In December you’ll be able to buy train tickets to Tallinn.
Costing €100, the journey will whisk passengers from Helsinki Airport to Tallinn Airport at speeds of 300km in just 20 minutes – less time than it takes to change terminals at some major international airports – in a €15 billion tunnel bored the entire way beneath both capital cities and the Baltic Sea.
Not one cubic centimetre of soil has been dug yet, but showman Peter Vesterbacka has been talking up the venture for the last few years and says the first passenger trains will start running in December 2024; even though he hasn’t revealed any firm commitments of funding, and just as the governments of Finland and Estonia trundle on with their own plans for a tunnel link at slower speed.
“We’re making this the fastest growing metropolitan area in all of Europe, maybe even beyond” says Vesterbacka confidently. And speaking to him, you would think he was Finland’s Prime Minister, or Finance Minister at least, with grand economic goals that he’s forging ahead to complete by himself.
“We’re actually working on an economic model now for the whole country. Actually for both nations. When I left Rovio, I said I’m going to work on bigger things. And one thing I am totally fed up with is this stupid attitude we have in Finland that everything is going down, everything is bad, it is cold and dark and there is slush on the ground. But the whole thing is it’s just this attitude. So I said I’m going to reintroduce this thing called growth”.
The tunnel – it’s actually two tunnels, one in either direction – is just the biggest part of Vesterbacka’s dream to merge Helsinki and Tallinn, or to some extent Finland and Estonia, into one large unified area: Europe’s gateway to Asian investment.
“The tunnel is a huge enabler” he says simply.
Vesterbacka, the 50-year-old former Angry Birds frontman, speaks as fast as a runaway train, and tends to go off the rails.
He switches from the tunnel project to an anecdote about meeting former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at a forum on entrepreneurship in China. Then just as quickly he’s switched tracks again to tell a story about a conference in London where he decided to fix the world’s education problems (“If there’s only 59 million kids out of school globally, I said okay, how difficult can that be, let’s get it done”).
And suddenly he’s talking about the annual tech event Slush again, another Finnish venture he was involved with closely in the early years.
“The tunnel is just a natural extension of that. The way I see it, we will have to prepare for much faster growth and the tunnel is enabling that faster growth, it’s also creating some of that faster growth, but what I see happening is that we are the closest neighbour of China, India and Japan in Europe […] we see lots of Asian money flowing in” – he pauses only to drop names and money amounts of recent big investments – “and we need to avoid becoming the next Stockholm or Silicon Valley, the talent that they need can’t afford to live there”.
In recent months he’s been in London, Shanghai, Beijing and Singapore to do fundraising, and drum up interest with possible financiers for the tunnel project. More importantly, he says, he’s been selling the location – talking about education and lifestyle and the clean environment. Why wouldn’t people from Asia want to bring their children and work in the Helsinki-Tallinn conurbation of his dreams, he reasons.
Singapore? “Worst education in the world”. India? “Highest level of teenage suicide rates. Basically, fail a test, kill yourself”.
What he is selling along with the tunnel, is a lifestyle brand. “Best place to be for your business, for your kids, for your family, fantastic. We’re the happiest nation on the planet for a reason”.
How to build Vesterbacka’s tunnel
It’s no easy feat of civil engineering to build a tunnel between two airports, underneath two capital cities and a sea. But Peter Vesterbacka says no problem, the technology has moved on from the Channel Tunnel era and new equipment can do it in a fraction of the time – and certainly much faster he assures, than the much-delayed Helsinki Länsimetro western extension.
“Plasma drilling. With ten years in development we can go twice the speed any of these current tunnel boring machines” he explains.
There’s also plans to build a couple of railway stations along the way, including a brand new island off the coast of Helsinki, and he’s been in talks with some of the world’s leading tunneling experts, companies that worked on massive railway infrastructure projects in China in particular.
Originally there were plans to use 12 boring machines to drill the two tunnels required for the high speed rail link, but the latest plasma drilling technology – Vesterbacka fishes out some fragments of slate grey plasma-drilled rock from his pocket and shakes them around in his hand – means they can use more, and go quicker, with 16 boring machines drilling the two identical 17.4 metre diameter tunnels.
And a price tag? The €15 billion buys everything: the tunnels, the stations, the man-made island, and the trains as well.
“We can build the physical tunnel, the pipes, in two years. It’s 110 kilometres roughly. It’s hard rock all the way to Tallinn then it’s a bit of sand and clay. That’s easy. Four stations. Airport, Otakeila, island station, airport station” he ticks off his list.
