Linking Helsinki to Tallinn in a new metropolis, Angry Birds inventor backs Baltic tunnel

Angry Birds inventor Peter Vesterbacka © TOBIAS HASE / picture alliance / DPA

By Christmas 2024 you will be able to take a high-speed train under the Baltic Sea from Finnish capital Helsinki to Estonia's Tallinn, then connecting, if you wish, into the EU's Rail Baltica track to Berlin. At least you will if Angry Birds inventor Peter Vesterbacka and project manager Kustaa Valtonen have their way.

In Finland, a Baltic crossing, avoiding an 800km journey through Russia or west through most of the rest of the Nordics - interrupted, until relatively recently, by numerous lengthy sea crossings - has been a dream for 150 years. It is one that the two men say they now aim to make a reality. Estimated cost? Around €15bn. Provisional opening date: 24 December 2024.

The link into China's east-west Belt & Road project on the European mainland is such an important component that the project has also been dubbed, The New Northern Silk Road. "It’s like the northern leg of the Silk Road," Valtonen told Business Immo Europe. "Something that has been discussed and dreamed about for many, many years... The first drawings date back to 1871 or something like that, when Finnish technology students drew a bridge between Helsinki and Tallinn. Since then the idea has popped up every 10 years or so... But in spring of 2016, Peter was in Tallinn and had some discussions with the local guys and again there was talk about ‘Hey, we should do a tunnel’. Peter got very excited and said let’s do something about this and not just talk."

After spending six years building the Angry Birds global smart phone app, earning him the nickname Mighty Eagle and a listing in Time magazine as one of 2011's 100 most influential people, Vesterbacka was scouting in Tallinn for new ideas at the start-up event Latitude 59. The idea of a tunnel was big enough to capture his attention. "The two capitals Helsinki and Tallinn are actually in close proximity if you look at the map," Vesterbacka told BIE. "Helsinki is the biggest passenger harbour on the planet with almost 30m trips by various ships and ferries last year, most of them actually going to Tallinn."

Helsinki is now, the two men stress, the busiest passenger harbour in the world, serving almost 12m people yearly and with volume growth of nearly 10% p.a. Last year it surpassed Dover on the English Channel in the volume of traffic. "With the tunnel, we also expect a step change in growth of traffic," Vesterbacka said. "So while we talk about 10m-plus trips between Helsinki and Tallinn now, in the future we see this becoming tens of millions every single year."

The engineering project consists of boring parallel high-speed train tunnels to connect Finland to mainland Europe in 20 minutes, about one-sixth of the time of the ferry journey that has transported people and vehicles back and forth for decades. But the heart and soul of the concept is not the tunnel connection at all, but a potential linkage of two leading technology and business hubs to create a new metropolis of 2m people at the heart of the Baltic Sea area. Hence the project name: FinEst Bay Area Development.

Valtonen and his team are busy assembling the permits needed. But local authorities on both sides of the Baltics are fully supportive following a August 2016 feasibility study launched by the Helsinki-Uusimaa Regional Council that ultimately brought in the cities of Helsinki and Tallinn, the Finnish Transport Agency and the Estonian Ministry of Transport and Communications. All are agreed on a train and not a road connection. With Finland generally in the forefront of technological advances, planners are aware that vehicle transport by the time of completion will have undergone massive changes cutting individual dependence on the automobile in particular. "Five years from now the world will be different," Valtonen said.

So, given that a comparable project, the 57.5km-long Gothard train tunnel took 20 years to build by the time it opened in 2016, how can a 50km-plus tunnel under the Baltic be constructed so quickly? "Essentially with the Alps there is actually a lot of movement most of the time so it’s technically very, very challenging," Vesterbacka said. "But if you look at the geology of Finland and Estonia .. it’s very solid. It’s very, very old bedrock - old granite and super, super stable: no earthquakes, no movement, no nothing." Added Valtonen: "All the experts say that this is ideal to build tunnels."

To achieve the mammoth construction challenge, FinEst Bay Area Development has assembled a consortium that includes Helsinki-based global group Pöyry, which also participated in the Gotthard Tunnel, and Ains Civil Engineering. "We want to put all our effort into this project," said Timo Saanio, an Ains vice-president in a recent announcement. "The aim is to create a metropolis of the future, enabling the residents and visitors a totally new way to live, study and work... The members of the consortium have the latest know-how in underground structures, construction management and the use of digital tools and platforms in construction."

Drilling will start from both ends simultaneously - and in addition from two artificial islands created in the Baltic Sea. "We start boring in the middle of the sea towards both coasts as well, so the drilling will take place in six directions at once," Vesterbacka said. "In fact, since we will be drilling two tunnels because of security and safety requirements, we will have 12 tunnel-boring machines in action at any given time so that once we get started we can complete the actual drilling in two to three years, probably even faster. We should be able to complete the whole project in five years... This is technically, and from an engineering perspective, a very straightforward project."

The will is there on both sides of the Baltic, the geology is playing ball, and the consortium is set up. All that's left is money - which Vesterbacka says shouldn't be a problem. "We engaged with Price Waterhouse Cooper early last year and did the first combined feasibility study, business case and some scenarios. I said expect traffic to double over time from 10m to 20m per year... So if we assume a ticket price of €50 a trip it eventually generates €1bn in revenue every year. That leaves us - with just the people traffic - a payback time for a project price of €15bn, of about 37 years. And that's a very simple high-level conservative assumption and calculation.

"Actually we expect the reality to be a bit more diverse. We believe in mobility as a service, so there will be subscription services. Say you live in Tallinn and you work in Helsinki, then you will just have something like a monthly subscription that might cost €100 or €200... So there will be different pricing models, different scenarios but that’s the simplest case. We already use them to prove the business case and show investors that this is a very interesting opportunity... All the institutions that we have talked to in Europe, in Japan, in China, in the Gulf area, have been very interested because apparently there is a shortage of big stable infrastructure projects in the developed world."

Once built, the project will be the world’s longest tunnel for commuting and commercial transport offering a fast connection between four new stations: Tallinn airport, NewIsland, OtaKeila and Helsinki-Vantaa Airport. Vesterbacka sees an obvious opportunity for real estate investors. "We want to make sure that we have enough affordable housing, so actually with the four stations of the tunnel we estimate we will need about 50,000 housing units for at every station - so we will be adding 200,000 new people to the FinEst Bay area, the Helsinki/Tallinn metropolitan area."

But the bigger picture is that if Helsinki and Tallinn can, in effect, combine to produce a new metropolis, it is placed centrally between Europe and Asia. "The expectation now is that the Helsinki/Tallinn metropolitan area with currently 2m people will grow very, very rapidly – actually, it will become the fastest growing metropolitan area in all of Europe, surpassing Stockholm that has held that title for a couple of years," Vesterbacka said.

This he sees creating still more opportunity for real estate investors. "It’s a fantastic business opportunity and also something that we have to do. If you look at Finland and Estonia, we want to leverage our fantastic geographic location, like being at the heart of Eurasia. Every day we are seeing more and more Chinese companies establishing their European headquarters here in Helsinki, and now more and more in Tallinn as well because they see the future lying in connectivity. For me personally, it’s fantastic to be part of this journey and this transformation."