David Brown is a language consultant and journalist, regularly covering stories in Africa, Asia & the Middle East. He has lived in Finland for 10 years.

I AM usually rather admiring of the way in which the capital region has been able to design and build challenging infrastructure projects with a minimum of fuss. As a result the city enjoys possibly the best urban public transport system in Europe, and has generally not been overly distracted by issues of politics, funding or geography.

THIS admiration soured somewhat this week as I looked into the plans for the Helsinki City Rail Loop (Pisararata), a billion euro ego-trip which has “white elephant” written all over it.

The ostensible logic of the plan is to improve access to the inner city for people living in Espoo and Vantaa and beyond in Kerava or Kirkonummi, and perhaps working in Töölö or Hakaniemi. While this sounds sane enough, both suburbs already have tram and bus connections, and Hakaniemi is on the Metro line. Does it really requite a fourth mode of transport?

FACED with the conundrum of an ever expanding population, city planners could have chosen to extend the new Espoo metro link from Tapiola to Leppavaara. This would have been relatively cheap, and would have ensured easy access for Espoo residents not only to the city centre, but to eastern Helsinki as well. It would also have expanded an existing system, rather than creating yet another one.

“The only reason I
can see for adding
another form of transport
to the mix is ego.”

THE new rail loop will not directly connect with any other form of transport, meaning all passengers will need to change to rail or bus at one of the four Pisararata stations. It will involve five years of noise and pollution in the city centre, and destroy one of the city’s few nice parks in Alppila. All of this at an initial cost of 700 million euros, plus planning, plus the inevitable overruns.

I COULD accept all of this if the net benefits outweighed the negatives, but they don’t. The only reason I can see for adding another form of transport to the mix is ego. The plans are ambitious, and perhaps a bit of an engineer’s wet dream. Copenhagen has a new light rail system, why shouldn’t Helsinki have one? Well, how about because it doesn’t need one and can’t afford it?

PLANNERS admitted recently that they have little idea how many passengers will use the new rail loop, and I suspect they aren’t in a hurry to find out. Instead, planners continue to assure the public that the other cheaper and more obvious solutions are off the table. Why they would be, no one knows. Perhaps the Metro just isn’t sexy enough?

OUR best hope is that the recession will shelve the scheme, which will cost 40 million euros in planning. Should projected costs continue to rise, perhaps the city will rethink the proposal, and perhaps go back to the drawing board.

AT this stage the more likely outcome is that the city will inherit a planning disaster to rival that of the execrable “model” suburbs of Merihaka and Itä-Pasila. And all for only a billion euros of taxpayer money.

David Brown