Finland cools on Arctic Railway project

Plan to link up the Arctic Sea port of Kirkenes in Norway with the rest of the Finnish rail network is on hold for now, but it might not be completely canceled.

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Graphic showing planned route of Arctic Railway

A new report from the Ministry of Transport and Communications concludes that plans for a railway linking the Arctic Sea to the south of Finland should be put on ice for the time being, due primarily to funding concerns.

The railway, jointly funded by Finland and Norway, would have snaked through Finnish Lapland and to the Norwegian coastal city of Kirkeness.

But the ministry has stopped the project for now, due to finance concerns, environmental issues related to Sámi communities, and likely problems with planning approval.

“I want to thank all those in Finland and Norway who contributed to the preparations for their cooperation. During the preparation work, the preconditions for the Arctic railway project and the requirements for completing it have been reviewed with different parties” says Anne Berner, Finland’s Minister of Transport and Communications.

The study concludes that the annual volume of cargo transported on the new line would have to be around 2.5 million tonnes to cover the yearly maintenance costs, and that such volumes are not realistic without significant changes in business or in the costs of different transport modes.

The study also finds that a goal to link the Arctic Railway into Europe’s wider rail network would need to be matched with an increase in the capacity of the main rail lines in Finland, especially on one of the busiest sections of track between Helsinki and Tampere.

Concerns over indigenous rights and environment 

According to the report, the Arctic Railway would also have a serious impact on the local environment and the region’s Sámi people in particularl, and underlines that their concerns should have been taken into account at the beginning of the planning process.

“The uniqueness and sensitivity of the natural environment in the north requiring special attention are widely known. If the project was to be promoted, the participation of the indigenous people, the Sámi, must be ensured so that no irrevocable damage would be caused to their culture or livelihoods” the report concludes.

The possible impact on Sámi culture and the environment has also sparked a lot of debate on social media.

“When the ‘Arctic Railway’ project has been repeatedly found to be economically unprofitable and damaging to the Sámi and their northern nature, the project had to be stopped, clearly” writes one Twitter user.

Commentator Pirita Näkkäläjärvi notes that the government’s new report concludes there might be a ‘zero option’, ie: not to proceed with the railway at all.

“That is really important for the framing of the entire question” she writes.

Last year Näkkäläjärvi wrote a column for News Now Finland where she outlined three reasons to be critical about the Arctic Railway, as it was planned.

Now, the ministry says no final decision has been taken about whether to go ahead with the project in another format, or shelve it completely.

A political decision to proceed would have to be taken in both Finland and Norway, and the required permit and planning stage would take at least 15 years.