Public transport in Tallinn: the state right now, and what could be improved
Hello everyone. I have now been living in Tallinn for 2 years now, and I figured I’d write about the public transport in this city. I’ll be going over what services make up the network, what improvements have been made, and what could be done better. This isn’t meant to be a guide to the transit system of the city, but rather an analysis of it. Just a quick disclaimer: any suggestions in this post come from my own personal experience and observations, and are by no means professional.
The story of public transit in Tallinn begins in 1888 with the opening of the first tram route. These were initially horse-drawn carriages, but electric trams followed soon after. The first 5 bus routes were opened in 1922 and trolleybus service commenced in 1965. In 2012, the two state-owned operators of bus, tram and trolleybus services were merged to become the current operator: Tallinna Linnatranspordi AS, or TLT for short. From 2013 onwards, public transport has been free to use for residents of Tallinn. The last major infrastructure project, the extension of the tram network to the airport, was completed in 2017, as part of a large redevelopment project in the Ülemiste area.
I will look at 5 modes in this post: city bus, regional bus, trolleybus, tram and regional rail.
The city bus is definitely the largest mode of transit in terms of line kilometres, with 73 lines total. The bus network has not seen any major revamps since its inception, and most of the changes to the network have been incremental. Most bus routes either start or end in the city centre, which makes the city centre accessible from just about any part of town, but transit between the outer regions is rather hit-or-miss. For example, the district of Kopli in the north of Tallinn has great connections to the centre by buses 40, 48 and 66, running every 4-7 minutes on weekdays, but connectivity to Kristiine and Mustamäe to the south and southwest respectively is provided for the most part only by buses 72 and 33, which are less frequent. If one wants to go further south to Tondi or Järve, good luck, it is generally quicker to go the long way through the city centre.
Another weak point is weekend service. While many trunk routes have relatively frequent service during weekdays, it is severely reduced on weekends, most noticeably on Sundays. A route with a bus every 7 minutes on a weekday rush hour might only have one bus every 20 minutes on a Sunday evening. 67 being a great example of this:
While the bus network does have its weakness, credit should be given to the fleet renewal. Just 2 years ago it consisted of various used buses imported from Sweden, Finland or other neighbouring countries that replaced the Soviet fleet, with a couple of newly-ordered MAN buses in between, whereas now it is very likely that wherever you go, this will be your ride:
This is the Solaris Urbino 12. These, along with the articulated in the Urbino 18, are now the most numerous bus type in Tallinn, following an order for a total of 150 by the city of Tallinn. Compared to the Scania and Volvo fleet from the early 2000s they replaced, they’re quieter, faster, more accessible, and run on compressed natural gas. It’s not as “green” as the city likes to proclaim, but it produces less pollutants than diesel and it’s touted as a transitional solution until battery powered buses become more commercially viable.
Transit in the counties surrounding the city of Tallinn is provided by regional buses operated by various operators on behalf of Põhja-Eesti Ühistranspordikeskus, or Centre of Public Transport for Northern Estonia, a non-profit organisation owned by the many local governments in 4 different counties to coordinate fares, schedules and bus operators. I personally have very limited experience with this mode, so I will probably miss on some challenges faced by daily users.
The fleet has received some modernisation, as some operators have introduced new Scania Fencer buses. Most of the fleet consists of IVECO Crossways received from Spain though. Regional buses face mostly the same challenges as city buses in Tallinn: while connections to the heart of the city are generally acceptable, little thought has been put into links between the various surrounding towns and villages. It should also be noted that the service is much more sparse overall: most regions outside the city are served by no more than one bus per hour.
The network itself is rather hard to understand as well. Generally, routes are numbered in the range 100-199, yet there is no grouping of this range and often routes with similar numbers serve very different regions. There is also little thought put into transfers between lines: it is expected that passengers travel from their local stop to the city centre of Tallinn and back. Fares are charged on a zonal system, with zone 1 including the city of Tallinn itself and zones 2 to 5 extending outwards, but it is hard to find a map of these zones, and what zone a specific stop is in. Sometimes, stops just a few hundred meters apart are in different zones: Mõigu being in Zone 1 and Oomi in Zone 2. Had I known that beforehand, I wouldn’t have bought a ticket to Oomi from the centre of Tallinn!
