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Estonian minister doubtful Helsinki-Tallinn tunnel ready by 2024

"It doesn't seem particularly realistic, if I'm being honest," Estonia's public administration minister said.

If it's built, the planned 100 km undersea tunnel would enable train journeys between Helsinki and Tallinn in around 20 minutes, according to the leader of the project, Peter Vesterbacka. Image: FinEst Bay Area Helsinki

Estonian Minister of Public Administration Jaak Aab said there are several lingering doubts surrounding plans by Finnish businessman Peter Vesterbacka to construct an undersea railway tunnel linking Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia's capital.

Vesterbacka said on Tuesday that his firm, Finest Bay Area Development, was preparing to sign a letter of intent with China Railway Group Limited (CREC) to carry out the project. CREC is among the biggest railroad construction firms in the world and has drilled more than 18,000 km of railway tunnels in China.

Vesterbacka's firm has already secured a funding pledge of 15 billion euros from a China-based investment company towards the effort, and Vesterbacka reiterated that he still thinks the project would be completed by the end of 2024.

But according to Estonia's national broadcaster ERR, Minister Aab remains doubtful about the plans.

"It is likely that the planning and construction stages will be longer than Peter Vesterbacka has claimed," Aab said according to ERR.

National designated spatial plan

Aab noted that in order for the project to go ahead, Estonia needs to carry out a national designated spatial plan, an effort he will lead.

Designated spatial plans are required in Estonia to ensure land use development is environmentally sound and culturally and socially sustainable.

Aab said that most of the relevant ministries have seen documents which Finest Bay Area Development has delivered so far. He added, however, that some ministries think there were some shortcomings in the information they received.

"One of the primary things is profitability," Aab was quoted saying.

"In launching a big project like this, with such environmental impacts, risks must be assessed including what would happen if the project is left unfinished or if it is insufficiently financed. Also, how extensive environmental impacts will be. While the tunnel will go through granite in Finland, in Estonia things won't be so simple, which means that environmental impacts will be greater."

"It doesn't seem particularly realistic, if I'm being honest, because the national designated spatial plan process alone is very lengthy," Aab said, according to ERR.

More research needed in Finland, too

There are also obstacles to overcome in Finland, according to Mikael Rinne, an associate professor in Rock Mechanics at Aalto University.

"The technology is familiar and the [type of bedrock under the sea] is well known at this stage. However, much more research is needed so that the project proceeds smoothly as it is carried out," Rinne said

Additionally, the equipment needed to drill large tunnels through bedrock doesn't exist in Finland at this stage, saying it would need to be imported from abroad.

However, like Minister Aab, Rinne called Vesterbacka's plans ambitious.

"But there are so many unknown factors in the project, starting with funding. It's no small task to get the needed equipment, either. One would need at least a dozen large tunnel drilling machines there," Rinne noted.

Cities want tunnel in centre

There has been some controversy in both countries over where the train tunnels would emerge.

Tallinn's city planning manager Ignar Fjuk said the tunnel needs to arrive to the centre of the city, but so far, Vesterbacka has said he wants the tunnel to end at the Ülemiste train station, which is about five kilometres east of the centre, near Tallinn Airport.

"The position of the city is that the Helsinki-Tallinn rail link must reach the heart of Tallinn. At least for the time being, Vesterbacka has only talked about Ülemiste," Fjuk said.

Helsinki officials have aimed for the railway to begin at the city's Central Railway Station, while Vesterbacka has plans for it to start at Keilaniemi in the neighbouring city of Espoo - site of the headquarters of his former employer, gaming firm Rovio.

There are similar - but far less advanced - plans by the Finnish state to construct an undersea tunnel to Estonia.

Markku Markkula, board chair of the land use planning authority Helsinki-Uusimaa Regional Council, said the slow progress of the public tunnel was a question of funding.

"It's not done with public money from Finland, Estonia or the EU. Significant private funding is needed," he said, noting that private entities are more willing to take risks than political ones.