2010 | FINLAND, RUSSIA
Allegro! A musical term well chosen to designate the high-speed railway that runs across Finnish and Russian landscapes between Helsinki and St. Petersburg. The Allegro is adapted to the extreme temperatures of Northern Europe, operating in snow or under a hot sun, valiantly keeping up its rapid and punctual tempo. This journey is the perfect opportunity to discover Finland, a magical land of lakes and immense forests of pine and spruce. It is also the chance to visit Russia, whether for a quick getaway or a leisurely stay in St. Petersburg. Because behind the theatrical décor of its lovely architecture and exceptional museums, this historical city of the tsars emanates a contagious energy.
Finland’s capital of Helsinki surprises visitors by its blend of styles, a testimony to the city’s Russian and Scandinavian history. The downtown area features impeccable streets of neoclassical, Art Nouveau or modernist facades, with two cathedrals built upon facing hills: one the austere, white Lutheran, the other red Russian Orthodox. The historic heart of Helsinki beats in the Senate Square, while the modern downtown area, built overlooking Toolo Bay, is home to Finland Palace, the House of Opera, the Olympic Stadium and the Rock Church. Museums abound, and the cultural scene is very much alive.
Here, design is a way of life, and the Punavuori district is home to many boutique shops as well as artists’ studios and art galleries. The charm of this Nordic metropolis lies also in its natural environment. Parks, forests, and an archipelago of 330 islands make it an exceptional day-trip destination, in winter or summertime. The impressive Helsinki Central Railway Station is one of the city’s emblematic Art Nouveau structures. Inaugurated in 1919, the station is considered one of Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen’s greatest works, and has been listed as national heritage site. The pink-brown granite façade features broad entrances, while a 2001 contemporary glass roof addition shelters the platforms below. The station’s high tower, adorned with an immense clock, reaches skyward. Four great statues solemnly stand guard on each side of the main entrance, each holding a globe that lights up at night. This very central station is the convergence point for many major lines. The station serves long-distance trains and commuter train services in the Helsinki region. Helsinki is a city of public transportation, where train, tram, metro, bus and ferry connections facilitate travel around the capital and beyond.
The Finnish railway network is over one hundred and fifty years old. In 1862, the first train ran between Helsinki and Hämeenlinna, located 100 kilometres to the north of the capital. Eight years later, the first rail liaison between Russia and Finland was put into operation, commissioned by Tsar Alexander II, who was also Grand Duke of Finland. In that era, trains covered roughly 400 kilometres in fourteen hours. Throughout the 20th century, Finland extended its rail network from south to north, and continued to modernise its tracks. The Helsinki−St. Petersburg rail connection was shortened in 2006, to coincide with the opening of the new direct line between Kerava and Lahti. The same year, the two neighbouring countries decided to connect their respective major cities by high-speed trains. The Finnish national railway company VR and its Russian counterpart, RZD, put the project into place and created the Karelia Trains company, a shared subsidiary that would operate the international rail service between the two countries. A contract was signed to purchase Pendolino train sets. The Helsinki−St. Petersburg line entered a brand-new era. In December 2010, the Allegro train definitively replaced the Finnish Sibelius and the Russian Repin trains, both of which had previously provided round trip service between Russia and Finland. The Helsinki-St. Petersburg rail connection celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2020.
After pulling out of the Helsinki Central Station, the Allegro heads to the north of the Finnish capital. The Pasila district, three kilometres from Helsinki, has over the past few years become a very attractive business centre for many companies who have established headquarters in its office towers or in the area specifically reserved for start-ups. Put into service in 2019, the new Pasila station features a direct link to the neighbouring Mall of Tripla, a massive commercial centre. The train stops at the Tikkurila station, in the Vantaa district, as do all long-distance, local, and Russian trains. Shuttle trains run every ten minutes to serve the Helsinki−Vantaa airport. The Tikkurila area is known as the home of the Heureka, the Finnish Science Centre, where exhibitions for the general public offer insights into scientific phenomena. At Kerava, the Allegro takes the new rail line to Lahti.
