Port of Helsinki
14.12.2020 13:37:17 //
Juha Peltonen
Timo Porthan and Eemeli Sarka

Time to choose

Studies show that further developing the Port of Helsinki’s operations in their current locations would bring in the most passengers. Consolidating Tallinn-bound passenger traffic on the West Harbour is a feasible alternative. Other models would lead to a reduction in travel and an increase in emissions. The decision will be influenced by whether or not the City wants to develop the South Harbour area for other purposes.

In cities built around ports, port operations have been gradually moving further and further away from city centres. In Helsinki, steps have already been taken in this direction with the transfer of cargo traffic from the West Harbour and Sompasaari to Vuosaari.

Land areas used by ports are also considered valuable for other purposes. It is now time for Helsinki to choose, as the City is considering a design competition to develop an architecture and design museum in the Eteläranta and South Harbour area, and also to utilise it for other construction needs. As part of this process, the port’s future locations must be decided upon. Mikko Aho, head of the City of Helsinki’s Urban Environment Division, confirms that the competition is tied to the port issue.

“We have to get the trucks out of there one way or another, otherwise there will be no competition.”

Developing the Eteläranta area has been a topic of discussion for decades, but previous concept competitions have not led to results. In accordance with the current urban strategy, the Eteläranta magazine area will be developed into a bustling city space. 

“The City and the Port are working together to analyse ways of reconciling their activities so that the City can handle strategically important port operations, while also solving challenges related to the usability of city spaces, the significant construction potential of the area, and the location of the museum,” says Aho.

Ville Haapasaari.
Ville Haapasaari

The concept competition will be seeking an investor and implementer for the area.

“We’re now at the point where we can make decisions in principle and start drawing up polices, and this will definitely start being realised during 2021,” says Aho.

The port also hopes to find a solution to the issue, as port investments are made with an eye to several decades in the future. This is impossible while the port’s future locations remain unknown.

“For us, the most important thing is to have a long-term view and the City’s commitment to specific locations in which port operations can be carried out and developed,” says Ville Haapasaari, CEO of the Port of Helsinki.

A tunnel from the West Harbour to Länsiväylä?

The Port of Helsinki is excellently situated for increasing passenger numbers. However, the current model will not improve road traffic issues in the areas around the West Harbour, Katajanokka and the South Harbour, which may even get worse in the future.

“Although keeping the current harbours would be the most profitable option from the company’s perspective, it would be more difficult to enable growth in that scenario. The consolidated model would be better over the longer term, also with regard to traffic development in the West Harbour,” says Haapasaari.

This would mean consolidating Tallinn’s passenger traffic on the West Harbour. The Swedish ships would operate out of Katajanokka, freeing up a large part of the South Harbour for other use. Road traffic to the West Harbour would increase, which Haapasaari says will mean two things:

“The West Harbour would have to be extended somewhat into the sea to obtain more land area. But the bigger issue is the traffic solution. A tunnel connection from the West Harbour to Länsiväylä has been investigated as a project to be implemented by the port,” says Haapasaari.

The tunnel from the West Harbour to the end of Länsiväylä would be just under two kilometres in length, and would be built purely to meet the port’s needs. Practically all of the heavy goods traffic heading to the West Harbour, and also a large proportion of passenger vehicles, would use the tunnel.

“The tunnel would form part of the port’s infrastructure, just like the terminals and quays,” says Haapasaari. 

The harbour tunnel became an option in autumn 2019, when the City’s Urban Environment Committee decided to shelve plans for an underground feeder route (aka the central tunnel) and then also unanimously rejected a ramp solution that had been planned to ease traffic in Jätkäsaari.

Scenarios based on plenty of research

In 2018, when the Port of Helsinki was drawing up long-term business and investment plans related to its new strategy, the company’s Board of Directors thought it necessary to consider a variety of scenarios for developing various areas of the port.

“This issue had already surfaced quite a while ago, and was linked to a variety of desires relating to land use and traffic. In early 2019, we did some fairly extensive work on different scenarios with the various areas of the port in a number of alternative locations. It’s quite normal for a company to be prepared for a variety of different development paths,” says the port’s CEO.

The company’s internal scenario work went through half a dozen alternatives. When the central tunnel idea was shelved, public debate led to suggestions that port operations should be more extensively transferred to Vuosaari. The City launched a variety of analyses, including one that asked the port about the impact of various locations. It was easy to choose the main alternatives from the port’s earlier scenario work for further analysis. The port also commissioned several techno-economic reports.

