Last month I was in Helsinki for the GARA AirRail conference – of which you can read my conference review here. Never having been to Helsinki before, I took the new Airport Ring Rail Line into the city centre for the weekend.
I’ll spare you the details on the sauna and baths and just mention the train in this article.
Finding the Airport Station
Landing at Helsinki Airport I saw some ticket machines in the baggage hall but I didn’t see any departure information about the airport train. Once out in the public area of the terminal you have to have your eyes peeled to find the airport train – literally a tiny picture of a train on some of the signs. Where the entrance is to the side of the main walkway, there is a big picture of a train but it is easily obscured by other passengers as it is below eye level.
The Deep Deep Stations
The journey starts by descending the long, long escalators down to the station concourse; seats are provided at random intervals on the way to the platforms but there is a strange, unnecessary kerb on each side of the walkway, this becomes an issue at corners where it’s quite easy to trip on the kerb unless you are looking at the floor.
Down on the huge platforms, all you need remember is that its a ring rail line, so trains on either platform will take you into the city centre.
The oddest thing about the trains is that you can buy a ticket on board, in some carriages of the train but not others. These are notified by the displays on the windows. I couldn’t really see what the difference was and I never did see a member of staff so I don’t know where or how you buy a ticket on board. Buy at the station if you can…
City Centre Station
Trains from the airport arrive into the historic central station, Helsingin päärautatieasema, though the Ring Rail Line uses platforms that are not covered with a shelter so they had snow on them when I used the services. The main station has all the facilities you’d expect from a central station, with an interchange to the Metro and tram network – and the hotels and shops are all focussed around the station area.
Though the station looks impressive, its function as an passenger terminal is compromised by its design:
The historic building has not been updated to reflect how people behave in a modern station. All of the doors are traditional hinged doors which must assume that someone is standing there to hold the door open for you. To move between platform area and ticket hall, and then out onto the street, all passengers have to push through these quite heavy doors. If you have a bag with you, this is quite awkward. When there is a two-way flow, this just led to bunches of people waiting to get through. Surely these doors could be automated to improve the passenger experience?
The other problem is the layout of the station. Some platforms, including those used by airport trains, are actually outside the station, beyond the reassuring enclosure of the main facility (rivalling the Malpensa Express for suitcase-dragging distance). Both trains I used terminated at Platform 19 which felt like a separate commuter station.
It’s clear that the physical infrastructure at the airport station is very high quality and the trains are functional as an airport service. Unfortunately, integrating the wayfinding and signage seems to be an overlay considered a separate issue. For this reason, navigating to the train is not seamless, and has introduced an unnecessary barrier to using the train. I have to wonder what level of integration there was for planning how passengers would use the new service. It’s not sufficient simply to bolt on the station to the side of the terminal and assume passengers will take the train.
Author: Liam Henderson