Helsinki Western Harbour congestion, what is it all about?

A quarter of a century ago, I began my career in shipping. My first job at the shipping company was to clean up my new room. It had been used as a project room for the Metropolitan Port, a project more commonly known as the Port of Kantvik. The project had just been finished, it had been decided to open a new port in Vuosaari, and it was up to me to empty the room.

The truck and trailer traffic in Sompasaari and the container traffic in the West Harbour were transferred to Vuosaari. Passenger and cruise traffic was left to the center in South Harbour, Katajanokka and West Harbour – later cruisers were also seen in Hernesaari. All of these areas are small areas for port operations, but in practice, port operations were only the fast entry and exit of passengers, cars, and trucks. No storage or similar traditional port operations are available in these harbours at the city center.

Today, the Port of Helsinki is the most important port in Finland in terms of cargo value. About a third of the goods go to Estonia, the other major trading partners are Germany and the Netherlands. Due to its location in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area, the Port of Helsinki primarily handles the import of consumer goods and industrial products for the Helsinki Metropolitan Area. Most of Finland’s imported goods, and especially consumer goods, pass through Helsinki. Thereafter, they are transported either directly to consumers or to shops, or they are repacked and transported by road all over Finland to the Utsjoki River. The ships then transport Finland’s export products when they leave to seas again.

Figure 1. Passengers in Helsinki-Tallinn line, both ways (source: Traficom and its predecessors)

Vuosaari

After many bends, Vuosaari was opened in 2008. The port is one of the most advanced in Finland. No wonder the Mediterranean shipping mogul Emmanuelle Grimaldi calls it the best port in the world for its efficiency and speed.

The location of Vuosaari Harbor turned out to be excellent after the challenging construction phase. The port is located close to Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, so the warehouses of importers and wholesalers can be replenished both by air and sea. For this millennium, virtually all foreign trade warehouses have moved to this most important logistics zone in Finland, around Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, Vuosaari Harbor, Ring Road III, and the roads no 3 and 4.

Downtown ports

In 2008, Sompasaari and most of Jätkäsaari were vacated for housing construction. Swedish ships and Viking Line’s Tallinn traffic remained in the South Harbor and Katajanokka, and Tallink’s and Eckerö’s Estonian traffic in the West Harbour. Decisions on the location of traffic were made at the beginning of the millennium.

Estonia gained independence in the early 1990s, and traffic between Finland and Estonia began to grow gradually. However, growth was deceptively slow and no-one believed traffic to grow to current levels. In the 1990s, the most reliable estimates of how much traffic is growing remained at about a third of current volumes.

Traffic increased with the same slow passenger ship concept until 2005, when Tallink introduced its first super-fast passenger car ferries. Sure, this had been experienced in speed in summer passenger traffic with the fast catamaran ships before, but Tallink’s financially adventurous shuttle concept greatly increased the number of passengers.

There were still some cabins on Tallink’s first ship, but the fast two-hour day cruises provided easy access for both tourists and commuters and eventually made the cabins almost useless. The concept had superior advantages: due to a couple of hours of overtaking and an hour of turning time, the ship was able to make 4 to 6 voyages per day and thus cover the expensive capital costs and very high fuel costs due to speed. Unnecessary dark car decks were sold to cars and cargo, which generated a significant portion of the ship’s revenue, especially during the quiet winter. The biggest revenue for ships comes from on-board sales and passenger tickets, the share of cargo is only less than twenty percent, but it also contributes to improving the revenue from ships.

To put it bluntly, the double-city phenomenon came to everyone’s attention with Tallink’s new ship concept. Much of the cargo was transported between the Helsinki metropolitan area and the Tallinn area, but the frequency was so good that consumer goods and industrial raw materials that needed a fast connection to Europe were partly diverted from the previously used lines through Germany and Sweden. More and more Finns and Estonians lived, worked and spent time in both countries. You could get to Tallinn from Helsinki faster and more safely than to Jyväskylä.

Passenger traffic has grown almost steadily from 2005 to 2019, only the coronavirus made a dent in growth. In contrast, cargo traffic has been growing every year, even during the pandemic. In 2015, Tallink started a freight traffic line from Vuosaari to Muuga. Eckerö Line opened a similar line in 2019, and as of this writing, about twenty percent of the cargo units heading to Estonia pass through Vuosaari. However, the growth in traffic is mainly in Vuosaari, the volumes of the West Harbour have remained at the same level in recent years.

Figue 2. Truck traffic between Helsinki and Tallinn, both ways (Source: Traficom and its predecessors, Muuga separately only after 2019).

Western Harbour

The Western Harbor of Helsinki is one of the most efficient ports in the world. Large ships change their passengers, many miles of heavy traffic and cars in just an hour. For shipping companies, this is a very profitable model, the same ship can run back and forth many times a day and serve thousands of customers.

However, the model is very challenging for the port. All passengers and cargo must be ready at the terminal and board the ship quickly. The terminal 2 in the West Harbor is exemplary in how one can get a huge number of people to and from the ship.

Export traffic does not usually produce congestion. A waiting area has been built in the West Harbor for those who come with cars or trucks. The waiting area fills up in about half an hour and traffic flows smoothly on the transport network.

In principle, trucks arrive at the port only shortly before the ship leaves, so a large waiting area is usually not needed. At times, however, like last Easter 2022, the congestion has come as a surprise and there was several kilometres of queue of trucks to the vessel. Previously, empty plots awaiting the construction of the West Harbour served as an (illegal) parking places where trucks could wait their turn. Now, with the construction of the area, this area no longer exists and there are not enough waiting areas for heavy traffic in the entire Helsinki metropolitan area. The truck going to the ship simply does not have a place to wait its turn to move to port.

When traffic is leaving the port, the situation is more challenging. When several kilometers of cars and trucks are unloaded from a ship in a single log, no street system can swallow it at once, but causes congestion on the street network. Today, the “waiting area” is located on the streets of Jätkäsaare, from where traffic lights gradually let cars and trucks forward. It is understandable that this twenty-minute rush several times a day tightens the nerves of residents and drivers. The splitting of passenger traffic to another route, via the Crusell Bridge, reduces congestion, but the only permitted route for trucks pass through Tyynenmerenkatu to Länsiväylä – trucks are not allowed to pass through the center of Helsinki.

So what can be done about congestion in the West Harbour? In fact, traffic has already been streamlined enormously. Congestion has been in the same range for years, although the number of trucks has multiplied. The street network has been improved, traffic lights have been adjusted, a pedestrian and cycle path has been made under Länsilink, so no pedenstrian crossing is reserved for them in the busiest part, several tram lines run to the West Harbor, the growth of heavy traffic has shifted to Vuosaari with two new lines.

However, congestion is a permanent phenomenon. It is simply a physical impossibility to unload many miles of cargo suddenly into the street network, without congestion. The planned Jätkäsaari tunnel will alleviate the situation, as the tunnel will reduce traffic from disturbing residents in the area. But trucks and cars will have to queue up to get to the tunnel anyway – you can’t get rid of all the queues. In addition, it should be noted that the tunnel has been presented to be financed through user charges. In this case, there is a danger that it will not be used and that traffic will still be congested on the ground.

The development of the Port of Helsinki has been a huge success story. Port serves its customers efficiently throughout the country and its volumes are growing all the time. Most of the cargo traffic passes through the port of Vuosaari, and only shipping lines that are important for passenger traffic, are in the centre. There is also freight traffic on these downtown lines, causing occasional congestion in the city. Complete congestion can never be eliminated, but much has been done and operations are being developed all the time.

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