Russia and Finland Get Closer
- By Alexander Teddy
- Mar. 17 2010 00:00
The 1860s saw the birth of Finland's first rail travel, when the country was still part of the Russian Empire. Almost 150 years later, the now longtime separate countries, having seen a divergence of political fates, are seeking to bring their transport systems closer to one another than ever before.
A new high-speed rail service between St. Petersburg and Helsinki, known as Allegro, the Italian word for fast, is "one of the most important and promising projects" for Russian Railways, company representative Sergei Sloutskov said. Since late 2006 a joint-venture agreement on purchasing rolling stock has been in place between Russian Railways and Finland's VR Group. The result, in June 2007, was the award of a tender to France's Alstom to bring an Italian-built high-speed train to the line between St. Petersburg and Helsinki.
The train, due to run in 2010, will reduce journey time by at least two hours to 3 to 3 1/2 hours and will reach speeds of up to 220 kilometers per hour, with power coach tilting to assist the acceleration and ease discomfort created by the force of the quicker train.
Russia is Finland's single biggest trade partner, although the new train will benefit businessmen and tourists alike.
"My dream is that we go to St. Petersburg like we go to Tallinn," said Silja Ruokola, director of the unit for logistics and Russia co-operation in Finland's Ministry of Transport and Communications. "With this fast train connection, it will be possible." Last year, eight million Russians crossed the border into Finland, and Ruokola hopes that the new connection will help increase that figure. "More ordinary people will be able to come and visit friends and relatives, making it more of a part of everyday life," she said.
Allegro is being instigated at a time when road traffic between the two countries remains a problem — albeit a reduced one, said Timur Khikmatov, a spokesman for Russia's Ministry of Transport. "There are still long lines of cars and lorries at the border," he said. Queues have gone down considerably since the onset of the economic crisis, to about 10,000 trucks per week moving between the two countries — a 40 percent decrease on figures from a year and a half ago. "Since the recession, we have seen only one queue over five kilometers," Ruokola said. "Yet from January to the end of August, there were 140,000 new cars delivered to Russia from Europe via Finland, despite being down 80 percent on last year," she added.
There are plans to make the road transport more efficient by harmonizing the weight rules on either side of the border in a bilateral road agreement. Indeed, Russia has even floated the idea of changing its own legislation from the lesser limit of 38 tons for juggernauts, to the European standard of 42.
Another example of transport links solidifying is visible as a new 50-year-long canal agreement between Russia and Finland nears finalization. This follows four years of negotiations over rights to the Saimaa Canal, leased to Finland by the Soviet Union in 1963. The 43-kilometer stretch, although only 13 meters deep, handles over 1.5 million tons of cargo every year and its expiry is due in 2013.
Meanwhile, new air connections are hoped radically to improve movement between the two neighboring countries. Until now only one air carrier per country has been granted rights to routes between Russia and Finland. "We need to change our bilateral services agreement," Ruokola said, "I would like more possibilities on this front."
As it stands, though, things have already improved. A new Helsinki to Yekaterinburg flight path was opened last fall — the first in 10 years. Finnair operates the route, which Yevgeny Korobkin of the Russian-Finnish Chamber of Commerce said "clearly brings the two countries closer together". And results support such a view. Finnair estimated in September that the number of passengers on its thrice-weekly Helsinki-Yekaterinburg route had doubled since its launch.
Flights initially were only 40 percent to 50 per cent full, the Finnair Moscow office said, but after a year, they were reaching 90 per cent capacity and the airline said it was considering increasing the size of the aircraft on the route.
Indeed, the gap between Finland and Russia is not the only one that aviation officials in Russia are trying to reduce. A visible attempt in aviation at bringing Russia closer to the European Union as a whole is underway — the EU-Russia: Airlines Co-operation initiative. This summer, the project gave rise to a conference at Moscow's Domodedevo airport. Airport and airline specialists from many European states took part in discussions on regulation change and ways of developing east-west air traffic flows.
Currently, Russo-Finnish transport appears to be leading by example in terms of bringing European East closer to West. "But we want actively to campaign for more routes and more possibilities between these big cities," Ruokola said.