Tracks with deeper grooves were recently installed in the intersection of Mannerheimintie and Kaivokatu to allow trams to move through the intersection at higher speeds.Plans are afoot to speed up the trams that plod unhurriedly along the tracks of Helsinki.

The City Planning Department, Helsinki Region Transport (HSL) and Helsinki City Transport (HKL) have launched a number of projects to squeeze faster performance from the tramway network.

The trams currently operate at an average speed that is far from impressive in comparison to other cities in Europe.

“This can be partly explained by the fact that Helsinki's street network is narrow and full of turns in comparison to many cities. In addition, the trams regularly use the same lanes as road traffic and the traffic signal priority system is in need of improvements. There are lots of stops because the distances between stops are short,” explains Lauri Räty, a transit planner at HSL.

The speed of the trams inflicts costs on Helsinki and other municipalities funding the operations of HSL. The trams have achieved an average speed of 14.6 kilometres per hour, when stops are taken into consideration. If the speed could be raised to 17 kilometres per hour, HSL would be able to operate more services with its current fleet and human resources.

The annual operating costs of HSL would, as a result, decrease by as much as five million euros.

“In Zurich, for example, the trams operate at an average speed of exactly 17 kilometres per hour, although the transport network is very similar to that of Helsinki,” Räty tells.

The means under consideration to increase the average speed include improving speed and reliability. Reliability is expected to improve as a result of the on-board ticket vending machines installed as part of the adoption of a new ticket and information system of HSL in early 2017 as the odd passenger no longer has to buy a ticket from the driver and delay the departure of the tram from the stop.

The number of obstacles trams face on their daily routes will similarly be reduced. A separate lane will be designated for trams as part of the re-construction of the Pasila Bridge, while a number of other tram lanes will be widened.

Other concrete improvements with an impact on speed include the re-organisation of intersections and the transit signal priority system.

Deeper track grooves are already being trialled at the intersection of Mannerheimintie and Kaivokatu to allow trams to move through the intersection and switching points at a speed of 25 kilometres per hour. The trial will be expanded to other areas in the capital region over the next three years.

Traffic lights will also be adjusted. Trams in several other countries no longer make virtually any stops at traffic lights. While that remains unattainable in Helsinki in the short term, the adjustments proposed by HSL are projected to shorten the stops trams make at traffic lights considerably.

The on-board computers of trams will be programmed to react to changes in the flow of traffic and request a green light exactly at the right time. Overall, the deeper track grooves and adjustments in the transit signal priority system can reduce ride times on tram line 4 by as much as 5 minutes from the current 28–30 minutes.

The City Planning Department is also weighing up the removal of some tram stops. Plans are afoot to remove one tram stop from both Hämeentie and Mechelinkatu as part of the re-construction of the busy streets to reduce ride times by an estimated 30 seconds per stop.

Helsinki proposes in its yet-to-be-finalised master plan that the tram network be expanded from inner city all the way to Malmi. The expansion is likely to necessitate the removal of several tram stops as long-distance services on routes with frequent stops is neither profitable for HSL nor appealing to passengers.

“No major changes will be introduced until a proper public debate on the desired role of tram services as been carried out. We hope to be able to start that at the beginning of next year,” says Lauri Kangas, a project manager at the City Planning Department.

Lari Malmberg – HS
Aleksi Teivainen – HT
Photo: Rio Gandara / HS