Established at the southernmost point of Lake Vesijärvi, this city offers many faces. Its yacht harbour features bar-boats and a pier lined with restaurants. Well-known to skiing enthusiasts, the town offers three ski-jumps easily seen from a distance, put to use each year during winter sport World Cup competition events. In addition, the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships have already been held in this resort seven times. Lahti is also a city that loves music. Bearing witness to this affection is the Lahti Sibelius House, a magnificent wood and glass concert hall that offers high-quality concerts and shows. Once past Lahti, the train turns hard east through typically Finnish landscapes: forests, lakes, marshes, rivers, and countryside deep green in summer, white with snow in winter. As the railway nears the Russian border, the train crosses the Kymi River, then stops at the city of Kouvola - one hour from Helsinki and three from St. Petersburg – offers the opportunity to discover the Finnish lake district, studded with forests, ponds and cliffs. At Vainikkala, the train crosses the border. Here we are in Karelia, Russia. Pine forests, deep lakes, islands, rivers… the line reaches Vyborg, a beautiful city once Swedish, then Finnish, and finally Russian. Built upon the Karelian Isthmus on the Gulf of Finland, this city has preserved its historic centre of narrow streets. From the windows of the train, passengers can spy the only medieval fortress of Russia, the Vyborg Castle. Less than an hour later, the train pulls into St. Petersburg.
The rail line from Helsinki to St. Petersburg serves both passenger and freight traffic. Located at the logistics crossroads in Kouvola is the Cargo East Terminal (CET), where products destined for export are collected and warehoused. The terminal serves as an import and export terminal for mass freight consignments between Finland and both European and CIS countries.
In order to improve travel times on the Helsinki−St. Petersburg line, a new section between Kerava (north of Helsinki) and Lahti was completed in 2006. With a length of 74 kilometres, this shortened the trajectory by 26 kilometres compared to the conventional line, for a savings of nearly forty minutes. Using the same corridor as the motorway, this section was designed to limit environmental impacts. Featured along the line are many bridges, including a 559-metre viaduct and trenches dug directly into the rock. The double-track system allows both Allegro and freight trains to circulate on the same line.
This line uses primarily of existing infrastructures, and so the Pendolino tilting system makes it possible to shorten travel times by addressing constraints, particularly sharp curves. Furthermore, Finland continues to pursue a permanent infrastructure-upgrading programme.
All of the other existing tracks along the Helsinki−St. Petersburg line have been upgraded and reconfigured in terms of signalisation and switches. Level crossings have been eliminated. Trains run at a maximum speed of 220 km/hr in Finland, 200 km/hr in Russia. Significant investments were made to put into operation the next generation of rail traffic with the Pendolino Sm6, called “Allegro”. These Alstom-built trains are equipped with a state of the art technology to allow them to run on two networks without stopping. A dual-current system enables them to function on two types of electric supply, thus avoiding the need to change trains at the border, as was the case for all trains in the past. In addition, the Allegro is equipped with high-performance radio signalisation and security systems. Inspired by the original Italian-designed Pendolino trains used on the Finnish network, these Sm6 trains can navigate curves at constant speeds that are 30% superior to classic trains, thanks to its specific tilting train system… without any impact on passenger comfort. When the Allegro doors open at the station, retractable steps automatically adjust to platform height that doubles from one country to the next: 55 centimetres in Finland and 110 centimetres in Russia.
→ Allegro in the snow, Russia.
The bright and lively Allegro colours go beautifully with the music of its name. Blue and white, like the colours of the Finnish flag, represent lakes and snow; white, blue and red, are the colours of the Russian flag, adopted in the days of Peter the Great. Moreover, how could one not see the musical stave reference of graphic blue and red stripes drawn across the length of the train? The Allegro is adapted to extreme weather conditions: 45 °C in summer and down to ‒ 50 °C in winter. The cars are equipped with double-paned windows and a powerful heating and air conditioning system. At the centre of each car, two vertical chimneys on opposite lateral sides blow hot air under the locomotive frame to reduce the accumulation of snow and ice. The seven rail cars of the Allegro can accommodate three hundred and forty-four passengers.