These electric buses with antlers first appeared in 1965 and are the newest mode in Tallinn. Trolley wires were put up to serve the newly developed district of Mustamäe: a soviet-designed part of town that I call home, filled with 5 and 9 story apartment buildings. Initially they stopped just before the city centre, but have since been extended inwards and later a northern branch was added to serve the district of Õismäe, although those were removed in 2016 and the routes were ceded to buses.
4 lines are currently in operation: 1, 3, 4, 5; running along the two major roads in Mustamäe into either the “Kaubamaja” shopping centre in the city centre, or the train station. Line 2 was shut in 2016 and was replaced with the bus line 24.
The city government has shown mixed feelings about the future of trolleybuses. A few years back, they stated plans to close all routes by 2035 in favour of electric battery buses, but in the recent months some investment has been made: two trolleybuses have had batteries fitted for hybrid operations and a bi-articulated “Metrobus” was trialled in late 2021. However, the 50-strong fleet of trolleybuses currently in service has members that are more than 15 years old, and no plans for replacement have been made. Without heavy investment into fleet renewal, there won’t be enough trolleybuses to maintain service on all lines. The future looks bleak for trolleybuses unfortunately, and whether battery technology will evolve sufficiently to replace them remains to be seen. Many of the routes already cut from trolleybus service now run standard diesel buses, which is definitely has caused a degradation in air quality for local residents, and has put even more CO2 in the atmosphere.
The first horse-drawn trams were introduced to Tallinn in 1888. Steam powered haulage was introduced in 1915 and the first electric trams entered service in 1925. They run on a track gauge of 1067 mm using overhead line electrification at 600V DC. The fleet is a mix of Czech-built trams from the Soviet era, refurbished Czech trams, and new trams built by CAF of Spain.
4 lines are currently in operation: 1, 2, 3, and 4. They serve the areas around the old town and the city centre, extending east to the Kadriorg park and west to Tondi. However, the most extensive service runs north to south: from the tip of the Kopli peninsula, just outside the BLRT docks, down through the city centre to Suur-Paala near Peterburi road. A branch also serves the airport.
Many proposals have been put forward for extensions, and a branch to the port is due to open in late 2024. Furthermore, one proposal involves running tracks around the city centre through Liivalaia street and eventually into Kristiine. Research has shown this to be the most beneficial proposal so far, although the city government has not yet decided on whether they actually want to build it.
Heavy rail transport in Estonia is more geared towards inter-regional and intercity traffic, although some lines also provide service within the city of Tallinn. Neighbourhoods in the southwest benefit the most from rail: Tondi, Järve, Nõmme and Laagri, as the electric railway into the western counties runs through there. Frequency varies between 1 and 3 trains per hour, depending on the time of day.
The benefit that rail has over local buses also serving these regions is speed: there are far fewer stops and the speed limit is higher, meaning that trains can be up to twice as fast than buses to the city centre. However, passengers depend on onward transit from the train station, causing a heavy load on the trams mainly. Some proposals have been made for better east-west connections and new railway terminals, but the lack of through-running into the heart of the city will always remain a bottleneck.
The smart card based ticketing system is relatively simple, and most modes are free for residents, including trains but not including regional buses. An integrated ticketing solution is under development, but it could take a few years. In the meantime, passengers looking to save a few minutes by taking a faster regional bus to the outer reaches of the city as opposed to a regional bus will have to pay the fare. Additionally, trains are free for residents, but a visitor buying a ticket to Tallinn will not have trains included, due to a peculiarity in how the free transit arrangement works.
While there are quite a lot of possible one seat rides due to the high number of lines, transferring buses is often challenging. There are 4 large interchange stations in the city centre, yet they’re quite far apart. A passenger coming by tram from Kadriorg and heading for Mustamäe would have to walk roughly a kilometre from the Hobujaama tram stop to the Kaubamaja trolleybus stop.
While the smart card can be acquired from many stores and kiosks across the city, they aren’t generally close to transit stops. I’d suggest placing ticket machines at major stops, where passengers could buy new cards and top up existing ones. While there is an option to do that online, it can often be difficult while you’re already on the move (entering your address, card number, payment card details etc on your phone comes to mind).
Overall, transit in Tallinn is quite functional and has improved over the past few years, but there’s still a long way to go. To truly deserve the “European green capital” title, further improvements should be made to frequency, consistency and ease of use. Tallinn suffers more than any other Estonian city under the increasing number of personal cars, and this problem will continue to get worse if high quality transit isn’t implemented.
1 thought on “Public transport in Tallinn: the state right now, and what could be improved”
Väga lahe ja põhjalik ülevaade. Tubli!