WORDS FROM THE EDITOR: The railroad tracks running northwards from Rovaniemi or from Kolari will soon dominate the headlines.
At the end of February, the Finnish Transport Agency is to publish a study carried out with Norway on the eventual implementation of the Arctic Railway.
According to the assignment, the study will be carried out on a large scale, which means that it will examine the connections to both the Northeast Passage and the Rail Baltica and the tunnel between Helsinki-Tallinn tunnels. In addition to demand and the business model, the study will also examine different route options.
The yearbook published by the Lapland Research Association last year compiled articles about the Arctic Railway, its history and justifications. The railroad tracks have a long history – considering that they do not exist. One writer says that the project was first launched towards the end of the 19th century; another says that it started in 1912 and the third claims the project began in 1918. The funds for planning the Rovaniemi-Petsamo rail link were allocated at the beginning of the 1920s and again in 1939. Then the war intervened, and the interest waned until it was resurrected.
In any case, deciding on, designing and building the potential Arctic Railway would still take twenty more years. The journey from the first ideas to reality would thus last for a total of 150 years - if the decision is made.
History also reveals that there has been most activity concerning the Arctic Railway at such times when people have feared problems in the Baltic Sea area, and sought alternative transport options. An increased discussion is not necessarily a sign of good times. The security of supply is one factor even today, although it is not mentioned in the mandate given by the Ministry of Transport.
It is perfectly clear that the study will become one of the major issues this spring, both in the north and nationwide, perhaps even internationally. Now there are dimensions in the project that have never been there before. The discussion no longer concerns only the needs of Finland.
China announced its own Arctic policy paper at the end of January. The document states that because of global warming, northern shipping routes are becoming increasingly important for international trade. It is a weighty conclusion because the current traffic on the northern route is still minor. At the same time, China invited partners to build a northern Silk Road along the Arctic sea routes. This means building an infrastructure.
In a country such as China, such formally noted viewpoints have a practical significance. They make it possible to use Chinese capital in the north for the construction of infrastructure. However, it is not yet an investment decision.
Many very different interests clash in the debate about the railway. On several occasions, the Sámi Parliament has made it clear that it is strictly against the eventual railroad construction.
There may be elements for another dispute inside Lapland: would the railroad be built in the western part, from Kolari towards Kilpisjärvi and Skibotn, or straight up north from Rovaniemi, in the direction of Sodankylä - Ivalo - Kirkenes. Even the eastern option, from Salla to Russia, is included in the report, but it is unlikely to be considered seriously. It would hardly alleviate the eventual problems with the security of supply.
If the route alignment is left to Lapland to decide, it will not be easy in the province torn by disputes concerning the social and health services reform.
Kirkenes did not wait for the results of the official study. The business actors in the region published their own paper in January. Their calculations are based on the assumption that ten per cent of the current container traffic from China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea to the Nordic countries and Germany would pass through the Port of Kirkenes.
This would mean ten freight trains per day from Kirkenes to Finland. And that is not including the potential needs of tourism, mining or timber processing.
What this would mean for current mainly single-track railroad network in Finland is not considered in the Kirkenes study. Maybe the Finnish Transport Agency will bring it up. In any case, we are no longer talking about regional traffic needs, but about a global design with the big economies of Asia at one end, and the Helsinki-Tallinn Tunnel and via the Rail Baltica the whole Central Europe at the other.
This is all the result of climate change. The Arctic sea ice is melting, and new connections open. Global change is in the background, but in the end, solutions are always local. If Finland does take concrete decisions, then we have to consider the views of reindeer herders in the Sami area. How much weight does their word carry, when other party talks about traditional trades around Inari, and the other party puts the map of the world on the table and starts drawing lines on it?
Head of Science Communications
Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland
This column was first published in Newspaper Kaleva on 11 February 2018.
Photo © Kamil Jagodzinski