SEPARATED by just over 80km as the crow flies, the distance between Helsinki, Finland, and Tallinn, Estonia, would appear to be a prime place for a high-speed line - if it wasn’t for the Gulf of Finland that separates them.
Travel between the two cities is currently by ferry, which takes two hours, or air, which takes just 35 minutes. But a plan set in motion in 2016 could see this travel time cut to just 20 minutes, with the opening of a high-speed tunnel tentatively set for December 24 2024. This ambitious proposal was launched following a discussion at the Latitude59 entrepreneur event in Tallinn in the summer of 2016, says Mr Peter Vesterbacka, a founder of FinEst Bay Area Development, which is spearheading the plans.
During a conversation about the long ferry ride, the topic turned to the long-proposed but often-dismissed idea of building a tunnel beneath the Baltic. “It turned to ‘let’s not just talk about the fact that it would be nice, but why don’t we make it happen?” Vesterbacka says. “I mean, how difficult can it be to connect Tallinn and Helsinki with a tunnel?”
Vesterbacka immediately proposed the idea to the then Estonian foreign minister, Ms Marina Kaljurand, who was also attending the dinner. “I walked over to her because I thought it’s probably a good idea to keep the government up-to-date with what we’re planning to do,” Vesterbacka says. “I told her that we have decided to build a tunnel. Of course she laughed, and probably I would have done the same. I always like to say that if people laugh, then you’re setting the ambition at the right level and then it’s our job to stop the laughter and make it real.”
Vesterbacka publicly announced the plans during a talk to a construction hackathon in Helsinki the next day, with a Finnish national newspaper again asking if he was serious. “They said ‘this must be some kind of joke, right, we saw you were talking about this tunnel project.’ And I said, ‘no, it’s very serious, of course we’re going to make it happen’,” Vesterbacka says.
In order to develop the project further, Vesterbacka partnered with Mr Kustaa Valtonen, a Finnish private capital investor and entrepreneur. The €15bn project they have proposed involves constructing a 103km tunnel connecting Helsinki Vantaa airport in the north with Tallinn airport in the south, including an 80km undersea section. The line would provide a connection with Rail Baltica, the 870km mixed-traffic 1435mm high-speed line currently being constructed through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to the Polish border.
Five stations are proposed for the line: Ulemiste beside Tallinn airport, which will provide the connection with Rail Baltica; The Island, an artificial island created in the gulf using the 80 million mᶾ of material removed during tunnelling; OtaKeila in Espoo, on the outskirts of Helsinki; and Aviapolis serving Helsinki airport, which would provide rail connections to Tampere, Turku, Oulu and St Petersburg. A stop at a floating island off the coast of Tallinn was announced in August.
A freight terminal is also planned north of Helsinki Vantaa airport in Tuusula. This would provide a railhead for freight to move between Finland and the rest of Europe via Rail Baltica.
The twin-bore tunnel would be constructed using Tunnel Boring Machines (TBM), and Vesterbacka says they plan to use 16 17m-high TMBs simultaneously to allow construction to be completed by December 2024. In contrast, the 50.5km, £4.65bn Channel Tunnel between England and France took six years to construct, while the 57km Gotthard Base Tunnel beneath the Alps took 17 years to complete.
The TBMs will be launched from both ends and the artificial islands. In order to launch tunnelling under the sea, large metal tubes will be sunk underwater and pumped dry, allowing a drill and blast method to be used to create a space large enough for the TBMs to be lowered into place to begin tunnelling. Valtonen says there is also an existing island near Helsinki that can be used to launch drilling, which will later act as a maintenance shaft.
“I mean, how difficult can it be to connect Tallinn and Helsinki with a tunnel?”Peter Vesterbacka
The stops in the gulf include the 3-5km² artificial island 15km off the coast of Finland that will be created using the material removed by the TBMs. Three locations within five to 15km of Finland are being investigated for the island, which is expected to house what could constitute a new town, with up 50,000 people living and working on it. Vesterbacka says this also improves the business case for the line as it will provide more passengers to use the tunnel.
