Peter Westerbacka’s magic tunnel

POSTED: November 5, 2021

Bryan Alexander wrote me a letter a few days ago to say he had read an article about a tunnel between Finland and Estonia, due to open in a couple of years time. Trains will allegedly run through the tunnel By December 24, 2024.

The article says that “The Finest Bay Area project will add 200,000 homes in four new districts, including affordable accommodation for 50,000 people on an artificial island in the Baltic”. More specifically: “New urban developments each housing 50,000 people will be built around four stations at Helsinki Airport, the Otaniemi/Keilaniemi (Otakeila) area close to Helsinki, an artificial island 15 kilometres off the Finnish coast, and at Tallinn airport”.

Bryan asked me if I thought this would actually happen. I answered that Peter Westerbacka proposed the first version of this idea some years ago and since then it has grown through the baroque to the outright barmy.

In its first incarnation he proposed a rail tunnel from the Finnish coast near Helsinki to the Estonian coast near Tallinn, a technically feasible project already officially under discussion between the two governments. Discussions continue, albeit somewhat slowly and most Finns firmly believe it will actually happen sometime this century. Like the Channel Tunnel it will progress slowly because it has all sorts of political ramifications on both sides. Among other things, it has to connect to the proposed Arctic Rail project.

At this first stage Westerbacka adopted a quasi Elon Musk approach. He argued that the private sector can build this cheaper, quicker, etc. Nobody much listened, or so it seemed to me.

The project then grew.

He proposed tunnelling from airport to airport, and then from Helsinki-Vantaa airport to Otaniemi to the Finnish coast. That constitutes a MASSIVE increase of complexity at every level.

If you remember greater Helsinki consists of three separate cities: Helsinki, Vantaa and Espoo. Otaniemi lies in Espoo, the airport in Vantaa. The way to the coast almost certainly goes through Helsinki. That means years of political coordination and negotiation right there. Then you need to understand that Helsinki already has a lot of stuff underground so tunnelling through it would prove a very costly process involving major road closures etc.

Then we have the four universities and the new towns around them. Let’s just day that there seem no obvious places to put these, leaving aside that a main business in Otaniemi revolves around Aalto University who moved there from Helsinki a few years ago. They might have opinions about all of this.

None of this ever features on the news in Finland because nobody takes any notice of this growing idea, so neither of us had ever heard of the best bit: the point where it gets completely barmy.

The proposal to add in a fourth station built on an ”artificial island” in international waters in the Baltic raises so many questions if you pause to take it seriously that I have a big smile just typing this. There have been projects proposed for sea-steading right back to the days of Mondo 2000 and none of them have got to fruition, as far as I know. Any attempt to do this would constitute a bigger project than the tunnel in its own right. An island 15 kilometres off the Finnish coast would either form a new city state – a real micro-nation – or it would form a new part of Finland. Either option would seem impossible for all kinds of practical reasons.

The Baltic acts as a strategic passage for a lot of countries and Russia would have very strong opinions about a new nation appearing in the sea in the middle of the Baltic.

Leaving politics aside a new island with low cost housing for 50,000 in the middle of the sea does not counts as ”a station”, it amounts to a city needing as much infrastructure as any other city of that size, only separated from its nearest neighbour by 15km of sea. The logistics involved in anything like this would require years of international negotiations.

When Westerbacka proposed a tunnel the consensus in Finland suggested that it could not happen in the timescale he proposed. This project in this scaled up form will not ever happen.

The Finest Bay website already offers tickets for the first train ride. I have thought of getting one for exactly the same reason that I bought Irma a title from Sealand for her birthday one year. Both counts as amusing not-quite parodies and neither will ever have any real-world use.