A Helsinki-Tallinn rail tunnel would replace ferries, which carry 8 million passengers a year between the cities. John Carkeet / Flickr

The link would do more than shuttle travelers—it would effectively unify the two cities.

This week, Finland got a step closer to building the longest undersea rail tunnel in the world.

The cities of Helsinki and Tallinn, Estonia, have just signed an agreement to develop a rail line connecting the two capitals via a 92-kilometer (57.2 mile) tunnel beneath the Baltic Sea. If all goes to plan, the link could slash journey times: a trip that currently takes one hour and 40 minutes at its very shortest would last just 30 minutes.

The link, costing up to €13 billion (roughly $14 billion), would nonetheless do more than just speed up the flow of goods and people. It would help fashion the two cities into a single metro area. From being lonely siblings waving at each other across the waves, Helsinki and Tallinn could effectively become two centers of a newly unified metropolis of 1.5 million citizens.

Bringing Helsinki and Tallinn more closely makes perfect sense. The two capitals already have close connections, helped by the mutual intelligibility of the Finnish and Estonian languages. Linked by a ferry crossing that transports 8 million passengers annually, the two cities have been growing together since Estonia achieved official independence in 1991. Business and tourist traffic between the two cities goes in both directions; a third of all Estonia’s alcohol sales, for example, are bought by Finns who cross the sea on the hunt for cheaper booze.

Helsinki still has the upper hand, both in size and as a commuter destination for around 60,000 Estonians, most of whom return home weekly. Slashing the journey time between the two cities would ease the labor supply to the Finnish market and open up more cross-border opportunities for citizens of both countries. As a Helsinki logistics consultant told Finnish Broadcaster YLE, the tunnel would be bound to push up cross-Baltic traffic:

“We worked from the premise that weekly traffic would turn into daily traffic if the trip was shortened to only a half hour. This would mean that 11 million workers would be traveling back and forth between Helsinki and Tallinn each year, or about 25,000 people a day.”

Linking the two cities is potentially just part of a major retooling of the European map. While Estonia is the relatively smaller, poorer partner in the project, it’s arguably Finland that has the most to gain. Effectively separated from the rest of Western Europe by sea, the Finnish heartland’s only direct overland connection (albeit an undeniably useful one) is with St. Petersburg, 185 miles away. If Finns want to reach other Baltic neighbors via rail or road, they need to either take very long, inconvenient overland detours or transfer laboriously on to much slower ferries. By creating a new, faster route to Estonia, the tunnel could radically streamline Finnish access to the rest of continental Europe.

A Helsinki-Tallinn rail tunnel could ultimately link with the Rail Baltica network. (Ministry of Transport and Communication of the Republic of Latvia / Wiki Commons)

This goal is being pushed forward by another key infrastructure project afoot in the region: a high-speed rail link joining the Baltic States’ capitals with Poland and Berlin. Called Rail Baltica, that link’s construction is due to start in 2020, with the first section (Estonia to Lithuania) hopefully complete by 2025. When the link is running in full, the journey time from Tallinn to Warsaw, a distance of 600 miles, would be four hours and 15 minutes.

For anyone familiar with the region, this speed seems frankly incredible. Currently, there is no direct rail service between the two cities and the quickest overland option is a drive of over 12 hours. If Rail Baltica were extended via tunnel to Helsinki, such would be the speed of the link that it could even make it feasible for Finns to visit Poland overland for a day trip, should they be so minded.

For now, that prospect is a while off, not least because it would require substantial, as yet unsecured E.U. funding. That doesn’t mean Helsinki and Tallinn are just twiddling their thumbs in the meantime. As part of the tunnel project, the two cities have also agreed to harmonize their current transit arrangements. Coming up in 2016 will be a joint travel pass for both cities, park and ride schemes, and a better connection between the Helsinki Ferry Terminal and the city’s airport—opening up more international flights to Estonians.

In a process not entirely dissimilar to the integration of the Danish and Swedish cities of Copenhagen and Malmo, these two national capitals may be slowly, steadily on the way to melding into one unit.

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