The second island is the proposed “Green Float Tallinn” floating island announced in August, which is being developed by Shimizu Corporation, Japan, and Blue21 from the Netherlands. The island will be built over the seabed at depths of between 2.5m and 50m below sea level, with a surface area of around 1.2km by 1.5km. The island is expected to include housing along with education and entertainment facilities, and will include a core zone created using excavated rock, surrounded by an inner circle of floating facilities protected by an inner breakwater. This would be surrounded by an outer circle, comprising artificial floating ground protected by an outer breakwater.
The aim is for the island to become self-sufficient for food, water and energy, with resources either reused, recycled, or upcycled.
“The overall objectives of Green Float will contribute to the vision of Tallinn,” says Blue21 co-founder, Ms Karina Czapiewska. “The current design of Green Float is still a work in progress. Discussions with stakeholders, and particularly people from Estonia, need to continue to gain more insights for the functions and final design.”
The tunnel is similar to one proposed through the FinEst Link project, which published a feasibility study in 2018 funded by the Helsinki-Uusimaa Regional Council, City of Helsinki, Finnish Transport Agency, Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, City of Tallinn and Union of Harju County Municipalities. The report studied the construction of a tunnel, which it said would take 15 years to build, and would open in 2040, 16 years later than the tunnel proposed by Vesterbacka and Valtonen. The study also found the tunnel proposed by the regional authorities had a cost-benefit ratio of between 0.16 and 1, with an average of 0.45.
Vesterbacka and Valtonen’s idea may seem far-fetched on paper, especially with the tight schedule they have set for the project, but they say the figures have been checked and confirmed as feasible, with the initial business case scrutinised by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).
“They came out and said yes you can make this work, and the tunnel will pay for itself in 37 years, which is a long time obviously but not impossible,” Vesterbacka says.
The tunnel could attract up to 52 million passengers a year, including 22 million who currently travel by ferry, 11 million who fly between Helsinki Vantaa and Tallinn airports, and 19 million potential new passengers. The tunnel is estimated to contribute €225bn and €47bn to the Finnish and Estonian economies respectively between 2021 and 2050.
Preliminary work on the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in Finland began in July 2018. More than 60 different organisations were involved in the process, with the full assessment launched in April 2019.
The process in Estonia was delayed by a requirement for government support to launch a designated National Designated Spatial Plan (NDSP) process which had to be completed prior to the development of the EIA. This caused one of the major setbacks for the project, with the change of government following elections in March 2019 causing further delays.
While the NDSP process was supposed to take three months under Estonian law, it eventually stretched out to 20 months. Following a recent law change, Vesterbacka and Valtonen decided last month to withdraw from the NDSP process and submit an EIA application.
There were mixed messages of whether the Estonian government will support the project, or would instead develop its own publicly-backed tunnel.
“The Estonian government is considering not to initiate the NDSP process necessary to plan the tunnel, as applied for by the FinEst Bay Area,” Mr Tiit Oidjärv, deputy head of the spatial planning department at Estonia’s Ministry of Finance, said in a statement to IRJ prior to the NSPD application being withdrawn. “The draft of the resolution not to initiate the process has been presented to the relevant parties for consultation and the cabinet wishes to make the decision as soon as possible.
“By formulating the opinion on the application by FinEst Bay Area, the Estonian government is not taking a stand on whether to build or not to build, or when to build a tunnel between the two countries. At this moment Estonia and Finland are in the process of having a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the countries in order to establish common understanding and views of how to continue with the tunnel project. Involving the private sector in the activities of developing a fixed link between the countries is also a key point of consideration in developing the tunnel connection.”
However, Vesterbacka and Valtonen are undeterred, and say the statements made by the Estonian government in public don’t necessarily mirror what is being discussed behind closed doors.
“I think that we are very confident on our side that we have both governments supporting the project.”Peter Vesterbacka
“I think that they are actually on board,” Vesterbacka says. “If you’ve been following discussions in Estonia, it depends a little bit on which minister you ask each day, and maybe even what time of day you ask them.
