Anirudh Dwarakanath - Authoranirudh.email@example.com
Anirudh Dwarakanath - Photographeranirudh.firstname.lastname@example.org
A lot can be said about Stockholm’s expansive metro network. But while we can lay praise on a surprisingly long system that serves a city that is often dubbed “the smallest large city”, is it enough to sit back and underinvest in the future?
As a common expression goes, infrastructure is the backbone of economic growth. It is a means for gainful employment, as well as the creation of a public good that can be used for the years to come. Through much of history, different heads of state have sought to bolster their public standing by making grand statements in the forms of public infrastructure. From the aqueducts of Rome, to the academies of Ancient Greece or even the complex water and sanitation systems of Indus Valley Civilization. In modern times, the desire of world leaders to build infrastructure has typically taken the form of transit projects, seeking to make the world an ever-smaller place. In this context, we ask an important question: has the urban transit infrastructure of Stockholm kept pace with its expansion and its place as an important world city?
But first, a history lesson. Sweden has the distinction of being quite adept at railway technologies in spite of a smaller population. The Roslagsbanan is one of the oldest electrified railways in the world. Even the main topic of today’s article, the Tunnelbana, is amongst the 25 oldest metro systems of the world. Built on the foundations of metro-grade suburban tramways built in the 19030s, the tunnelbana officially opened in 1950, with what has now become the Green Line. Much of the plan for today’s network was laid down in the Tunnelbaneplan of 1965, even if some recommended routes never were built. Due to such foresight, planning, and a strong Swedish economy, the system steadily expanded adding two more colour-coded lines over the next 44 years, totalling 100 stations on over 100 kilometres of track, truly keeping up with many cities of the world. Since then, however, there has been a noticeable stagnation.
A lot has changed in the last 28 years. Yes. That is how long it has been since there last was an expansion to the metro system. The population of the county has risen by 50%. The share of commutes done in public transit has gone up from 54% in the early 1990s to 71% today. In tandem, this implies an increase not just in the number of trips carried out in the city, but also the number of such trips through more sustainable means. The end result is a peak metro ridership of 462 million – a staggering number for a city of this size. The world has also become more environmentally conscious – and in a nation where this is as much of a focus as Sweden, I feel that there is no alternative to investing in public transit infrastructure. Considering this, you would assume that it is in the interest of every transit network to keep costs low. Yet, a chilling undertone of this is that while the price of petrol (pre-war) has risen by 130% in the last 30 years, the price of a monthly SL ticket has risen by 330%. Sadly, seeing overcrowded trains and frequent technical failures, it may feel like there has been precious little money invested in keeping this system up to date.
The picture is not as bleak as I have put it, so far. For one, Stockholm definitely punches above its weight when it comes to metro systems. It is the 28th longest system in the world, but is not even amongst the top 100 cities in the world by population. We have seen two new generations of rolling stock grace the Tunnelbana, bringing a much-needed wave of modernization. The ageing signalling system, especially on the green line, was installed to improve train frequencies. A whole new ring railway, tvärbanan, has made its way to the streets and suburbs that offers connectivity between suburbs that is lost due to the radial nature of the tunnelling. Tram networks got newer, or refurbished trains. The dedicated tunnels (citybanan) improves service on the commuter train network. The city’s extensive bus fleet has been converted to run on fossil-free fuels, making it the world’s first capital city to do so. Albeit, there remain two lacunae which prevent improvements in service – metro expansion and depot construction. The driving force behind these improvements was a controversial infrastructure package we explore next.
Who was Dennis (and was he a menace)? In 1992, the then chairman of the Riksbank, Bengt Dennis, chaired discussions between the Moderates and the Social Democrats to bring out the so-called “Dennispaketet” – a plan for investment into improving Stockholm’s rail and road infrastructure. Many of the improvements to the metro I noted in the previous paragraph were part of the aforementioned plan. This plan drew some heavy criticism, especially from the quarters of environmentalists, for a lot of money was dedicated to roads. However, I opine that many of the road projects were necessary with the way transportation evolved in the 20th century. In the end, the plan was dissolved in 1997 due to this outside pressure and some projects – both rail and road – were left incomplete or were never started. The city’s metro had to wait another two decades for any new life.
En ny tunnelbana? Eller en gammal? After much deliberation, the new metro plan was finally announced in 2013. I shall try to not harry you, the reader, with too many specificities about this plan. The parts under construction include northerly and southerly extensions to the blue line and a new yellow line that runs parallel to the green line to ease central traffic and bring the metro to new places. A controversial part of the plan is an automated metro link between Fridhemsplan and Älvsjö, improving connectivity in the inner city. This announcement also included the much-needed construction of new depots to house more trains, improving service. The current cost estimate of this project, 30 billion SEK, does certainly not sound like a paltry sum, especially for 19 track-kilometres. While work has been slow, it has garnered praise from transit researchers for being quite cost-effective in this modern world. This plan addresses many of the key weakness of the system. Chief amongst them are the lack of metro lines in newly developing suburbs in Solna and Järfälla and the imbalance with the blue line to the south of the city. There is one absolutely incredible facet to this plan for the “new metro” withal – it is actually very old! The Southerly extensions of the blue line were part of the 1965 Tunnelbaneplan mentioned above. Yes, planners were able to predict the demands being high 50 years before a single rock was dug up to build the new metro. The northerly extension to Järfälla was part of the Dennispaketet of 1992. In effect, a large part of this plan had already been recommended and had sadly been shelved through several decades of underinvestment.
“30 billion SEK for this? Are we better off investing the money elsewhere?” As mentioned before, this plan solves many of the problems that the system faces today and is absolutely essential. On the contrary, we need to invest more in alleviating other issues with connectivity that remain because of the way the network branches out away from the city centre. And the increased number of trains in the inner city may simply lead to inducing even more demand, keeping that part of the network crowded in peak hours. For this, I propose investment into even more surface rail in the form of tramways – since they are more efficient in usage of space. A spiritual successor to the Tvärbanan in the form of Spårväg syd is taking shape to the south of the city, providing reliable transit to new suburbs in the region. An announcement of the stations and alignment has just been made, and I look forward to its completion.
I won’t, for a second, claim that this work is easy. As a man equipped with a keyboard, I have waxed lyrical about the importance of public infrastructure and have been both congratulatory and have criticized the investment into public transit in Stockholm. I do, concede that infrastructure planning is a region fraught with several landmines – politics, people, and overspending on projects that become white elephants. The growth of Stockholm also meant the emergence of new suburbs – many of which are governed as separate cities that come under the umbrella of Region Stockholm. This approach to governance is reminiscent of the London Borough system and brings with it similar issues. Local politics has got in the way of some meaningful extensions to the metro. For example, there was a plan to extend the red line towards Lidingö, since the population centres of the island is actually not connected to any rail transit. However, this was rejected by that city because it came with the condition of building 10,000 new flats. Soon, the city of Solna shall have 8 metro stations served by 3 separate rail corridors, while Lidingö has none. Similar stories can be found in other suburbs – going back as far as the 1965 Tunnelbaneplan.
“So, what are you on about? Is this good or bad, you don’t seem to be able to make up your mind!” I have intentionally tried to present this article as a tale of contrasts – between excellent planning and relative neglect, between pragmatism and fiscal conservatism. The work we put in today has far-reaching consequences decades into the future. It is therefore very important for the timely execution of the existing projects and continued investment.