Helsinki-Tallinn: one tunnel, two projects

Tõnis Oja
, majandusajakirjanik
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Photo: AFP / Scanpix

If a mere decade ago, no one but a few enthusiasts even wanted to think about a tunnel between Helsinki and Tallinn, there are now two competing consortiums with the plan: the FinEst Link Project by the two cities and countries and the private project of Angry Birds founder Peter Vesterbacka.

What is more, the Helsinki-Tallinn tunnel was one of the topics on the table during a joint sitting of Estonian and Finnish governments held in Tallinn yesterday.

Despite there being two competing projects, there will not be two tunnels. No one can say today which project will prove successful; however, it is highly likely a tunnel will be constructed as there is considerable interest and, unlike with Rail Baltic, no protest against the project, at least for now.

There is busy ferry traffic between Helsinki and Tallinn – nine million passengers moved between the two cities last year. An analysis by FinEst Link estimates that the number of passengers will grow to 14 million without the tunnel and 23 million with the tunnel – 12.5 million tunnel passengers and 10.5 million ferry passengers – by 2050.

3.7 million tons of goods were moved between the two capitals last year, while forecasts see that figure growing to seven million tons without the tunnel and eight million with the tunnel (four million tons with each mode of transport).

The tunnel was also discussed at a parliamentary support group meeting yesterday where FinEst Link was represented by Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications Chief Specialist Eva Killar. Peter Vesterbacka, who calls his workgroup the FinEst Bay Area, was also present and with him were experts from companies in Finland, Switzerland, and USA.

On of the major differences between the two projects is the time in which the tunnel can be built. Eva Killar said that construction will take approximately 15 years: eight years of digging, six years of laying communications, and a year to test the trains.

Vesterbacka’s time-table is much more ambitious and therefore sparks greater skepticism. Vesterbacka believes it is possible to have trains moving as early as 2024.

Startup prodigy Vesterbacka, who is also behind one of the world’s best-known startup meetings Slush, plans to build the tunnel based on startup logic. “We cannot spend five or six years on planning,” Vesterbacka said. The businessman got involved with the tunnel project about two years ago. “We will do a lot of things simultaneously,” Vesterbacka said.

The FinEst Link concept would see the tunnel built from the Finnish side and the granite and other materials extracted used for the creation of artificial islands. (Both projects prescribe the construction of two artificial islands.)

Vesterbacka plans to dig, using gigantic drills with a diameter of 17 meters, in six locations simultaneously. The Finnish side, the Estonian side, and in both directions from the two islands. As concerns permits, representatives of Finland said it only took 11 months to approve the €1.3 billion Äänekoski pulp mill.

It is clear that the tunnel will need to be approved by the governments of both countries that makes the position of FinEst Link seem stronger. On the other hand, the national project has no financing and no hope of securing it in the near term.

“There are no ideas for funding at this time,” Eva Killar admitted to MPs yesterday. Prime ministers Jüri Ratas and Juha Sipilä have emphasized the need to involve private capital.

“Talking about tunnel financing, it will mean involving private capital, and I hope we can secure EU funding in the future. Building the tunnel only on the two countries’ dime is out of the question,” Jüri Ratas told Kuku radio yesterday.

“Seriously talking about construction once surveys have been completed – if things ever get that far – it will be around the 2027 or 2030 budget period,” he said. Eva Killar said that the European Commission wants nothing to do with the tunnel until Rail Baltic is finished.

Peter Vesterbacka said there is considerable private interest, especially from China and Scandinavian pension funds.

The tunnel will require a lot of money – approximately one and a half Estonian state budgets. FinEst Link puts the cost at around €16 billion (between €13 and €20 billion). Vesterbacka estimates the price tag at €15 billion. The price is one reason for Vesterbacka’s ambitious time-table as the longer the construction period, the more it costs.

Vesterbacka’s FinEst Bay Area already has its first product. The group launched the Tunnel Vodka in early May.