“During early 2020, we carried out around twenty studies to assess the investments required by the various scenarios and the capacity of harbours in relation to traffic forecasts,” says Haapasaari.

In addition, the City, Port and Finnish Shipowners Association jointly commissioned a report on the various alternatives for organising the Port of Helsinki’s cargo and passenger traffic (aka Hesarama), which assessed the impact that the various different locations would have on both traffic volumes and the environment. 
Hesarama used the current situation as the basic scenario in which the port’s current locations would be retained. Haapasaari reminds us that this would not be a status quo model.

“Port operations would then be developed in the areas currently in use,” he says.

The second scenario was the West Harbour model, in which operations at central harbours would be centralised. The third scenario wanted to put some meat on the bones by transferring traffic more extensively to Vuosaari. The report investigated what it would mean to transfer all Tallinn traffic to Vuosaari.

“We also commissioned assessments of what kinds of environmental permit processes would lie ahead. In practice, the Vuosaari model would require us to build a new harbour alongside the current one. As an investment, it would be the heaviest model when you consider the sensitive conservation and Natura areas near Vuosaari – the permit process would stretch into the 2040s. However, the biggest issue would be a significant drop in passenger numbers coupled with an increase in emissions from shipping,” says Haapasaari.

Lauri Ojala
“The tunnel solution would perhaps be the path of least resistance,” says Professor Lauri Ojala.

Cargo and passengers cannot be separated

Previous studies carried out by the port have already shown that separating cargo and passenger traffic is unfeasible. However, it was included among the scenarios studied in the Hesarama report, as public debate has often expressed the opinion that passengers are welcome in the city centre but cargo is not.

“The Hesarama report’s main conclusion is that separating passengers and cargo would lead to the largest fall in passenger numbers. Cargo’s current role in passenger ferry transport is to ensure that off-season departures also remain feasible. Without cargo, the number of departures would decrease and the price of travel would increase. For cargo traffic, it would mean noticeably poorer connections and a rise in emissions, as the amount of cargo that could currently be transported on one ferry would then require two ships,” says Haapasaari.

According to Lauri Ojala, a logistics professor at the University of Turku and the director of the Hesarama report, it is not possible to separate the cargo and passengers that are currently being transported on the same vessels.

“Fleets have been built for this very purpose, so it would require vessels to be renewed over quite a long period of time. The existing ships cannot be taken out of service overnight, neither can new ones be quickly acquired,” says Ojala.

He reminds us that the coronavirus pandemic has shown ferry traffic to be unprofitable without passengers, even when there has been sufficient cargo. 

“From a business perspective, it’s not realistic to transfer all cargo to Vuosaari,” says Ojala. 

According to the Hesarama report, the portís current locations would bring in the most passengers. However, it will take years for passenger numbers to recover to 2019 levels.

A five-year revival ahead

The Hesarama report was started before the coronavirus pandemic. The report’s estimates on passenger numbers were also needed to assess recovery from the pandemic. An extensive survey of shipping companies’ loyal customers was also conducted in April–May as part of the report. Around 33,000 people responded – which is a lot. In April, for example, a total of only about 200 people per day passed through Finland’s ports. So in practice only professional drivers. On the other hand, 95 per cent of respondents were Finns, even though more than a quarter of the people who travel between Helsinki and Tallinn during normal times are neither Finnish nor Estonian.

“Regardless of the scenarios, I used actual passenger figures from May–June to create forecasts for how passenger traffic is likely to change from 2020 all the way up to 2040. The presentation of these forecasts must have been something of a shock for everyone, but they were very quickly taken onboard as a basis for future planning,” says Ojala.

Hesarama presents three basic forecasts for each port location scenario: “A two-year cold start’ means rapid recovery to 2019 passenger numbers and “a ten-year low” is the slowest forecast. Between them lies “a five-year revival”, which is based on the figures for the early autumn and is, in Ojala’s opinion, the most likely of the three to be realised.

“This year, the number of passengers through the Port of Helsinki will barely reach 4–4.5 million, and that is mainly because January and February were normal months. Passenger numbers in the March–August period fell by 74 per cent on the previous year,” says Ojala.

His estimate – that a return to 2019 passenger numbers will occur somewhere within the two extremes presented in the Hesarama report – is based on both official regulations in various countries and estimates of people’s willingness to travel.

