Finland's state-owned rail operator VR has announced that all Ukrainian citizens can travel free of charge on long-distance and commuter trains by presenting their passport to the train's conductor.
The company said in a press release (siirryt toiseen palveluun) that the measure was aimed at enabling "Ukrainians living in Finland and potential refugees to meet with each other under these circumstances".
Since Monday, Russian aircraft have been banned from flying over EU airspace. However, the Allegro train connection between Helsinki and St. Petersburg is still running.
Finnish authorities and the EU had requested that VR keep the line open to ensure that Finnish nationals can return to Finland and so that Russian nationals wanting to leave their home country are able to do so.
In its statement, VR said that the Allegro is currently the only passenger rail link between the EU and Russia.
"The connection is being maintained precisely because there are a large number of people who may need to be repatriated. This is the only reason why the connection will be continued," VR's Director of Passenger Traffic Topi Simola told Yle.
Under the current conditions, only citizens of Finland and Russia or dual citizens of the two countries are allowed to travel on the Allegro train. This measure is based on a procedure implemented during the Covid pandemic, but VR said that negotiations are currently underway aimed at allowing nationals of all EU and other countries to travel on the line.
The statement added that there are currently tens of thousands of EU citizens in Russia, and VR has asked Russian authorities to change their pandemic guidelines so that citizens of other countries can travel to Finland on the Allegro.
"Certainly a large number hope to get out of there in time," Simola said.
Allegro trains from Russia at full capacity
All Allegro services from St Petersburg to Helsinki have been full of passengers since last Sunday, while they are about one third full on the return journey.
About 60 percent of the passengers on the trains from St. Petersburg to Helsinki last week were Russian and some 40 percent were Finnish citizens, Simola said.
"People are moving in both directions, but clearly the majority is coming from Russia. My view is that a very small proportion of the travel is work-related or diplomatic. Most are clearly more permanent moves. The passengers have no idea of when they will return. This is a very exceptional situation," he said.
The Allegro service is currently running at about half the capacity of normal traffic, due to the Covid pandemic. According to Simola, there is still plenty of room on the trains for this coming weekend, so there is no need to increase capacity as yet.
The tourism-based train travel between the two countries, which was disrupted by the Covid pandemic, did not have time to return to normal passenger levels before Russia's attack on Ukraine last week.
"Due to Covid restrictions, a maximum of 327 passengers can be accommodated," Simola said, adding that if Russia changes its rules so that other EU citizens can use Allegro, the situation could change quickly.
"Then there will be a requirement to reassess whether there is a need to increase traffic," he said.
VR also experiencing "exceptional" times
VR also announced on Tuesday it will refrain from all communication with its Russian counterpart RZD, excluding exchanges needed for cross-border traffic. This measure will remain in place until further notice, the firm said.
"Moving people and goods is no longer VR's decision alone. We have transitioned to a situation where this is coordinated at the ministerial and EU level," Simola explained.
Finland and Russia each own half of the Allegro rail connection. The state-owned Russian railway operator RZD is responsible for traffic on the Russian side and VR on the Finnish side.