In Europe, a new mega-building is unfolding. FinEst is an underwater railway tunnel that will link the capitals of Finland and Estonia. A grandiose infrastructure project has been under discussion for more than ten years, but despite various plans and assessments, the construction of the facility has not yet begun. Now that the money has finally been found, the project is faced with a new problem - Estonia itself has been backtracking. The country's authorities are hampering construction and demanding guarantees that the tunnel will be completed.
For the first time, the idea of an underwater railway tunnel between Helsinki and Tallinn came up in the early 2000s. Then, Finland initiated the construction of the highway, but the matter did not go beyond the statements. They started talking about the project again in the second half of the 2000s - the idea was actively promoted by the mayors of both capitals - Edgar Savisaar and Jussi Payunen. In March 2008, they signed an agreement of intent to build a tunnel. The document said that two European capitals will apply to the European Union to finance a feasibility study for the project.
The application was submitted in January 2009, and the cost of the study was estimated at 500-800 thousand euros, but the event was unsuccessful. The EU questioned the viability of the tunnel project and refused to pay for its justification. In addition, Savisaar and Payunen offered to allocate 100 thousand euros for preliminary research from each country, but here they were disappointed too - the profile ministers of Finland and Estonia did not support this idea and also refused to provide any funding.
Later, the attitude towards the project in Europe changed due to the construction of the Rail Baltica expressway, which will connect Tallinn, Riga, Kaunas, Warsaw and Berlin. It is assumed that the tunnel could become an integral part of the railway. As a result, five years later, things got off the ground - in April 2014, a tunnel project was launched, according to preliminary estimates, costing 100 thousand euros. The European Union took up most of the costs under the Central Baltic Program for Support and Integration of Projects in North-Eastern Europe.
Ambition and courage
According to the latest data, the length of the tunnel between Helsinki and Tallinn will be 103 kilometers, and the length of the object directly under water - from 50 to 56 kilometers. Thus, FinEst could become the longest railway tunnel in the world. The depth of the tunnel can reach 200 meters, depending on the underlying rock. Trains can reach speeds of up to 200 kilometers per hour, and you can get from one capital to another in 20 minutes. Now, for this, it is necessary to cross the bay by ferry, and the journey takes from one and a half to two and a half hours. In 2019, the cost of the ferry ride varies around 20 euros, a similar train ride will cost about 50 euros one way.
The economic reason for such an ambitious undertaking is to increase the GDP of Estonia and Finland. The underwater transport artery will be able to serve more than a million people living within a radius of 200 kilometers from Tallinn and Helsinki. It is assumed that the tunnel will thoroughly serve cargo transportation. In addition, the project involves the creation of an artificial island in the Gulf of Finland, where trains will stop. It will house thousands of residential and commercial buildings. According to the plan, the island will be able to accommodate about 50 thousand inhabitants, as well as a large exhibition center and all the infrastructure necessary for the life of a small town.
However, the economic feasibility of the project is periodically questioned due to the high cost. So, at the beginning of 2017, the head of the European Commission’s Directorate for Mobility and Transport, Henrik Hololei, said that the underwater tunnel between Tallinn and Helsinki is not among the EU’s priority projects. According to the official, one cannot call a reasonable project, on a preliminary study of the possibility of building which countries will spend more than a million from European funds. In response to this, the Minister of Economy and Infrastructure of Estonia, Kadri Simson, noted that large infrastructure projects do not have to pay for themselves, but they often give impetus to development in other areas.
Seized the initiative
According to Sweco, the project should be implemented through public-private partnerships. At the same time, 40-50 percent of investments should be attracted from the state budgets of Finland and Estonia, as well as from EU infrastructure funds, and the remaining money will be provided by private companies. However, there is an alternative option proposed by the Finnish entrepreneur Peter Westerbaka and does not require state participation. Westerbuck, known primarily as the creator of the game Angry Birds, is now called the main ideologist of the FinEst Tunnel construction.
According to the businessman’s calculations, the project will cost 15 billion euros, and this amount will be covered by private investors, primarily Chinese. Initially, Westerback hoped that the Chinese would incur up to 70 percent of all costs of the project, and the rest would be supplemented by Nordic pension funds. However, the reality exceeded all expectations - in March 2019, the Chinese fund Touchstone Capital Partners agreed to fully cover the cost of the tunnel. Regarding the technical side of the project, Westerbuck proposes the use of Chinese tunneling technology. “We do not see insurmountable technical difficulties, and the project can be completed by the beginning of the 2020s, and not in the 2030s, as previously assumed,” he said.
However, geological data suggest that the construction of the tunnel will not be easy. According to studies conducted by Finnish and Estonian experts, the biggest difficulties for builders will be in the Tallinn area. The fact is that a “tunnel” is actually three tunnels. Trains will go in two, and the third will be official. The depth of the Gulf of Finland along the highway reaches 90-100 meters. Given the need for a tunnel in solid rock formations, the lowest point of the tunnels will be 220 meters below sea level - closer to the Estonian coast.
In addition, not only geological problems arise with Estonia. In late July, the Baltic authorities rejected the application filed by Westerbaki to initiate a special tunnel design. According to Minister of State Administration Jaak Aaba, it remains unclear whether the railway will be public or private. There is also no clarity on the issue of financing and the payback of the tunnel - the Estonian authorities would like to have an idea of what costs and actions will be required of the state, even if it is a completely private project.
Doubts about the project are overtaken by the Minister of Economy of Estonia Taavi Aas. “We need a clear understanding of where and how much money comes from. Where are the guarantees that the project will be completed? The authors of the project could not explain how they calculate the number of people who can use the tunnel, ”he emphasizes. According to the Estonian authorities, the proposed completion dates are unrealistic. The Westerbaki team expects to implement the project by 2024, but last year's European study showed that the construction will take about 15 years.
There is no consensus on the issue of payback. Westerbach believes that the project will pay for itself in just 17 years, while Sweco called the deadline of 35-40 years. The Finnish entrepreneur himself was unpleasantly surprised by the refusal of the Estonian side to approve the application. According to him, the Finns have repeatedly answered these questions. Westerbaka once again emphasized that no expenses would be required either from Estonia or from Finland. According to him, the Estonian side, asking the same questions, demonstrates its incompetence and deliberately delays the process of coordinating the project.
On the way to success
In July, the Finnish businessman FinEst Bay Area Development signed a memorandum of understanding with three state-owned corporations in China - China Railway International Group, China Railway Engineering Company and China Communications Construction Company. It is interesting that tickets for trains that will run through the tunnel, which is not yet in sight, are already being sold on the Internet. “I see no problem with the fact that people do not believe us. These are their problems, and we are just building a tunnel, ”the entrepreneur emphasizes.
Westerbach is confident that he has all the resources for the successful implementation of the project. In particular, he walked along Rail Baltica, noting that the project is not progressing very fast, since the governments of the states participating in the project are constantly arguing with each other. “We do not have three governments: this is a private project, and everyone knows what they are responsible for. Therefore, building a tunnel is easy, ”concluded the businessman. If everything goes according to plan, then next year 16 mining machines will begin to drill a tunnel in eight directions. It will take two years, then railway stations will be built, and the first train will be launched on December 24, 2024.
However, according to skeptics, the experience of building the Eurotunnel between Britain and France suggests that such projects are more expensive than originally planned, and last much longer. It is also important that the road between Helsinki and Tallinn should become part of another infrastructure megaproject - Rail Baltica, which has already been built for more than 20 years. Not a month goes by without news that the Baltic countries cannot agree on financing the project, that the European Union will cut subsidies for the implementation of the construction, that the railroad will not begin to operate in the coming years.