If it works for the Baltic, why not for us too?

This is from an article in today's Guardian about a rail tunnel linking Finland and Estonia:

The dream has been given added impetus by a recent preliminary study which suggested that the fixed link could be built for between €9bn and €13bn (£6.6bn-£9.5bn), would treble travel and boost trade between the cities in its first decade, and see 25m journeys by 2040.

The undersea tunnel is made particularly attractive because of a planned €3.6bn Rail Baltica high-speed train line, which will run from Tallinn to Poland and link into western Europe’s rail networks – and could also potentially connect Helsinki directly via train to Berlin and beyond.

The cities are, however, banking on Brussels paying several billion euros towards the scheme, and have applied for EU funding to carry out full feasibility studies.

The Guardian, 6 January 2016

Although the article seems to concentrate more on the benefits to the cities of Helsinki and Tallinn, one of the factors that would make the project feasible would be that it would form part of the already-planned Rail Baltica high-speed train line, linking the Baltic States to Poland and Germany.


I think this is a very good idea, and would like to see it happen. However it struck me that the economic and technical feasibility of a rail tunnel between Estonia and Finland is almost identical to the economic and technical feasibility of a similar link between Wales and Ireland.

First, the distances involved are about the same. The distance between Finland and Estonia is about 75km, and the distance between Ireland and Wales is about 80km for the southern link (or 95km for the northern link) although the actual tunnel length will obviously be greater. Both maps below are to the same scale.



Finland and Ireland are remarkably similar in that they are roughly the same size in terms of population (Finland has 5.5m people, Ireland has 6.5m) and are both relatively rich in European terms. Finland has a GDP per head of 110% of the EU average, Ireland (the Republic) has a GDP per head of 134% of the EU average ... although adding the poorer Six Counties will bring that down. So although the costs of such infrastructure links are very large, the benefits to the more remote country at a European-wide scale, and therefore the economic feasibility of the project, are probably greater for a link to Ireland than for a link to Finland.

But there is also a remarkable parallel between Estonia and Wales as the poorer, less remote, countries. This map (click here for an interactive version) shows GDP per head at a NUTS 2 level.


The GDP per capita of Helsinki-Uusimaa is €39,300, and is €38,800 for Southern and Eastern Ireland. Estonia's is €19,500, West Wales and the Valleys' is €17,900, East Wales' is €24,900. So in just the same way as Estonia will benefit at a more local level from better links to a richer next-door neighbour, so will Wales benefit at a local level from better links to our richer next-door neighbour. Should anyone need reminding, the Republic of Ireland has a higher GDP per head than the UK.


I'm sure some people would dismiss the idea of a rail links between either Finland and Estonia or Ireland and Wales as a pipe dream. However I would say that long-term planning of this sort is necessary. We have to decide what we want our continent to look like and how we want it to work. If we suffered from a similar lack of foresight, we would have neither the Channel Tunnel between France and England, nor the Øresund (or Öresund) Bridge between Denmark and Sweden ... and I would find it hard to imagine a Europe without such links.

My point is simply that if there is a case for a rail tunnel between Finland and Estonia, then there is an equal, if not better, case for a rail tunnel between Ireland and Wales.

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Nathan said...

What a brilliant article! This should be debated in plenary at the Senedd. Are you reading, Plaid AMs?

Owen said...

I don't doubt that the technology's there following on from projects in Switzerland and those proposed in Denmark. I'd presume any Irish Sea tunnel would be immersed tube.

Unless the EU decides that this is a transport corridor of strategic continental importance and, more importantly, a UK Government actually lets them get involved I don't see it happening; not never, just not for the foreseeable future. A formal study wouldn't hurt.

The big issue is getting a high speed rail link to the tunnel itself. I doubt the Irish would want a high speed line to Dublin through the "Garden of Ireland" in the case of the Fishguard route any more than we would want one through Snowdonia via a Holyhead route (unless the line can be fit around the coast somehow).

MH said...

As it happens, the EU has decided the route to Ireland to be one of strategic continental importance. But, the UK government isn't exactly playing ball, Owen.

If you look at this post I wrote in 2013, the route to Ireland via North Wales is indeed a Core Network Corridor of TEN-T (the North Sea-Mediterranean Corridor), with exactly the same status and prominence as the North Sea-Baltic Corridor. The problem is that it is up to member states to decide on the individual projects necessary to develop the "missing links" in those corridors ... and that is where the UK government has let Wales down. It decided to bypass north Wales completely, rely on a ferry route between Liverpool and Dublin, and identify the electrification of the rail line between Manchester and Liverpool as one of the projects for which it would use the EU money. It was clearly a case of diverting money from a Europe-wide corridor to a local inter-city corridor.

So, if the UK government isn't going to help, maybe we should be looking to the Irish government to "drive" the project.


As for the high speed rail element, I think the terminology is—what shall we say?—flexible. Reading the original Guardian article, it talks of Rail Baltica costing £3.6bn, and the wiki article mentions similar sums. Clearly, this amount of money isn't going to pay for a high speed link like the HS2 line proposed in England. That sort of high speed will cost in the region of £43bn.

Instead, it seems that Rail Baltic would either upgrade existing track or build new track capable of taking 200kph traffic, i.e. about the same as the Great Western or West Coast mainlines, rather than the 300kph standard of HS2. It would almost certainly be possible to upgrade the existing North Wales line to 200kph standard (and, of course, electrify it).

Old_Miwl said...

A significant problem would be that the railways in Ireland are a different gauge (5ft 3ins as opposed to 4ft 8.5 ins). If going via Fishguard, it would require a new line to be built from Rosslare to Dublin (or rebuilding of the existing route which would isolate it from the rest of the Irish network). A route from Holyhead to Dublin would need a short length of line constructed to European standard gauge to the city centre, but the route would still be isolated from the rest of the Irish network - so passengers would need to change trains and any freight trans-shipped at Dublin.

MH said...

That's certainly true, Old Miwl, but it almost exactly parallels the situation in Finland, where the track gauge is 1,524mm (old 5ft) and the Baltic States, where the Soviet track gauge was rationalized from that to 1,550mm).

One solution pioneered in Spain (where the gauge is 1,668mm) is to have variable bogies.

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