The Fans Go Wild!

I found the Helsinki Metro to be the dullest, most horribly zombifying, and relatively useless subway system ever, full of people who shut their eyes if you talk too loudly and whimper if you smile at them.

-- DejaMorgana


The construction of the Helsinki Metro started all the way back in 1969, and was originally scheduled for completion in 1977. This schedule turned out to be a little too optimistic, with progress delayed by political infighting, wrangling over the system to use since the USSR tried to pressure Helsinki into using Soviet technology and the firing of Metro Commission head Unto Valtanen over a bribery scandal. There was also extensive public debate over, of all things, the logo of the metro -- despite widespread popular support for a cute hard-hatted mole, the planners eventually opted for a dull but highly recognizable white capital M on a red square.

But good things come to those who wait, and the Helsinki Metro began operations on August 3, 1982 between Kamppi, in the center of town, and Itäkeskus, the aptly named "East Center" on the eastern outskirts of Helsinki. (There were semi-regular public test runs to Hakaniemi and Rautatientori for several months before the official opening.) The original stretch -- 10 kilometers long and featuring all of six stations -- was briefly the world's shortest subway line! However, it spawned branches to Mellunmäki in 1989 and Vuosaari in 1998, and the metro is now the dominant means of transportation in eastern Helsinki and so popular that operator HKL is having capacity problems at rush hour. In the center, Kaisaniemi station has been added to better serve the University of Helsinki and reduce the load on the Central Railway Station, and Ruoholahti station has been added in the newly created residential area of the same name.

Route Map

Statistics: 21.1 kilometers, 16 stations, 22 minutes

Mellunmäki    Vuosaari
    |             |
Kontula        Rastila
    |             |
Myllypuro      Puotila
    |             |
Itäkeskus (the largest shopping center in Fennoscandia)
(Kalasatama, 2006?)
Kaisaniemi (University of Helsinki)
Rautatientori (Central Railway Station)

Extension Plans

Kalasatama (Fish Harbour) is another Docklands-ish former industrial area being redeveloped into a residential and commercial district, so a new metro station will be added for it by the end of 2006.

The long-awaited western extension towards Espoo remains stalled due to opposition from Espoo County, even though a majority (60-70%) of its own citizens support the extension, and Helsinki City and the Finnish government have promised to pay their share. Construction is unlikely to start before 2008 (meaning completion in 2015 or so), but at least the track is finally clear, with the following stations after Ruoholahti:

    |   Helsinki
 - -|- - - - - -
    |     Espoo
Keilalahti (Nokia world headquarters)
Otaniemi (Helsinki University of Technology)
The stations in parentheses may or may not be built. Some plans for a north-south "Töölö subway" starting at the major rail station Pasila and intersecting or joining the current system at Kamppi have been floated, but it seems unlikely to be built within the next 20 years.

Costs and Use

Hours of operation: 05:30-23:30 Mon-Sat, 06:30-23:30 Sundays
Train frequency: 2.5 minutes peak, 5 minutes off-peak

Single tickets cost a whopping €2 a pop, although there are a wide variety of multiple-trip and pre-purchase discounts available, and the ticket can be used to transfer to any other means of public transportation in Helsinki. You can even purchase a ticket as an SMS message into your mobile phone.

You must have a valid ticket when on the trains or when within a (clearly marked) zone inside the station, but there is no ticket control on entry. The metro is regularly patrolled by ticket inspectors, affectionately known as Smurfs due to their blue livery, and outwitting the Smurfs is a national pastime.

The subway cars themselves are firmly stuck in the functional 70s, all boxy angles and colored a screaming DDR orange -- very much the Volvos of the underground. Seats are indestructible plastic and even the floor is rubberized for easy cleaning. A new, slightly more humane series of cars is slowly being introduced.

The subway of Helsinki started operations on 3 Aug 1982. It now has a total length of 21.1 km, of which 6.5 km are in tunnel, 14.6 km above ground and 2.5 km on bridges. It has 16 stations. The line starts from Ruoholahti on the western edge of the peninsula on which the city center has been built on. It takes just few minutes to travel to the Helsinki Central Railway Station, where the line veers north and continues until Sörnäinen. There the line turns east again and crosses a bay over a long bridge. On the eastern side of the bay the line continues on the surface, since it's mostly loosely built suburbs after that point.

The subway is called just Metro in Finland. Many countries have their own terms for trains travelling underground (Subway, Underground, U-Bahn, Tunnelbana). The term 'Metro' comes from French word métropolitain.

Since Helsinki's Metro is so new, it has larger tunnels than for example London's The Tube, and the train cars are more spacious as well. Passenger amounts are small on a global scale, and the trains are considered full when all the seats are in use. The underground stations have been carved in the groundrock and are quite spacious. All this adds up in a pleasant travelling experience compared to some other subway lines of the world.

The trains are bright orange, as are the plastic seats in the cars. Everything is pretty clean except the occasional obligatory boozehounds.

Etiquette for travelling on the Metro:

  • Don't talk to strangers. If it's anything less important than "Excuse me, but I believe the train is on fire" you will be considered mentally defective (i.e. not conforming to the national standard of melancholy and introvertedness).
  • On the station platform, let people exit the train before you board it. This is of course pretty much universal.
  • Buy your ticket beforehand. A single ticket will be valid for one hour. There are no gates, just occasional raids by the ticket inspectors. Being caught without a ticket costs 50 euros plus the price of the ticket. The same ticket is usable in the city's trams, buses and the ferry to Suomenlinna during the validity period.
  • Don't cause a disturbance while drinking beer or someone might call the rent-a-cops. If you act civilized, no-one will care, even though drinking alcohol is technically prohibited.
  • Mind the doors. The newer Bombardier trains give three beeps before closing them, but the older ones just say pshuf and the doors will close. Try not to leave anything between them. Larger objects are usually recognized and the doors will cycle again.
That's it! Happy travelling on the northernmost subway in Europe!

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