Gateway to the EU
Finland's geographical location and excellent communications make it the most interesting corner of the so-called Nordic Triangle, which creates an international link between the heart of Europe, Russia and points further east.
Not least, Finland enjoys a unique gateway status, being the only EU country to share a frontier (and one 1,300 kilometres long at that!) with Russia. Add to that the fact that the EU sees the creation of efficient transport links both between its member countries and with the outside world as one of its main tasks and Finland's geographical location becomes all the more significant.
There is concern in EU circles at the slow pace of development in East-West communications, which is due to delays in upgrading infrastructure in the countries of Eastern Europe. As Managing Director Lennart Andersson of the Finnish goods transport organisation Finnload puts it: "It is obvious that the traffic network has not kept pace with growth in transport volumes."
Finland part of the logistical totality
Ossi Niemimuukko of the authority that administers the Finnish rail network agrees with Andersson. He points out that the line from the west coast via Helsinki to Russia will be an important international traffic artery in the future and that it is also part of a larger European logistical and transport-management totality. "Development as part of the European network will create a fast and efficient link between the heartland of the continent and the Nordic region, and indeed onwards all the way to the Far East. It only takes 12-14 days to transport goods via Finland and Russia to Nakhodka on the Pacific coast," he says.
A growing share of goods traffic between the EU and Russia is already flowing through Finland. The flow is likely to remain strong for a long time, because Finnish ports are incomparably more efficient than those in Russia itself or the Baltic States. One exception here is, however, Riga. Russia routes most of its crude oil exports through Latvia, because the existing rail network facilitates this. Ambitious development plans have been announced for Russia's own Baltic ports, but the capital to implement them has still to be found.
On the other hand, Finnish companies operating goods services are already cooperating with their counterparts in the Baltic States. Most of the shipments going from Russia to the rest of Europe are industrial raw materials. Foodstuffs, consumer goods, machinery and equipment flow in the opposite direction.
There are two rail links between Finland and Russia: a southern one to St. Petersburg and a northern one to the Arctic port of Archangel. A third, leading to the Barents Sea, is planned. The St. Petersburg line is clearly the most important, linking as it does two major centres of industry and population and also connecting several considerable cities, industrial centres and raw materials resources in North-West Russia with the rest of Europe. About 60% of the total goods flow between Finland and Russia and all passenger trains to Moscow pass through St. Petersburg.
The Archangel line carries raw materials from the Karelian Republic and the Komi and Archangel regions to ports on the Gulf of Bothnia (the northernmost arm of the Baltic) and onwards to European markets. Its competitiveness will increase considerably when a new 126-km stretch of track between Ledmozero and Kotskoma in Russia is completed, cutting about 500 kilometres off the distance between Archangel and Finnish ports.
"About 30% of the goods volume between Finland and Russia is now carried on the Archangel line, but the shorter route could bring about an increase," says Ossi Niemimuukko.
One triangle, five rail corridors
The Nordic Triangle is the name given to a transport system linking the region's four capital cities to each other and all of them with Central Europe. It is also a project to develop several modes of transport: road, rail, sea and air, both goods and passenger services. The Nordic Triangle, in which Finland features as a key node, was adopted as an EU priority project at Essen in 1994.
Five rail corridors link into the Nordic Triangle, the success of which will depend greatly on how well traffic as far as St. Petersburg can be speeded up. The Helsinki-St. Petersburg line, built 125 years ago, is now completely electrified and the level crossings on it have been made secure.
Trains now travel the line at speeds of 120-140 km per hour. When upgrading plans have been implemented, passenger train speeds will increase to 220 kilometres per hour and the axle weight in goods traffic will rise to 25 tonnes. It now takes 6 hours to cover the distance between Helsinki and St. Petersburg, but only relatively minor improvements as well as a streamlining of border formalities will have reduced this to 4 hours and 50 minutes by 1999.
Looking further ahead, passenger trains may be able to make the trip in only 3 hours by the year 2000. That will require special trains capable of leaning over in bends.