Opening of the Kerava - Lahti cut-off will reduce journey times by up to an hour, triggering a complete reshaping of the national timetable. Chris Jackson reports from Helsinki

ON SEPTEMBER 1 Finnish Transport Minister Susannah Huovinen joined RHK President Ossi Niemimuukko and VR Group Chief Executive Henri Kuitunen for the celebrations to mark the completion of the 63 km Kerava - Lahti cut-off. Following an afternoon of free rides for local residents, revenue service began with the national timetable change on September 3.

Know as Oikorata, or the Direct Line, the cut-off was authorised in 2002, and took four years to build at a cost of €331m. Much of the funding has come from the Finnish government, although k20m was contributed by the EU as the route forms part of the Nordic Triangle TEN. It is the first new passenger railway to be opened in Finland since completion of the Jämsänkoski - Jyväskylä line in 1977.

The line reduces the distance from Kerava to Lahti by 26 km, and the journey time for long-distance passenger trains from 78 to 48 min. It also releases much-needed capacity on the existing route via Riihimaki, which is shared by services to the northwest of the country.

Around 500 VIPs and guests joined the special 12-car Pendolino which left Helsinki at 13.00 on September 1. The train called briefly at Kerava so that the minister could dispatch the train onto the new line along with council leader Eero Lehti. After a short stop at Haarajoki, where the station was thronged with local residents, the train reached Mäntsälä for the first opening ceremony.

Welcoming the guests, local council leader Jarmo Keskinen said Mäntsälä 'had effectively won the lottery jackpot twice', with the opening of the motorway first and then the new railway. With hourly local trains formed of Sm4 low-floor EMUs offering journey times of 21 min to Lahti and 40 min to Helsinki, he expected the town to become a popular commuting hub. Around 2 000 new houses are already planned for the area around the station, adding a potential 4 000 residents to the current 9 000 inhabitants.

The opening special continued to Lahti, where a large marquee had been erected in the goods yard for the main celebrations. After 50 local schoolchildren performed the specially-composed 'Lahti Rap', council leader Ulla Juurola welcomed the Minister, and emphasised the benefits that the new line would bring to the town. She was followed onto the stage by Huovinen, Niemimuukko and Kuitenen for a short question-and-answer presentation before a late lunch, after which the special train returned to the capital.

A second special train formed of three Sm4 EMUs followed the Pendolinos from Kerava, giving the crowds at the intermediate stations their first view of the units that will work their local services. On arrival at Lahti, the EMUs operated a free hourly shuttle to and from Mäntsälä for the rest of the afternoon, returning to the capital during the evening.

300 km/h alignment

Oikorata diverges from the Helsinki - Riihimaki main line at a flying junction around 2 km north of Kerava, and heads northwest to meet the Riihimaki - Lahti route 9 km west of its destination. This sinuous section of the old route has been upgraded for tilting trains to operate at 200 km/h, and Lahti station has been completely remodelled with two new island platforms.

Much of the new line parallels the E18 motorway to minimise environmental intrusion. The cut-off is double-track throughout and electrified at 25 kV 50 Hz. There are platform loops serving the two intermediate stations at Haarajoki and Mäntsälä, plus three sets of loops between Mäntsälä and Lahti where freight trains can be overtaken. The route has no level crossings, which have been an increasing source of incidents on the Finnish network in recent years.

'Although the new line is authorised for Pendolinos to run at their full speed of 220 km/h and loco-hauled passenger trains at 160 km/h, the alignment has been designed for 300 km/h operation in the longer term', said RHK project manager Juha Kansonen. 'The junction at Kerava has Finland's first 1 in 28 turnouts authorised for diverging moves at 160 km/h, whilst the Lahti junction has 1 in 26 turnouts allowing trains on the old route to diverge at 140 km/h. The route can accept 30 tonne axleloads to accommodate transit freight traffic from Russia to the Finnish ports.'

Small contracts cut the cost

Rather than award a single turnkey contract for construction and fitting out of the new line, RHK adopted the same strategy that it used for quadrupling of the Helsinki - Leppavära suburban route in 1998-2000. This saw the appointment by competitive tendering of a project management consultancy which then oversaw the construction in conjunction with a small team from RHK's major projects unit.

The construction work was broken down into 30 main contracts and more than 250 smaller ones, which RHK says enabled small and medium-sized companies in both Finland and the rest of Europe to bid against the larger multinational consortia. 'This process ensured that we achieved the best price for each element', explained RHK contracting director Juka-Hakki Pasanen. 'We could appoint the best qualified supplier for each contract. But if we had gone for a turnkey approach, some of the best contractors would inevitably have been in the losing consortia.'

The key role of the project management consultant was to co-ordinate the work of all the different contractors, and manage the interfaces between the different aspects of the work. As well as the flying junction at Kerava, which is the longest railway bridge in Finland, and largely built on piled foundations because of soft ground, there are numerous rock cuttings and embankments along the route. A 559 m long viaduct at Luhdanmäki is now the third-longest structure on the Finnish rail network.

Much of the civil engineering was undertaken by Finnish contractors, but RHK awarded the tracklaying contract to VR's track subsidiary VR Rata Oy. TSTG of Duisburg supplied 220 km of long-welded rail, with two trains containing 34 sections 120 m long arriving each week over the two-year fit-out period. These were then joined by VR Rata using mobile flash-butt welding equipment.

Around 210 000 concrete sleepers with Skl-14 fastenings were used, along with 60 sets of turnouts assembled from components supplied by Vossloh/Cogifer. Five sets of expansion joints came from VAE/BWG. Conventional colour light signalling was supplied by Alcatel, and automatic train protection equipment by Bombardier.

Infrastructure investment continues

With the opening of the Direct Line, RHK's major projects team is starting to move on to its next big scheme. This is the upgrading of the existing line from Lahti to Luumäki, where the main line to Imatra and Joensuu diverges from the route to the Russian border at Vainikkala. Expected to take around three years to complete, the project will see the line rebuilt for a maximum of 200 km/h.

At the government's suggestion a private financing package was investigated for this project, but the idea of PPP financing was rejected because of the risk of disrupting existing services. Pasanen said a PPP might work for a stand-alone project, such as the Helsinki airport rail link, but because the route is intensively used by passenger and freight trains, and single-track east of the junction at Luumäki, it would be too difficult to apportion risk between RHK and its partners. In the end, the government has allocated the whole of the k185m needed in its 2007 national budget.

A second scheme to be funded from the same budget allocation is the upgrading of 335 km of the northern main line between Seinäjoki and Oulu at a cost of k545m. This line was electrified in the early 1980s for conventional 140 km/h passenger services but will now be rebuilt to allow Pendolino operation at 200 km/h. The work is expected to start in 2008 and take several years to complete.

Work is already underway on a rail link to the new port at Vuosaari, east of Helsinki. This 19 km single-track electrified freight line includes a 14 km tunnel which is due to be holed through by the end of this year. Tracklaying will start during 2007, and RHK hopes to have the line open before the end of 2008.

Another major infrastructure project still at the planning stage is the rail link to Helsinki-Vantaa International Airport. Known as the Circle Line, this envisages an 18 km extension of the existing Vantaakoski suburban branch north and east through the airport and then back to join the main line at Tikkurila. Estimated to cost around k300m, the project is currently being driven forward by Vantaa municipality, which is in talks with the Ministry of Transport & Communications. The municipality and the airport authority also believe that there is potential to attract private-sector funding, if a suitable formula can be agreed.