Planning for a rail link between Estonia and central Europe began in the 1990s but so far not a single tree has been felled. Now Estonia hopes that Finland’s potential participation in the cross-continental rail link will help speed up the process.
Finland’s southern neighbour is pinning its hopes on comments made at the end of November by Transport and Communications Minister Anne Berner, who said that Finland is considering a stake in the Rail Baltica project.
As a follow-up, Berner met in Tallinn last Monday with Baltic States and Polish Rail Baltica experts to discuss details of the venture.
"We are currently looking into the possibility and manner of Finland’s involvement. Our willingness to join is strong, so I do think that joining is likely," Berner told Yle.
Baltic States have long nurtured the hope that Finland would hop aboard the rail project. Berner said that Finland has always been interested and noted that the time has come to adopt a more active role.
"Rail Baltica will open up for Finland a new and interesting transportation route into central Europe. Our business sector above all will benefit from this. The railway is also an interesting subject for the Finnish construction sector," Berner added.
The Rail Baltica link will stretch for about 1,000 kilometres and is expected to run from Tallinn via Pärnu to Riga in Latvia, through to Kaunas in Lithuania and finally on to Warsaw in Poland, from where it will have access to Europe’s wider rail network.
The journey from Tallinn to Riga is expected to take roughly 90 minutes and four hours from Tallinn to Warsaw.
Rising opposition to project in Estonia
Estonians are however divided on the proposed rail connection. A recent poll shows dwindling support for the project, with opposition to the venture now at 40 percent. Activist Priit Humal described the enterprise as costly and economically unfeasible.
The total cost of the rail line has been estimated at more than six billion euros, with the European Union footing a maximum of 85 percent of the bill. Estonia would have to cough up some 300 million euros. Humal has noted however that maintenance would likely push that figure even higher.
Additionally, he said that tiny Estonia would not provide many users for the rail link. Meanwhile other opponents of the project are also concerned about its potential environmental impact, as it would traverse important forested areas and wetlands.
Riia Sillave, head of the Rail Baltic firm in Estonia said that there has been enough research and analysis to confirm the profitability of the rail connection. She estimated that in the future, about five million passengers would use the line annually and it would be used to transport 16 million tons of goods.
Other estimates indicate that Rail Baltica would generate 16.2 billion euros for Baltic States by creating new jobs, shortening travel times between locations and improving travel safety.
Meanwhile the proposed route has already been locked in at the EU level and is not likely to change. On top of that an existing train connection between Tallinn and Pärnu was shut down after 90 years in operation to make way for the spanking new rail link.
From Helsinki-Tallinn tunnel to Rail Baltica
The Rail Baltica project has assumed new meaning for Finland given the progress of another undertaking headed by ex-Angry Birds impresario Peter Vesterbacka. That venture involves a rail tunnel under the Gulf of Finland connecting Helsinki and Tallinn.
"When the tunnel has been built it is clear that it will connect to Rail Baltica," Berner declared. Both Berner and Estonian Transport Minister Kadri Simson have said that work on Vesterbacka's undersea tunnel needs to continue.
Debate about the inter-city train quickened in December when Vesterbacka announced that the project had received a 100-million-euro investment from Dubai.
Berner has repeatedly said that only one tunnel will be constructed under the Gulf.
"When we talk about such a large-scale proposal, there can only be one project. Vesterbacka is very welcome to participate in the project and we are in constant dialogue on the matter," the minister said.