From Sicily to the Arctic Ocean by rail?

From Finland to the world? Photo: LM.

ROME - The Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications has decided to further explore a railway line up to the Arctic Ocean via Oulu, Rovaniemi and Kirkenes that might open the region to train passengers from further afield.

 The benefits of the route are that it would improve Finland's logistical position, accessibility and security of supply. Of the two leading alternatives, the routing via Kirkenes was also less expensive.

 “The Arctic railway is an important European project that would create a closer link between the northern, Arctic Europe and continental Europe. The connection would improve the conditions for many industries in northern areas. A working group will now start to further examine the routing to Kirkenes,” says Minister of Transport and Communications Anne Berner.

 “We wish to continue the excellent Norwegian-Finnish collaboration and look forward to contribute to the working group exploring further options regarding the Artic railway route from Rovaniemi to Kirkenes (Kirkenes),” says Norway's Minister of Transport and Communications Ketil Solvik-Olsen.

 Last July, the Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications commissioned the Transport Agency to carry out a study on the Arctic rail line together with the Norwegian transport authorities. The Transport Agency assessed the implementation and financial feasibility of five different routing alternatives.

 “All the alternatives are technically feasible. However, there was a lot of variation in terms of financial aspects and environmental impacts,” says Director Matti Levomäki from the Transport Agency.

 The alternative routes examined were Tornio-Narvik, Kolari-Narvik, Kolari-Tromsø, Rovaniemi-Kirkenes and Kemijärvi-Alakurtti-Murmansk. One alternative based on the use of High Capacity Transport vehicles was also examined. The studies and a report of the results by the Transport Agency are available for downloading at the Agency's website:

 Benefits of the Arctic railway

 The Arctic railway would improve Finland's logistical position and accessibility as well as promote connections with the whole of Europe. It would be an alternative transport route to be used in Finland's imports and exports. The deep-water ports of the Arctic Ocean that are ice-free throughout the year would also open up a new connection to the Atlantic Ocean and Northeast Passage.

 The studies estimate that transportation on the Arctic railway would mainly include minerals, fish products, raw wood and wood industry products. Potential material for transport are also natural resources of the Barents area and products to be transported in the future via the Northeast Passage.

 The Tromsø and Kirkenes routings were found to include the highest number of potential passengers. Passenger transport volumes would mainly consist of tourist transport that is expected to continue throughout the year in the future. The Arctic railway would also improve security of supply in Finland, because Finland would have access to an alternative route to the Baltic Sea.

 The cost of the railway

 Cost estimates of the routes vary significantly. The estimates are affected by the length of the new line and requirements of the terrain, for example. The overall costs of the rail lines vary between 0.7–7.4 billion euros. Investment costs to be incurred on the Finnish side would be from 0.02 to 2.3 billion euros.

 The overall costs of the routing via Kirkenes are estimated at around 2.9 billion euros, if the line will go from Rovaniemi via Sodankylä to Kirkenes. The overall costs of the routing from Kemijärvi via Sodankylä to Kirkenes would be 2.8 billion euros. The investment costs of the Kirkenes routing would be around 2 billion euros on the Finnish side and around 0.9 billion euros on the Norwegian side.

 It is stated in the studies that assessing the socio-economic feasibility of the rail line alternatives is challenging. There is some uncertainty as to the transport potential, because one must look several decades ahead. According to the transport volume estimate, none of the alternatives is socio-economically feasible. However, changes for example in the costs of different transport modes or in the region's business and industry may significantly change the situation.

 The effects on indigenous people and the environment

 The routing via Kirkenes will have impacts on the environment and economy as well as the industry and culture of the Sámi people. The studies describe the effects on reindeer husbandry and Sámi people, but their extent was not assessed at this stage. These effects must be addressed in further studies.

  Once further studies are commenced, guidelines for interaction with the Sámi Parliament and the research work to be completed according to the Act on the Sami Parliament are to be agreed. An Akwé: Kon process in accordance with the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity should be included in the work on the regional plan for Northern Lapland or carried out as a separate assignment. The purpose of the process is to examine the effects of the rail line and train transport on the Sami people and culture. In addition to the Sámi Parliament, the question of the Kirkenes line will also be discussed with the Skolt village meeting.

 In the course of the study, the Sámi parliament and people were heard in Finland, Sweden and Norway. The meeting convened in accordance with section 9 of the Act on the Sámi Parliament was held in Inari on Jan 18. When planning the routing alternatives, the objective has been to take the valuable nature resorts of Northern Lapland into consideration. As the planning progresses, environmental impacts must be assessed in more detail. In connection with the actual project plan, an environmental impact assessment procedure will also be completed. The assessments will be complemented with field work and surveys.

 Next steps

 Research work on the Arctic rail line will continue together with Norway. A joint working group will be appointed to determine the further stages and schedule of the work. The group is to examine the key questions relating to the chosen routing, such as environmental issues, permit procedures, costs, and finance structure and model. The deadline for the group’s work is 31 December 2018.

 Further studies on the routing will also be included in the work on regional plan for Northern Lapland. Currently slow night train Helsinki-Rovaniemi takes some 12 hours, Rovaniemi-Kirkenes could be some 4 hours.

 Once built, the line could be connected to the European and Italian network, creating a kind of Transeuropean railway, with travellers passing from Sicily and the Mediterranean, all the way to the Arctic Ocean.

 By Gianfranco Nitti

Kirkenes. Photo: G. Nitti.