“I think that we are very confident on our side that we have both governments supporting the project. But I think that in some ways, how it’s communicated and how it’s seen in public does not always reflect the actual situation. I think in a project like this it’s super important that you have the support from the government. It’s obvious that we can’t build the tunnel between the two nations without support from the national governments and all the other entities and authorities.”
The project has also faced issues in Finland, with the Helsinki-Uusimaa Regional Council’s assembly voting in June to only include one alignment in the regional zoning plan instead of the three alignments requested by FinEst Bay Area Development.
“We see this very local political decision delaying the project by up to six years,” Valtonen told IRJ at the time. “Nobody has studied enough of the alignments to decide just one. We know a lot about the geology but we don’t know everything. There are a lot more studies that need to be done. It’s not stopping our project but it will slow us down.”
Valtonen and Vesterbacka say there is the possibility that they could appeal the council’s decision, but they are waiting for the final copy of the meeting minutes before making a decision.
FinEst Bay Area Development secured the first external funding for the project in December 2018, with Dubai-based construction firm ARJ Holding investing e100m in seed funding.
This was followed in March 2019 with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between FinEst Bay Area Development and the Chinese-owned Touchstone Capital Partners (TCP), based in London, to secure €15bn in financing for the project. One-third of the funding will come as private equity investment and two-thirds as debt financing. The TCP’s Fund will hold a minority stake in the project, and is committed to project debt financing.
A second MoU was signed in July 2019 by FinEst Bay Area Development, TCP and China Railway International Group (CRIG), part of China Railway Engineering Company (CREC), for the construction of the tunnel.
Vesterbacka says these agreements will bring the experience and expertise of China to the project, which is building railways at a rate that far outstrips any other country.
“People want to label this as some kind of Chinese Belt and Road project,” Vesterbacka says. “Yes, there is Chinese funding but it’s not a Chinese project. The majority ownership and control is here in Finland and that will be the case for every step of the project.”
“We are still sticking to our original timeline, which of course is very ambitious, and very aggressive,”Peter Vesterbacka
China has already opened 1178km of new line in the first half of 2020, including 605km of high-speed infrastructure, and Vesterbacka and Valtonen are confident they will be able to benefit from this experience to open the tunnel by the end of 2024.
“We are still sticking to our original timeline, which is December 24 2024, which of course is very ambitious, and very aggressive,” Vesterbacka says. “But it’s not the end of the world if it’s December 2025. That’s a reasonable timeframe, and I think if that’s the only thing people question - is your timeline realistic - then that’s a good start because people are not questioning the feasibility of the project but are more sceptical about the timeline.”
Construction itself is expected to take two years, with the 16 TBMs tunnelling concurrently. The bedrock the tunnel will run through is largely hard granite, apart from some sand and clay near Tallinn. This could also provide an opportunity to test new technologies such as plasma drilling, a method that has been under development for more than 10 years in Bratislava, Slovakia, which works best on hard rock similar to that which the tunnel will run through.
While developing the project through a private company comes with its own challenges, it could also make it easier to maintain the tight schedule by avoiding the “very complicated and lengthy” public procurement process that would be required for a public project, Vesterbacka says. Numerous stages of the project are also being completed in parallel, including the design and detail planning, which will reduce the overall time required to complete the project.
Valtonen and Vesterbacka are also using their connections with other start-ups, that they have helped to develop, to improve the project. One example is a technology company, HeadAI, which has developed an Artificial Intelligence-based (AI) application that will track how the project is performing against the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
“We know at any time, with real-time data, how our project maps against those United Nations SDGs,” Valtonen says. “So we have real-time visibility of how we’re performing.”
These innovations could make the difference between achieving or missing the tight project deadline. If all goes to plan, and there are no further set-backs between now and the end of 2024, then you could land in Helsinki on December 24 of that year and easily make it to Tallinn in time for Christmas. But time will tell whether this project can actually be delivered and in doing so, potentially change the way rail projects are implemented the world over.