Finland exploring rail connections to Arctic Sea – by by Juhani Niinisto (Shanghai Daily – November 27, 2014)

HELSINKI, Nov. 26 (Xinhua) — Finland has one third of its territory inside the Arctic Circle, but is the only Nordic country without any seaport by the Arctic Sea.

Opportunities of seafaring courses have triggered long-term consideration of how to establish rail connections to the Arctic Sea further north beyond the Norwegian border.

The main idea so far has been to build tracks from the western part of Finnish Lapland via Sweden and Norway.

A connection via Russia remains a less likely option, but it became slightly more feasible on Tuesday when the Finnish government chose to support railroad links to a potential mine in Eastern Lapland near the Russian border.

So far, tracks towards the Artic Sea only reach the Western Lapland mining town of Kolari. Development of rail connections in Eastern Lapland moved forward on Tuesday as the government preferred rail links over road transit in arranging services for a mining project at Sokli in the east.

The owners of the potential phosphate mines, Norway’s Yara, has set public transport input as a condition for the project. The investment would extend Finnish heavy duty rail tracks to just 60 km away from the Russian border.

With no Arctic ports at hand, Finnish exporters rely on ports along the Baltic Sea.

“The capacity of ships using deep water ports of the Arctic Sea would be six-fold compared to the capacity of ships using the current Finnish ports along the Gulf of Bothnia, part of the Baltic Sea,” said Mikael Nyberg, the director at the Department of Transport Policy at the Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications.

Currently, the shipping capacity in Finland has been considered sufficient, he added.

“We are now talking with Sweden and Norway about the Arctic connection,” Nyberg noted.

He estimated though that improving the rails on the Russian side to facilitate transport to the port of Murmansk could be an investment between 700 million euros to 1 billion euros (1.25 billion U.S. dollars).

Fennia Rails, the chief competitor of the state-owned VR in the domestic rail freight sector, announced on Tuesday that its engines would be operational next year.

Based on an older agreement, however, state railroads have the sole right to cross-border operations between Russia and Finland. Possibilities of changing the agreement have been discussed between the states.

On the passenger service side, VR still has a monopoly in Finland, but the market could open earlier than planned. In long haul passenger services, VR’s monopoly extends until 2024.

“The arrangement may be in conflict with upcoming EU regulations and could be terminated earlier,” councilor Risto Saari at the Ministry of Transport and Communications told Xinhua.

The Helsinki metroplex area services will be open for competition in 2017. The large-scale entry of low-cost long-haul bus services in Finland this year has put pressure on prices levied by state railroads.

Railroad infrastructure is mainly public property in Finland and the railroad operators pay only a nominal fee. “The system has been created to help developing railroad services,” Saari noted.

Finland has submitted a plan to build a high-speed “one hour train” connection between Helsinki and the southwestern city of Turku, hoping it could be included in the EU investment plan presented in Strasbourg on Wednesday.

Finland has no high speed rails, but has maintained its equipment by improving old tracks.

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