Finland's first open-access train operator prepares for operations, what was its trip like?

Finland’s first open-access train operator prepares for operations, what was its trip like?

The newly founded operator Suomen Lähijunat Oy (Finnish commuter trains) has big plans in Finland. “We have chipped away at the existing monopoly in Finland on the bus side, and we could very well be at a turning point for rail now,” says founder Pekka Möttö in an interview with RailTech.

The entrepreneur Möttö started in 2012 with the Finnish private bus operator Onnibus and therefore has some experience in setting up a new transport company. In addition to Onnibus, which successfully broke into the bus market, a railway counterpart called Onnirail was founded. But getting started as a rail operator proved to be a difficult journey, and Onnirail was never a success. But now his successor could change things in Finland.

New life to an abandoned idea

In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about what to do with old trains that Finnish public operator VR Group no longer needs. Before, these trains were scrapped. However, a year ago there was a policy change at VR. Recently, 11 eleven vintage trains were auctioned off to anyone interested.

“We had actually abandoned the idea of ​​starting a private operation. We don’t have a fleet rental company in Finland like in many countries, so I thought that was just not going to happen. But when this change in policy came, it opened the possibility for anyone to have access to rolling stock, so we created the company Suomen Lähijunat Oy,” explains Möttö.

This change revived the idea of ​​creating a private operator, but the railway market has also changed in the meantime. “We now have an open-access rail model, which is market-based. Our goal is to bring back regional trains, as many regional train operators have ceased over the past decades, only one operator, VR, has remained.

A level crossing in a rural part of Finland, image: Väylävirasto

Turn leftovers into trains again

When the 11 old trains went up for sale, Möttö and his newly founded company Suomen Lähijunat Oy were first in line and signed an agreement to acquire the trains when the necessary funding was forthcoming. However, the word “train” is perhaps too much praise at the moment, as Möttö describes the fleet in its current state as “more of a train graveyard”.

However, metal materials can be reshaped back into working trains, and while there’s a lot of work to be done, it’s actually the “fastest and cheapest way” for the operator to get started, explains Möttö. What’s more, it means that old trains can be recycled, which is the most environmentally friendly and efficient way, and makes the most of the material.

“We are going to use what we can use, and make low-entry trains, which are accessible to everyone”, specifies Möttö, which was not the case before.

Lots of interest from the regions

There is already a lot of interest in Finland when it comes to a new regional operator joining the rail network, says Möttö. “There are 13 regions in Finland that have expressed interest in a new regional operator, out of the 19 regions in the country. They obviously need more of these types of rail links.”

The plan is to start in Turku, Finland’s third largest city. The first scheduled route between Turku and Uusikaupunki will be a 58-minute schedule, which means it takes three units to run it, says Möttö. Before trains newly refurbished from old parts can enter the tracks, they must obtain the necessary approval.

There is a freight train twice a day. There is easily enough space for 100 more trains, and the track has recently been electrified. But some basic work needs to be done before the trains can run at 100 kilometers per hour. Möttö is a little skeptical, however: “there are signs that there could be a delay in finalizing the works, and this could be in order to block a new operator”.

Russian gauge

Due to the Russian gauge in Finland, track width is a problem for acquiring trains from other countries. “If we had the same gauge, it would make life easier for us as a private rail operator, with more access to rolling stock,” he said in response to the European Commission’s proposal that all countries EU should develop a migration plan to the standard. European gauge. However, “as a Finnish taxpayer, I’m not sure it’s really worth it,” says Möttö. “I haven’t seen the numbers, but it will cost a ridiculous amount of money to convert all the leads.”

The new operator is currently negotiating with investors to finance the deal with VR and start work on the rolling stock. According to Möttö, infra investors are quite interested in the projects of Suomen Lähijunat Oy. At the time of this interview, there is no date yet for the handover of VR train parts to the new operator.

One of the red Onnibus buses in Finland

More politics involved

In Finland there are a few private operators on the freight side of rail, but for passenger trains Möttö is not aware of any other initiatives for open access operators.

The Onnibus bus company he founded with a friend is Finland’s most prominent public transport company. Möttö left the company in 2016 and, coincidentally, its bus operator founding partner left Onnibus last month to run freight operator Finniarail, meaning both entrepreneurs entered the rail business. . “While we certainly didn’t plan this together, it was a fun coincidence,” says Möttö.

There is a track available and the infrastructure manager is a separate entity from the state-owned VR, but when it comes to trains, “it always involves politics,” says Möttö. “When we started Onnibus, which totally changed the Finnish business model for buses, we didn’t need politics, just customers, but it’s a different world.”

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