Competing Tallinn tunnel visions head for regional council vote

Uusimaa Regional Council's board is championing just one possible Tallinn tunnel route through the centre of Helsinki - but private developers say they need to consider all options fully.

Graphic showing two tunnels with train tracks / Credit: Finest Bay Area Helsinki

Two competing visions of a train tunnel linking Finland and Estonia branch off in different directions this week, as the Uusimaa Regional Council is asked to discuss a future-looking transport plan for the region.

The 2050 transport plan for Uusimaa covers train lines to the east as well as a new depot, possible extensions of the metro network, and proposals for the tunnel to Tallinn.

Private developers at FinestBay Area Development – who have already raised financial pledges for the full €15 billion cost of the tunnel project – want the route to go from Tallinn Airport to Helsinki Airport under the Baltic Sea, and reach the mainland at Keilaniemi-Otaniemi in Espoo before traveling at 300 kmph to the airport in Vantaa.

Uusimaa Regional Council Board, and Helsinki Mayor Jan Vapaavuori (NCP), want the tunnel route to go from from Tallinn to downtown Helsinki with a first mainland stop at the Central Railway Station and then another in Pasila, before continuing to the airport.

The advantage of the Espoo route, say developers, is that it caters to a future population expansion of the capital city region, and provides a new integrated transport hub with the metro, and Raide-Jokeri light rail link which is currently under construction.

The Uusimaa Regional Council Board, and Jan Vapaavuori, say the tunnel must come into the heart of the capital because that’s where most of the people live.

And that’s where the impasse also lies.

File picture of MP Mari Holopainen (Green) / Credit: Susanna Kekkonen

Tunnel through downtown Helsinki 

Mari Holopainen, the Chairperson of Uusimaa Regional Council, flatly rules out the Espoo route because she says a tunnel to Helsinki is the best transportation option for the region and she’s recommending to the full council that they pick just one alignment, through Helsinki, this week.

“The region is expected to grow, and we are not competing against other cities but building a transport system that serves everyone the best way” Holopainen says.

“This has now been considered in terms of the best transport option and the regional board has suggested to the regional council what we think is the best option but of course every council member and every party can explore the options” she tells News Now Finland.

A tunnel from Tallinn directly to downtown Helsinki has raised eyebrows because it would be built in addition to another planned train tunnel which starts at the Central Railway Station, and follows the same route out to the airport, but then continues on to Tampere.

The two tunnel systems, built at different depths underneath Helsinki, can’t be combined because they’re designed for different track gauges.

Questions are being asked about how two separate tunnel systems would feasibly be built underneath the capital, and how the Uusimaa Regional Council Board can even endorse this plan without carrying out a full environmental impact study or a geological survey into this alignment.

Holopainen says she thinks it would be “quite easy” to build two tunnel systems but still, doesn’t have evidence-based surveys to back up that assertion, despite championing it to the full regional council.

Detail from a map showing tunnel rail connections in Finland / Credit: FinEstBay

Tunnel via Espoo to the airport

There’s a sense of frustration at Finest Bay over why the Regional Council Board would decide now on just one route, without keeping their planning and zoning options open. The latest concept for the pair of tunnels – one for passengers, one for freight – includes a “megabaana” cycle route with facilities along the way linking the two urban areas on the Baltic Sea shores.

“We have high hopes the full regional council will make the right decisions, but we won’t know until the votes have been counted” says Kustaa Valtonen from Finest Bay.

The consortium has spent 18 months working on the environmental impact studies which Valtonen says are about 80% complete; building partnerships with international engineering and architecture firms; and holding public consultation meetings to boost their preferred route just west of the capital.

“We have 40 people on average doing work for the last year and a half, doing test fishing, diving to the bottom of the sea, counting birds and clams and we’ve really done a lot of work. We’ve also done acoustic measurements on the Finnish side” says Valtonen.

“We just don’t see the Helsinki alignment as realistic for other factors. A Tallinn tunnel that goes through the Central Railway Station would need to be more than 100 meters underground, it affects the geometry of the track, the speed of the trains and the whole travel experience of how people move from one mode of transport to the next” he tells News Now Finland.

Developers cite other European cities which have more than one transport hub and question why a train ‘maxi terminal’ needs to be concentrated in Helsinki centre when HSL’s regional map gives a more accurate version of where people live and travel.

“We’re looking at a 2050 perspective, and Uusimaa will be very different with lots more people living here. I don’t think the current model where you have to go to Helsinki City Centre for transport is very sustainable. But if you go to London or Paris they have developed over the last 150 years so you have multiple stations” says Finest Bay’s Kustaa Valtonen.

While Helsinki’s leadership is adamant that a tunnel must go through the city centre, Vantaa and Espoo have taken a broader view saying that they can agree in theory on building a tunnel, but want to get more facts then decide on specific zoning after that – leaving the door open to a possible change to the Espoo route when the full regional council gets to vote.

Valtonen says if authorities force a tunnel route through Helsinki, which he anyway doesn’t see as feasible, the private project would be significantly delayed, by up to six years – or they could even walk away.

“The reasons I got started with this project is that we wanted to create economic growth in Finland and across the region, and the timing is perfect now to make that happen” he says.

Mari Holopainen on the Uusimaa Regional Council says she thinks it’s good to have private infrastructure projects like this “but we have to also see that a private project is not the same as a democratic process of decision-making.”

“I know the [FinestBay Area] project has been very active and exploring options, but private projects are making judgments from their own business perspective. I am not saying that I would have all the answers, but our councilors and people on the board have to consider the whole future transport plan for the region in 2050” she says.

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