“Asians in particular will have to fly, and air travel capacity has been drastically lowered. China has also prevented its citizens from travelling abroad. Many countries have quite strict restrictions on where its citizens are allowed to travel. And quarantine requirements in the destination country will also have an impact.”

In addition to restrictions, people’s willingness to travel will also have an effect. Infection rates in Finland are the lowest in Europe, but Finland is merely a stopover for many Asian tourists. The question, therefore, is how much effort are people willing to put into their holiday experiences?


Moving to Vuosaari would be an enormous investment

According to the port’s own estimate, passenger numbers will return to 2019 levels during 2023. Regardless of the eventual speed of recovery, the calculations from the Hesarama report that were published in July show clear differences between the scenarios.

“The current situation is the scenario that would get most passengers travelling. This is no law of nature – the market has shaped the kind of terminals that are in use, the kind of ships that have been acquired, and the kind of service concept that is being provided. In all of the other scenarios, the service offering either contracts or becomes more expensive, which will lead to fewer passengers,” says Ojala.

According to the Hesarama report, the various scenarios will have minimal impact on cargo transport. It is forecast to grow by an average of about 2–2.5 per cent a year between 2019 and 2040.

The Hesarama report presents two alternative versions of the West Harbour scenario. In one version, the South Harbour’s traffic would be transferred to the West Harbour. In the other, all Tallinn-bound traffic would go to the West Harbour and Swedish traffic would then be consolidated on Katajanokka. In both versions, a large part of the South Harbour area would be used for non-port activities. In this scenario, passenger numbers would reach almost current levels. However, it would require improved road connections to the West Harbour.

Pekka Leviäkangas, Professor of Infrastructure & Transport at the University of Oulu, assessed the impact of the Hesarama scenarios on traffic. He reminds us that, in all of the scenarios where harbours remain in the city centre, they create localised congestion in the traffic network.

“However, when you look at the big picture, this is not a very decisive factor. Traffic problems in the downtown area exist and will continue to exist whether there are harbours there or not,” says Leviäkangas.

However, transferring shipping from the centre to Vuosaari would be problematic for road traffic.

“It’s difficult to get there by public transport, and both passenger vehicles and heavy goods vehicles heading for the port would cause their own problems in Vuosaari. If an ordinary cruise tourist wanted to use public transport to go on a Tallinn cruise, this would require extra investments in using trams and the metro. We’re talking about a completely different scale of investment.”

Leviäkangas also reminds us of the carbon spike from infrastructure construction – the importance of which has become more pronounced in recent years.

“Infrastructure construction itself always causes carbon spikes that may be almost as large as the emissions from that infrastructure throughout its entire lifecycle. We should always think twice before building new infrastructure,” says Leviäkangas.

If Tallinn traffic were consolidated on the West Harbour and Swedish ships on Katajanokka, then a large part of the South Harbour area would be freed up for other use.
If Tallinn traffic were consolidated on the West Harbour and Swedish ships on Katajanokka, then a large part of the South Harbour area would be freed up for other use.

The West Terminal Tunnel – the path of least resistance

“The report indicated that, if something has to be done about traffic in the West Harbour, some kind of tunnel solution would probably constitute the path of least resistance. Extending the metro to the West Harbour would also be a workable solution, but would it also be a cost-effective one?” asks Ojala.

The Hesarama report did not conduct any soil surveys or tunnel planning. Although the idea of a tunnel to the West Harbour did not arise through the Hesarama report, it is one of the report’s concrete alternatives.

“A tunnel would significantly reduce the problems being experienced with heavy goods traffic heading for the West Terminal. It would direct traffic via the Länsiväylä highway and away from city streets.”

Ojala reminds us that the Vuosaari option would require major investments not only in Vuosaari but also in Estonia, where neither its passenger harbour nor the Muuga Harbour would be able to take any more traffic without making further investments.

Consolidating Estonian passenger traffic on Vuosaari and separating cargo and passengers also proved to be bad ideas in the Hesarama report’s environmental assessment. Assistant Professor Tomi Solakivi from the University of Turku calculated the emissions from road traffic, maritime traffic and the time vessels spent in port specifically for the Hesarama report; they were not collated form other sources.

“The differences in emissions were lowest between the current situation and the West Harbour scenario, but the Vuosaari alternatives would have the most dynamic effects. Although passenger numbers would decrease, emissions would increase due to the longer distance travelled by ships. Per-unit emissions would, therefore, rise even more than total emissions,” says Ojala