Warning: bureaucracy ahead
While the digging might go quickly, the bureaucracy could be more of a challenge. Vesterbacka’s company has submitted regional zoning plans, carried out an environmental impact assessment in Finland, and held a public hearing about the ambitious project.
But there’s still red tape ahead, especially when it comes to financing and planning permission.
In Tallin’s local government, there’s a feeling that Vesterbacka’s timeline is optimistic.
“Do I think it’s doable by 24th December 2024? I think that if you look at what kind of next steps should be carried out before the actual construction phase, then I can say that in my opinion this is not realistic” explains Liivar Luts, Project Director at Tallinn Transport Department.
“Why? Because all the permits and necessary studies and processes before the actual construction takes a lot of time, and you just can’t go around the laws” he says, noting that a mega-structures project that is in government control might take five years of preparation and bureaucracy, but a private consortium that wants to undertake this sort of civil engineering project could be faced with a decade of planning first.
“Maybe technically it is possible to build such a tunnel in such a short period, but we just can’t say it’s possible to start digging right now. It’s necessary to go through the formal process both in Estonia and Finland. If this is a cross-border project, not just a national project, then it is much more difficult” says Luts.
Official views on either side of the Baltic range from a cautious welcome (“the dates proposed by Vesterbacka seem extremely close, but we definitely won’t obstruct and postpone [the project] on our side” said Estonia’s Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Kadri Simson in September); to seriously doubtful (“at the moment at least it isn’t realistic to assume that the project will be launched” said Helsinki Mayor Jan Vapaavuori in a September interview).
Even Finnish diplomats have poured cold water on the plan with a leaked memo from the Tallinn Embassy earlier this year saying Vesterbacka had blurred the lines of reality and utopia, and doubted what diplomats called his simplified market theory and big promises.
Finnish & Estonian governments plan long term tunnel
While Vesterbacka is busy selling his razzmatazz vision of a high speed underground rail link between the two airports, the Finnish and Estonian governments have been quietly working on their own plan for a tunnel to connect the respective capital cities, which could be open for business by 2040.
A more conventional passenger and cargo train link, like the Channel Tunnel between England and France, the ‘official’ tunnel has been methodically going through feasibility studies, discussing financing, and coordinating committees on both sides of the Baltic.
All of the planning pieces are in place for this tunnel – except cold hard cash to finance it – and by the end of this year it’s expected that ministries will decide what to do next.
One major problem: there definitely won’t be two different tunnel projects.
“Of course in the future there will only be one tunnel. At the moment we are in the process of discussing between two different initiatives and see if there are some synergies to be found” says Laura Eiro, at the Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications.
“It’s quite clear that we will need private money for building the tunnel and we believe in cooperation in developing the project” she says.
And what about Peter Vesterbacka’s plan?
“I would say that at some point the public and private initiatives have to merge. You need public involvement and government-level commitment as the project is so large, so there are still things that need to be developed. But on the other hand it is useful to have private sector involvement to foster innovation and find new financial and funding mechanisms for the project” Eiro tells News Now Finland.
“For the moment there are no governmental-level final decisions neither from the Finnish or Estonian side. But these decisions are coming”.
The official government tunnel project is envisaged as an extension of the Rial Baltica scheme to link Finland with the Baltic countries, Poland and Germany. That plan is complicated enough with different track gauges between some of the countries, and poor railway infrastructure along much of the route, but it gets infinitely more complicated when you throw in an under-sea tunnel.
A tunnel however, would be the only viable way to link Finland to the rest of the Rail Baltic network, especially for cargo.
“You can use the ships to carry goods from Finland to Europe and vice versa but still Finland is quite far in the corner for accessibility in Europe” says Liivar Luts at Tallinn Transport Department.
Peter thinks big
Back in the whirlwind of Peter Vesterbacka’s Ruoholahti office, he’s moving from interview to meeting, and planning his next keynote speech, his next long haul flight, all the time dressed in his signature bright red hoodie, a holdover from his Angry Birds days at Rovio.
And he’s thinking big. About how Helsinki Airport will need to expand to cope with more passengers from Asia, especially India in the future, and how they’ll want to join Finns and Estonians to use his high speed tunnel link on a regular basis.
“We expect that we will get to 50 million tunnel trips by the 2030s. Maybe more”.