Functional International Connections – The Lifeline of Helsinki

4.9.2012 klo 8.58

Geographically, Finland is practically an island on the extreme North-Eastern fringe of the European Union. The eruptions of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull in the spring of 2010 resulted in a Europe-wide ash cloud crisis: an enormous disruption to air travel for the period of several weeks, when about 20 countries had to close their airspace. The thousands of Finnish people stranded across the continent, and businesses left without urgently needed air deliveries demonstrated clearly and rapidly, how incredibly dependent we are of well-functioning, international transport connections.

Without functional flights out of the country, the only real options left are to take a slow boat or a ferry to either Tallinn or Stockholm. By land, Europe is practically not even accessible from our hometown. Starting from Helsinki, one has only either the chance to drive first 750 km North through Tornio to Sweden, or go through Russia, which is even less practical, because one needs a visa and has to go through the border bureaucracy twice just to get into the Baltic states.

On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence showing that improved infrastructure, when invested in, can also have immediate positive consequences on our economy. Since December 2010, the new faster Allegro trains between Helsinki and St. Petersburg are utilising both the new direct tracks from Kerava to Lahti and passport/visa control while the train is moving. This has considerably increased the number or Russian travellers to Finland, and Helsinki in particular: in 2011 there were 27 % more of such, mostly wealthy shopping tourists arriving, than in 2010.

For a period of years, there has also been talk about building a long, 80-km railway tunnel between Helsinki and Tallinn. This is no longer science fiction. This would shorten the distance between the two capitals to only 15 minutes, and create a whole new level of possibilities in mutual co-operation between our countries, like enlarging the commuter area to cover both cities, as well as bringing us the entire European continent by rail.

Looking at just plain distances, while we now can take a night train to Oulu or Rovaniemi, how about Warsaw or Berlin in the future? Or to Brussels or Paris in a somewhat longer time? Despite that the cost of such a railway tunnel would be enormous, considered in a time span of several decades, it would most likely be a very wise investment both economically and environmentally, when in the future flying is increasingly becoming neither. In the end of the 1970’s not many believed in our metro train either, but it would be very difficult to imagine the traffic of contemporary Helsinki without it.

Even though Helsinki has a difficult geographical position, it is not without possibilities. By assuming an active role we can influence the major international flows of traffic and people by positioning Helsinki, whenever possible, in the middle of these routes. Today there is no real East European expressway on rails between Berlin and St. Petersburg, but with the abovementioned tunnel, we could exist in the middle of such an expressway and benefit accordingly. Our geography also makes it possible for Helsinki Airport to become the leading transfer hub for European flights into Asia. However, this will not happen automatically or even at all, if we are not especially active in promoting the idea and investing in the circumstances and infrastructure to make it a reality.

At present, Helsinki Airport is still one of the very few metropolitan city airports in Europe with no rail connection of any kind to the city. However, the Kehärata Ring Rail line will presumably correct this in 2014 and connect the airport both to the downtown centre and main train lines at Tikkurila. Also further expanding the metro network to the west and the realisation of the planned, so-called Pisara-rata, Helsinki City Rail Loop, would create better development for the entire Helsinki Metropolitan area. To conclude, in our globalised world of the 2010’s, Finland and Helsinki even at the southernmost part of the country, is totally and wholly dependent on functioning international transport connections. That means, fundamentally, that we can make Helsinki a more attractive metropolis by investing in our channels and connections to the wider world.