In addition to the traditional fixtures found in high-speed trains, seats are especially reserved for individuals with reduced mobility and to passengers travelling with animals. The Allegro also houses a compartment dedicated to conferences and a play area for children, the first of its kind in this type of train. A dining car, the “Bistro Allegro”, proposes dishes and specialty products of Finnish and Russian origin. First class ticket prices include a snack, drink, and newspapers. The rail conductors speak Finnish, Russian and English. Visas are required before boarding, and customs formalities are administered during the voyage. No more waiting at the border. Travellers can also change money on board and obtain refunds on tax-free purchases. Four new, completely redesigned Allegro trains have been travelling the Finland-Russia line since the summer of 2018. The Finnish railway company (VR) modernised the exterior and interior design, taking inspiration from the modernity of the two capital cities linked by rail. The cars are decorated in warm colours – amber leather in first class -, and high-quality materials. The restaurant-car, the children’s playground, the conference cabin...every aspect has been reconfigured to respect both travellers’ expectations and the environment.
→ St. Isaac's Cathedral and the Neva River in St. Petersburg.
At St. Petersburg, the name of the rail station announces the train’s provenance: Finlandski, or Finland station, was reconstructed in 1970 in pure Soviet style. The statue of Lenin that stands at the far end of the edifice lends a historic dimension. Indeed, after seventeen years spent in exile in Switzerland, in 1917 the revolutionary leader travelled here, where he delivered a long speech to a thrilled crowd. On one of the station’s platforms, a locomotive on display under glass bears witness to the return of the communist leader to his country to launch the October Revolution. Passengers taking the Metro Line 1 can admire the four magnificent stations along the line, each decorated with mosaics, sculptures and bas-reliefs. Exiting the station to the south, a bridge crosses the River Neva leading to the Tauride Palace and its charming gardens, as well as the baroque Smolny Convent and Cathedral, whose gilded onion domes rise over the cityscape.
To the west, visitors may cross the Sampsonievsky Bridge to feel the sea winds. The Petrovskaya Quay is home to the maisonette where Peter the Great, founder of the city, lived for six years to oversee the edification of his new capital. Further on is anchored the cruiser Aurora, legendary battleship from the Russo-Japanese War. Not to be missed is a visit to the Peter and Paul Fortress, the oldest structure in St. Petersburg built on an isle in the middle of the River Neva, as well as Kamennoostrovsky Prospekt, the chic, historic avenue with its superb Art Nouveau architecture.
With the implementation of the Allegro, travel time between Helsinki and St. Petersburg has been cut in half. The line met with a resounding success: in December 2010 the Allegro transported 13,400 passengers, reaching the impressive volume of 307,500 passengers over the course of 2011 - far more than anticipated. Peak travel times fall at the summer holidays (July and August), when Russians enjoy travelling to Finland and especially to Lapland. The downside of this success is that the train fills up quickly, and it is best to make reservations in advance. In addition, Russian passengers are much more eager to take the Allegro train than they were to take the former train, Sibelius. Speed of travel and comfort as well as the on-board staff who speak Finnish, Russian and English have made rail travel more attractive.
The Allegro train offers four departures per day from Helsinki and St. Petersburg. Finns sometimes make one-day business round trips. The old city of the tsars, however, continues to fascinate travellers from around the world.
With this connection in only three and a half hours, the Allegro possesses a decisive advantage over competitors. The bus is less expensive, but less comfortable and twice as slow. Automobile travel takes an hour longer, and requires formalities at the border. As for air connections, cost is higher. Though a flight reduces travel time to an hour and a half, the distance from the airport to downtown makes it less advantageous than rail travel. Finally, the international Allegro high-speed connection serves many cities in Finland, notably in the greater Helsinki area, improving national mobility. Multiple possibilities allow for connections to other destinations in Finland via long-distance and regional trains.
TOKYO > OSAKA
TURIN > NAPLES
MADRID > SEVILLE
COLOGNE > FRANKFURT
BARCELONA > MADRID
SEOUL > BUSAN
BEIJING > SHANGHAI
ANKARA > ISTANBUL
LANZHOU > URUMQI
SHANGHAI > KUNMING
TOKYO > HAKODATE
ZURICH > MILAN
BEIJING > HONG KONG
TANGIER > CASABLANCA