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Vesterbacka's Helsinki-Tallinn tunnel would "not be profitable," rail historian says

The historian said the UK's "Chunnel" took 25 years to turn a profit, despite having many more potential passengers.

Vesterbacka has said the 100 km tunnel would be ready by the end of 2024. Image: FinEst Bay Area Helsinki

Ambitious plans by businessman Peter Vesterbacka to dig a pair of rail tunnels below the Gulf of Finland to link Helsinki with Tallinn, Estonia are not economically feasible, according to railway historian, journalist and author Jan-Erik Wiik.

Wiik, who has also written a number of books about Finland's railroad history, said he is very sceptical about the project.

"I've seen those plans and I have looked at the calculations Vesterbacka has presented. As far as I can see, there is no economic [benefit to it] at all, it's not possible to make it profitable," he said.

The historian drew parallels to the Channel Tunnel - often referred to as the "Chunnel" - the undersea rail tunnel which crosses the English Channel between the UK and France, and the economic circumstances of the project.

"It has been about 25 years since the Chunnel was completed and it cost about 15 billion euros, if you take inflation into consideration," Wiik said.

"Only recently has the Chunnel project been able to start paying investors. It has been operating at a loss for 25 years. Then, you have millions of people on both sides of the Channel who benefit from the tunnel. I once estimated that there are around 200 million people living in the area [of the Chunnel]. Only 10 million people live around Vesterbacka's [planned] tunnel," Wiik said.

Tunnel more subway than Chunnel

In response to criticism about the economic sense his project makes, Vesterbacka said one cannot compare the Helsinki-Tallinn tunnel with the Chunnel, adding that the Finnish-Estonian tunnel would be more like a metro line rather than a train connection.

"Our goal is to reduce travel time to 20 minutes. You can compare it to Helsinki's western metro extension [into neighbouring city Espoo]. [Around] 250 million trips were made during its first year of operation - and Helsinki and Espoo are not the world's largest cities," Vesterbacka said.

The businessman said that another good comparison to the Tallinn tunnel project would be the Øresund Bridge which connects Sweden and Denmark, noting that there has been significant economic growth in the metropolitan areas the bridge serves.

Vesterbacka said that the tunnel would also connect airports in Tallinn and Helsinki, virtually making them a single entity.

According to an employment outlook (PFD file download) regarding the project, which was commissioned by Vesterbacka's Finest Bay and carried out by market research firm Taloustutkimus, more than 11 million people annually will travel via the airports by the 2030s.

However, the outlook said that the biggest economic returns of the Helsinki-Tallinnn tunnel would come from commuter travel between the capitals. Taloustutkimus estimated that the tunnel would increase the GDPs of both Finland and Estonia by up to 0.15 percent.

"If you can reduce the travel time for freight by half or even one-third, the tunnel becomes a very attractive alternative. The most expensive component of freight traffic is the drivers' time and salaries," Vesterbacka pointed out.

€15 billion in Chinese funding

Earlier this year, Vesterbacka's company Finest Bay Area Development, which is leading the Helsinki-Tallinn tunnel project, announced that it had secured 15 billion euros in financing from an investment firm helping to advance China’s Belt and Road initiative.

Over the summer, Vesterbacka said his company was set to sign a letter of intent with China Railway Group Limited (CREC) to carry out the project.

Vesterbacka has said the 100 km tunnel would be ready by the end of 2024.