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Some opposition MPs like high-speed rail plans, others not so much

Swedish People's Party Raseborg MP Thomas Blomqvist said it would be "crazy" to invest billions to shorten a 105-minute journey by just 15 minutes.

VR juna train intercity helsinki
Image: Yle News

Finland's transport ministry recently suggested upgrading rail tracks between Helsinki and Tampere, in south-central Finland as well as on the Helsinki-Turku Line. The ministry said that travel times between the cities could be reduced to one hour from the current hour-and-three-quarters.

Social Democrat MP Maarit Feldt-Ranta said the notion that a track upgrade could enable one-hour train rides between Helsinki and Turku is false advertising, because the trips would actually be longer than that.

Nowadays the fastest train shuttles between Turku and the capital take about an hour and 45 minutes.

It's estimated the upgrades would cost billions of euros, and earlier this week transport minister Anne Berner said private funding would be needed for the project because it would be too expensive for the state to pay on its own.

MPs from proposed route both positive and sceptical

The region of western Uusimaa would likely be affected if upgrades to the rail line between Helsinki and Turku are carried out.

MP Joona Räsänen, a Social Democrat from western Uusimaa's municipality of Lohja, said he thinks the upgrades would be good for business in the area, but said people need to look at the bigger picture.

"It's all about making the workforce more mobile and to enable the development of regions where there are jobs. That requires faster train connections between cities," Räsänen said.

Two opposition MPs from Raseborg, a municipality through which the tracks would also run, were much more sceptical. Maarit Feldt-Ranta and Thomas Blomqvist of the Swedish People's Party said they don't understand spending billions of euros on rail improvements which they said would result in an insignificant reduction of travel times.

According to newspaper Aamulehti, the improvements to the train track infrastructure between Helsinki, Tampere and Turku would cost between two to three billion euros.

A report issued by the transport ministry earlier this week said one-hour train trips between the capital and the two cities would create a more mobile workforce, and also make it easier for people to find work in their fields of expertise.

The report also said the upgrades would create an attractive area for companies in search of skilled workers.

Government has already set aside funding for both projects in next year's budget.

Feldt-Ranta characterised the ministry's promises of one-hour train rides as misleading marketing.

Billions for 15 minutes "crazy"

"[The trip between Helsinki and Turku] would be one-and-a-half hours by train. It is so expensive it would not be sustainable for Finland to invest so much on a project when we have existing lines that could be improved upon," she said.

Blomqvist said the proposed high speed improvements would not significantly shorten travel times.

"The trip would be shortened by 10 to 15 minutes. It cannot be worth billions of euros to save 15 minutes of time. That's crazy," he said.

Blomqvist said he aims to improve the Helsinki-Turku line by developing the coastal route already in place.

"That's how I want to express [my feelings on the matter]," Blomqvist said.

In lieu of high speed rail improvements, Feldt-Ranta said she also wants to develop the coastal rail system, and to electrify the rail link between Hanko and Hyvinkää.

"Realising the dream of a one hour train means it would not stop anywhere along the way. It would be a good thing for residents in Lohja to see those plans," Feldt-Ranta said.

Investment in the future

However, not everyone in the region is against the idea, Lohja resident and lawmaker Räsänen said that the proposed project would not have a negative impact on the Helsinki-Turku "coastal route" line or the communities along it.

"There would be larger capacity for local trains and make it easier for workers' [commutes]. Freight volumes could also increase along the coastal route once the intercity trains are taken away," he said, noting that he does not approve of people in the region who pit various projects against one another when the topic of traffic improvements are brought up.

"Instead, [we should] look at the benefits [projects] would provide. Both rail lines could still be used. People are increasingly moving south so there is a need for both rail lines," Räsänen said, noting that the decision on whether the project will go ahead will be up to the next government. Finland is scheduled to hold a general election next April.

Räsänen said the high speed rail project plan is a realistic one, despite its high costs.

"Investing in the future costs money. The benefits are pretty clear when you look into the future," Räsänen said.

Not enough money

But Feldt-Ranta said Finland cannot afford the project.

"It's important that we have cost estimates closer to the time a decision on the projects is made. [The estimates] will be so high that, in practice, it will mean we will have to shut down all other traffic improvement projects. And that would be in a country that wants all regions to be viable. Then you cannot only invest in a single rail line.

Blomqvist said Finland will find it difficult to finance both projects with state funds.

"I would be very surprised if money is suddenly available. There already isn't even 100-200 million euros for required improvements now." Blomqvist said.

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