Femern A/S

The long-planned Fehmarn Belt Fixed Link between Denmark and Germany moved one step closer to reality this month.

Denmark’s population may live mostly on smallish islands, but the country seems determined not to let geography get in its way.

It was in 1995 that Denmark first anchored itself to the rest of Scandinavia when it linked up to Sweden via the Øresund Bridge. Now the country is about to embark on yet another massive, geographically transformative engineering project: a tunnel beneath the Baltic Sea that will connect Denmark to Germany between the islands of Lolland and Fehmarn.

If completed, the Fehmarn Belt Fixed Link would be the longest immersed tunnel in the world, its 11-mile submerged section breaking down the sea barrier that separates most of Scandinavia (bar Jutland) from the rest of Europe. Long in the planning, the bill finally giving the project the green light passed its first reading in the Danish Parliament this month. Construction could begin as soon as this year and be completed by 2024.

The project matters because it could reshape the European map. Denmark and Southern Sweden will come closer to Europe’s heartland as the tunnel slashes the detours or dawdling currently necessary to travel through the Danish archipelago. Currently, traffic slows from a gallop to a canter when passing through these parts. To reach Hamburg from Copenhagen/Malmö by train, for example, you have to take a 100-mile detour west via Jutland. By road, you need to take a 45-minute ferry and factor in loading and wait time on the quayside. To reach Berlin by road takes an absolute minimum of 6 hours, not great for a distance of 250 miles.

With this tunnel, the crossing under the Fehmarn Belt would take just 7 minutes, theoretically slashing the rail travel time from Copenhagen to Hamburg from just under 5 hours to little more than 2 hours. This isn’t just good news for Denmark but for the Swedes, Norwegians and Finns who use the country as a bridge to Western Europe.

The tunnel’s construction plan is also pretty striking, even in the post-Channel Tunnel era. As the above video shows, it will not be excavated below ground, but prefabricated and immersed in a trench dredged from the seabed, then covered over. The Baltic is relatively shallow in the Fehmarn Belt, making this method cheaper than either a deep tunnel or a bridge. The tunnel will actually be constructed on land on the Danish Coast, in 710 foot long sections that will themselves be subdivided into two rail tunnels, two three-lane highways and a service tunnel running between them. These sections will be sealed and floated out to the trench, where ballast tanks placed on top of them will be filled with water, forcing them down into the cavity. The trenches will then be filled with gravel and topped with stone.

All this is projected to cost $10 billion, one reason why not everyone is completely sold on the idea. Danish reservations haven’t been strong enough to hold the project back, but in Germany resistance is a little stronger. Beyond its contribution to the tunnel, the country will have to overhaul railways lines running along what is now a quiet little branch line. It also stands to lose some jobs in ferry transport and possibly tourism—visitors may well be tempted to forego a stop at German beach towns in favor of going straight on to quieter, often prettier Denmark.

There are also some questions about the chosen route. Denmark has been considering a tunnel or bridge along this route since the 1970s, and that in itself could arguably be a limitation. The Fehmarn project was first conceived of in a divided Europe, where Denmark’s only viable option for connecting to the rest of the mainland meant looking towards West Germany. This attitude persisted after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Eastern Bloc economies were still contracting and underpowered. But in today's world, Denmark could certainly have considered a link due south towards the former East Germany instead. While the distance to cover over sea would be longer, this option would give a faster connection to Berlin and now prospering Poland and on to the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. It would also work better for Germany by channeling traffic through a relatively poor region that needs the cash more than Hamburg, already Germany’s richest city.

There does exist an alternative scheme for crossing the Western Baltic—a bridge or tunnel that would link the Danish island of Falster with the city of Rostock. But so far, this plan has lost out to the Fehmarn option, whose future success will ultimately determine its perceived viability. It seems unlikely that Denmark would plan two major connections across the same stretch of water—but then Scandinavian engineering seems to have developed a taste for managing the improbable.

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