The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) sees the tunnel as the next step after the Baltic-wide Rail Baltica railway project resulting in a Tallinn-Helsinki twin city creating completely new opportunities.
Travel times will be cut to just around 30 minutes
Right now, it takes about 2-3 hours to cross the Gulf of Finland with a ferry. A plane ride is quicker with only 30 minutes of flight time but when counting in the boarding, taxiing and deboarding, the whole process adds up to the time that is comparable to a ferry ride.
The Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Taavi Aas compares the time it takes to travel by train from Tallinn to Helsinki with a car ride from Tallinn to Keila, a small town near Estonia’s capital, both of which take around 30 minutes to complete. Thanks to that, he sees the tunnel bringing Helsinki as close to Tallinn as Keila is at the moment.
“This would create completely new opportunities for commuters who want to study or work in a neighbouring country, as well as for companies to find workforce, as the choice is simply wider due to the emerging twin city,” Aas added.
Aas sees that it will be normal for residents of Tallinn to go to Helsinki to attend a concert, exhibition or performance and also enjoy a lovely dinner there. The benefits of the tunnel and the twin city would transfer over to the greater area of Tallinn and Harju County, the county surrounding the capital, at large.
When will the hopes and dreams of many become a reality is a question that Aas admits he doesn’t know the answer to yet. Talks about a potential tunnel have been going on for quite a while now. In 2016 there was a national plan of Finland and Estonia named FinEst Link. The cost-benefit analysis, which was completed in 2018, estimated the time required for the construction of the Tallinn-Helsinki tunnel to be 15 years. Before that the environmental research needs to be finished and that would take around 5-6 years, said Aas.
The expected cost is around 13-20 billion euros. The cost depends heavily on which tunnel solution is chosen. The FinEst Link project analysed a tunnel solution with two train tunnels and one service tunnel.
“The MoU described wider areas of cooperation and did not set out very specific conditions. The organisational model of the project and the conditions for financing, including potential involvement of the private sector, are still being developed,” Aas said.
Private interest in the tunnel
Just mere weeks before the cost-benefit analysis was introduced Finnish entrepreneur Peter Vesterbacka presented his concept for a similar tunnel project. For the international community Vesterbacka is best known for being the previous brand ambassador for Rovio, the Finnish gaming giant behind the once popular Angry Birds mobile game.
After the departure from Rovio Vesterbacka has been heavily involved in the startup community in Finland, Estonia, China and elsewhere. During the introduction of the concept Vesterbacka said his Finest Bay Area project would be finished by December 2024. Now just mere three and a half years from the date he still thinks it’s achievable.
Talking with Invest Estonia, Vesterbacka said there have not been any big changes made in the concept past years and the objective is very much the same.
“We want to create gravity and make the Finest Bay Area the place with the highest talent density on the planet. I am super happy that Estonia is leading the charge here with the highest number of unicorns per capita on the planet,” Vesterbacka added.
He also points out that the European Union is also taking notice as the 27 member states recently presented their “Action Plan to Make Europe the new Global Powerhouse for Startups” to the European Commissioner Mariya Gabriel.
The Finest Bay Area 15 billion euro cost will be handled by Touchstone Capital Partners, the London-based fund with Chinese and other LPs as the lead investor. According to Vesterbacka, they are complementing that with funding from local European and other Asian investors but the majority ownership and control remains in Finland and Estonia on every step of the project.
Right after the presentation of the idea tickets for the Finest Bay Area railway one-way or return trips went on sale. The prices start from 50 and reach up to 1,000 euros for an annual subscription voucher. Some hundreds of tickets have been sold to date.
To prove his seriousness to both of the governments, the legal entity created for the project Finest Bay Area Consulting OÜ handled the tunnel’s environmental impact assessment themselves.
“The feedback from the Finnish authorities was that the Finest Bay Area Development Environmental Impact Assessment report was the best they have seen,” Vesterbacka said.
Artificial islands will be built
The Tallinn-Helsinki twin city, sometimes also referred to as Talsinki, would be the largest city in the Nordics in terms of population, says Kaspar Kork, the Director of the Estonian Investment Agency.
Due to his profession, he is mostly interested in the potential that the twin city has for investment opportunities both in Tallinn and Helsinki.
“The tunnel will merge the economies of the two cities and existing as well as new companies will be able to find employees more easily. It also makes it easier for the companies to buy services and create synergies with each other,” Kork said.
Just as Vesterbacka’s spectacular idea, the MoU also describes the creation of artificial islands. As the tunnel would be the world’s longest undersea tunnel, there is a need for ventilation facilities and possible evacuation routes.
But unlike Vesterbacka’s vision where there are plans to erect buildings on the islands, the MoU sees the islands purely being used for technical reasons and currently there are no plans to use them for other reasons. As the MoU describes the islands being only 300 x 400 metres in size, it’s hard to imagine buildings being built on them.
As the Finnish side of the tunnel would go through hard granite stone, minister Aas sees that from a technical standpoint it is more practical to start the process there. The blasted granite will be used to build the artificial islands. When the islands are ready the tunnel boring machines can be lowered through the shafts on the islands and the boring process can simultaneously start from at least six ends at a time.
The FinEst Link study found that a tunnel between Finland and Estonia that will connect with the planned Rail Baltica, creates regional economic benefits to both countries. Rail Baltica is a project underway, connecting Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania with the Central and Eastern European railway network. Currently Aas and his Finnish counterpart are working on connecting the tunnel with the trans-European transport network TEN-T.
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