that start with "3."

What these trains have in common is that you can hear them coming from a long way off. In Toronto, I'm used to trains announcing themselves with their headlights reflecting off the tunnel walls and the rails, or perhaps a faint gust of wind. In Helsinki, they're preceded by a sharp, distant, keening screech. Considering the vast airiness of the underground stations, it's only natural that the gust front created by an oncoming train would have plenty of space to dissipate.

Boarding a Helsinki Metro train feels not so much like stepping into the future as it does stepping into a future, perhaps one that diverged from our timeline at some point in the 1980s. The free internet offered in the stations extends to the trains themselves -- though the station-based and train-based networks are both named "METRO," entertainingly enough -- and rather than a banner of advertisements along the tops of the walls, the ads were served up on video screens. It was a very Total Recall vibe... by which I mean the objectively superior 1990 version. That movie's scenes were filmed on the Mexico City Metro, but if you wanted to depict a futuristic, non-specifically-located-but-presumably-American transit system, you wouldn't go wrong with Helsinki's.

The only thing that really tripped me up about them was how often the doors opened while the train was still gliding to a stop. Nothing that would imperil rider safety, considering how long those doors take to open, but when Toronto's subways can stop and hesitate for five seconds or longer before the doors wheeze open, it struck me as a bit overeager.

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

An array of ticket machines at the entrance to Rautatientori station.

If the Helsinki Metro ever used turnstiles, they're long gone now. In another hint to its modernity, there are no fare barriers in any of the stations, and in fact not even a hint of where you might put them. Passengers ride on the honour system, tapping their fare cards at readers on the way in, and enforced by occasional fare inspections. My experience, while limited, implies they happen fairly regularly. I first encountered inspectors on my fifth or sixth metro trip, whereas in the two years I relied on Vancouver's SkyTrain -- which, at the time, used a similar barrier-free regimen -- I don't recall encountering inspectors even once.

With no fare barriers, it falls upon riders to make sure they've paid their way before they reach the platform. The ubiquitous R-Kioski stores sell fare media, and you'll find at least one ticket machine at every metro station, though in a pinch you can buy tickers from bus or streetcar drivers, and with the HSL's mobile ticket app, you can buy them on your phone as well. As of this writing, single-use mobile and machine tickets cost €2.90 ($4.39 Canadian, $3.41 USD), which sounds a bit steep at first, but these are all-zone tickets that let you travel everywhere in the Helsinki metropolitan area. I got around on a three-day ticket, clocking in at €18.

This lack of barriers adds to the stations' feeling of openness, though it does mean the sort of integrated transfers that Toronto's in-station streetcar platforms and bus bays don't happen in Helsinki. Instead, bus transfers are organized similarly to the transit exchanges run by TransLink in Metro Vancouver, particularly at Itäkeskus and Vuosaari.

Perhaps as a result of being designed later in the 20th century and perhaps just because of giving a damn in the first place, all Helsinki Metro stations are equipped with elevators for accessibility. Otherwise, platform access is primarily by escalator, some of them seemingly as tall as good-sized buildings. Unlike so many stations in Toronto, where the designers figured that one up escalator and one down escalator was sufficient, the central-city stations are equipped with banks of three or four. Whether they're mostly-up or mostly-down can be adjusted, depending on traffic patterns, but in my experience all but one of them were set to go up, and -- in a FAQ that warms my heart -- Helsinki City Transport, the operator of the Metro, specifically requests that people stand right and walk left. Refreshingly, in a nod to environmental stewardship, the escalators aren't left constantly running; if they don't detect people for long enough, they will stop.

Signage across the system is easy to follow. Destination signs on the trains and above the platforms tell you which tracks go where, even if in August the destination of westbound trains was often hidden beneath blackout paper -- at the time, one of the few indications that the Länsimetro actually existed. Signs pointing to the exit and the emergency stop buttons are easy to find, and each station also comes equipped with an information display that has a map of the station itself with exits marked, a map of the local area and any surrounding points of interest, and a summary of how to ride the Metro in Finnish, Swedish, and English.

The information display at Mellunmäki station. Somehow I get the impression that not many tourists bother to travel this far. I can't imagine why... I mean, northernmost station! In the world!

Included in that summary is a request that riders "take note of the Metro train's precise stopping place on the platform." What this means is that the Metro was, like Toronto's Sheppard line, built with future passenger numbers in mind, and four-car trains are often swallowed by platforms that could easily accommodate six cars. The stopping areas are indicated with floor stickers and blue lights, but they're easy things to miss or just not notice if you don't think to look for them.


Elevated tracks soar overhead outside Siilitie station.

Before my first sight of Rautatientori station, when I was worn down from jet lag and the discovery that my baggage had liked Keflavik International Airport so much that it took its own impromptu vacation there, I had no preconceived notions. Everything I knew about the Helsinki Metro came from Wikipedia, and Wikipedia is no substitute for experience. For those first few days the Metro was my familiar refuge, a place I could find some peace and connection while I tried not to dwell on whether I'd ever see my big green suitcase again. It was familiar in a way I hadn't expected; there are spots in Rautatientori where all the words you can see are in English.

From the simplicity of the system, to stations that made me forget I was underground, to an integration of art to the extent that one of the entrances to Helsingin yliopisto replicates a cave complete with cave art, I was impressed. Granted, Helsinki locals who have to use the network every day would have a more nuanced opinion, but at no point in the days I used it did I have to deal with stress or troubles that weren't ultimately self-inflicted.

The metro carried me far from the perspectives I usually have, further than any other metro can go, and that's always something to be thankful for.

Previous Tunnel Visions

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