Tunnel vision: Peter Vesterbacka and his €15bn plan for Northern Europe

FinEstBayArea Finland Island high-speed railway project
Situated 15 km off the Finnish coast, the larger of the islands is designed to serve multiple purposes throughout and after the project. Photo Credit: FinEstBayArea
First, Peter Vesterbacka (of Angry Birds fame) announced he would build the world’s longest tunnel under the Gulf of Finland. Next came the news of a high-speed arctic railway between Finland and Norway. And now he and partner Kustaa Valtonen will be bringing all their energy and big thinking to Poland’s first fully-independent Belt & Road conference looking at the initiative from a CEE business-centric perspective in Warsaw.

It was over dinner with friends when Peter Vesterbacka decided to build a 103-km undersea railway tunnel between Finland and Estonia. It wasn’t a new idea – in fact, it had been floated back in 1871. It had become a favourite topic among Finnish and Estonian colleagues. No matter the gathering, the conversation tended to end up at the one juncture: how to bridge the gap between the two tight-knit nations?

But at this particular gala dinner in Tallinn, Vesterbacka had heard enough. “And then I thought … OK, I will finally build it. Let’s walk the walk,” Vesterbacka recounted to BuzzFeed News. He stood up and made a B-line for a table seated with dignitaries, including Marina Kaljurand, Estonia’s foreign minister at the time.

“We just decided to build a tunnel,” he declared without any way of introduction. Who? What? Where? The minister, who had only just made Vesterbacka’s acquaintance, was naturally lost for words but intrigued enough to hear his plan.

That was May 2016 and the FinEst Bay Area company was founded shortly after. Three years, one PwC feasibility report and a collection of environmental impact studies later, the company has landed €15bn in financing after signing a memorandum of understanding with China’s Touchstone Capital Partners.

All of a sudden, that crazy dinner-table idea doesn’t look so crazy anymore. The odds have just shortened that the company might begin construction in Q4 2019 or Q1 2020 as per its stated timeline. But there are still a few bridges to cross until then.

Infrastructure like no other

Picture the Channel Tunnel (50.5 km) joined to the Seikan Tunnel (53.85 km) in Japan, insert a square-kilometre artificial island along the way and you might begin to contemplate the sheer size of this project. Designed for both passenger and freight traffic, the 103-km high-speed rail line is projected to cut the current 90-minute ferry trip to around 20 minutes. The plan is to claim a chunk of the 9-million ferry-passenger traffic that travels between the Ports of Helsinki and Tallinn each year. At €50 one-way (€20 cheaper than a ferry ticket), the company has stated that it expects to recoup costs within 17 years, although the PwC report placed the timeline at around 37 years.

But the tunnel is just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath is a colossal amount of engineering. To make the ambitious deadline of December 2024 and for safety and logistics reasons, the company plans to employ 12 boring machines simultaneously to drill from six different directions and four drilling sites: one on each of the Finnish and Estonian coasts, and one each from two small islands on either side of the Gulf of Finland.

Situated 15 km off the Finnish coast, the larger of the islands is designed to serve multiple purposes throughout and after the project. Apart from providing a stable multi-directional drilling platform, it will provide the answer to the question as to what to do with the millions of tons of refuse produced by the boring. Once completed, the artificial island will become a midway station, as well as an entertainment and business precinct to accommodate 50,000 people. Vesterbacka, the co-founder of the start-up conference Slush, envisages a ‘Nordic Silicon Valley’ that will be split between the Island and a tech hub on the mainland in Helsinki.    

East-west, north-south

Finland lies on the most northern and easterly point of the European Union, meaning it is the closest EU neighbour to China, India and Japan. Vesterbacka, a Sinophile who travels to China twice a month, talks about turning the region into a trade bridge between western Europe and China. It is also no coincidence that the project has been launched just when the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is beginning to take off in Europe.

The strategy is to connect the tunnel to the high-speed Rail Baltica line that is expected to be completed by 2026. This would ultimately connect Finland by rail to not just Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania but Poland and in turn, southern and western Europe.

Peter Vesterbacka Angry Birds game developer
Peter Vesterbacka has neither an engineering degree nor experience in the field, let alone on an infrastructure project of this scale. Photo Credit: FinEstBayArea
Big plans, big target

The FinEst Bay Area website declares that the ‘first trains will be running on December 24th 2024’. You can even buy tickets, including a yearly pass for €1,000. It is quite remarkable given that ground has not yet been broken.

Like Vesterbacka’s trademark uniform of red hoodie, jeans and red sneakers, these gimmicks draw just as many critics as fans to the project.

The sceptics point to the project’s ambitious timeline and budgeting. For perspective, the Channel Tunnel came in 80% over budget. An environmental impact study has been submitted, but both the Finnish and Estonian governments have demanded more studies before granting approval.

Vesterbacka’s credentials are also questioned. After all, he has neither an engineering degree nor experience in the field, let alone on an infrastructure project of this scale. Instead, he made his name as the chief marketing officer of a video game developer (Rovio)that rose to fame on the back of a mobile game where ‘angry birds’ essentially destroy infrastructure.

To Vesterbacka’s credit, it is a shortcoming that he does not shy away from. “Building a tunnel is different than building a game, but not that different,” he told BuzzFeed News. “It’s about making things happen, bringing the right people together.”

It appears that is exactly what the company has tried to do. Advised by the international consulting and engineering firm Pöyry, the company has teamed up with two engineering companies specialising in the technology required for such a large-scale tunnel project. Mixing Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) technology with the traditional ‘Drill and Blast’ method, the companies are currently engaged on two projects respectively: the 62-km Emisor Oriente Wastewater tunnel in Mexico and the Onkalo spent nuclear fuel repository.

Double tunnel with train visualisation Photo Credit: FinEstBayArea
Just getting started

There seems to be no end to Vesterbacka and Valtonen’s appetite for mega infrastructure projects. At the Arctic Business Forum in Finland on 9 May, the pair announced that they had signed a memorandum of understanding with Norwegian development company Sør-Varanger to explore the possibility of constructing a high-speed railway line through Finnish Lapland to the port of Kirkenes in northern Norway. Greenpeace and a collection of Sámi politicians were quick to protest.

It’s not clear whether the pair have any other big announcements in store for the Poland & CEE: Co-building the Belt & Road conference next week in Warsaw. But one thing is for sure, Vesterbacka knows not only how to talk the talk but walk the walk with the Chinese. In fact, there are 15 billion reasons to back this claim.

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