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The Rocky Railroad to the Arctic

Every Nordic nation seems to have an idea of its own of how to project a railroad to the Arctic Ocean. In fact, the way in which a nation wants to smooth its way to the ocean gives fruitful ground for a cross-national comparison.

Let us start from Russia. A huge transport line called ”The Northern Latitude Route” (Северный широтный ход, NLR) has been planned to be built by 2020. The construction of the railway will start in 2015. Aimed at transporting cargo between Siberian sea ports and serving as a supporting line for the Northern Sea Route, the NLR would be only one example of huge infrastructure projects developed for the Russian North, alongside the eternal Belkomur project.

While everybody wishes all the best for the future of such great ideas, sceptics might raise their eyebrows when estimating the expenses of an endeavour of such a scale. Too many projects like this have vanished into thin air. The 800-km long NLR is not intended to be as long as the notorious Stalin’s Dead Road, a project that involved the work of around 300,000 prisoners of whom nearly a third perished during the construction. Although it is unfair to make a historical comparison between a project involving modern technologies and skilled workers in today’s Russia and the horrendous construction of the Dead Road, one cannot avoid geographical analogies: the former is going to be partly parallel to the latter, with the starting point in Salekhard and ending in Nadym.

On the other hand, also sceptics need to acknowledge that both resources and volumes to be transported on the projected railroad will be enormous. The NLR project is a joint venture formed by such shareholders as the Russian Railways (RzhD) and the Russian government-owned giant Gazprom, and no less than 18 million tons of cargo is being planned to be transported along the line.

Let us next proceed to the Swedish territory. The recently discovered veins of ore in Pajala have raised hopes of the Norrbotten’s politicians for new transport lines to the ocean. One has to note that the point of departure for Arctic railroad connections in Sweden is more favourable than for example in Finland: there is an existing connection from Bottenviken to Narvik, a Norwegian port town. Still, a decision taken by the Swedish government to provide the distance between Pajala and Svappavaara with a railroad can be taken as surprise. At least from the always pessimistic Finnish viewpoint.

Swedes simply do things when necessity arises. Finnish railway enthusiasts can only stand by and follow how the railroads of the North of Sweden are thriving. A brand new 42-km railroad nowadays connects towns of Kalix and Haparanda, a town next to the Swedish-Finnish border. From somewhere the Swedish government found 430 million euro for the construction of the new line. In addition to that, the connection between Boden and Kalix has been renovated and electrified. Besides, we will not forget the recent decision to build a new Pajala-Svappavaara line. The Swedish government intends to make investments worth 90 million euro in the infrastructure of the so-called “Malmbanan”  between Boden and Narvik and 150 million in the Pajala-Svappavaara railroad between 2014 and 2025.

As a some kind of intermediary conclusion of the comparison between the Russian and Swedish way of seeking a road to the Arctic Ocean, we can state that Russians are impulsive visionaires with both skills and financial resources to connect themselves with the Arctic, whereas Swedes are strategic planners who have some luck and necessary financial resources to make it.

How about Finns, when compared to Swedes? Roughly speaking, Finns seem to lack both courage and financial resources to get an access to the Arctic, although some plans exist. There is an urgent need for increased capacity. There will be a huge increase of cargo from the Finnish Lapland once the mines of Kolari and Sokli will be opened.

A possible route to the Barents Sea from Finland would be from Rovaniemi, the town of Santa Claus, to Kirkenes, Norway. Another possibility would be a direct link between Kolari (the northernmost railway station in Finland) and Skibotten or an  indirect one from Kolari through Sweden to Narvik. As regards the latter alternative, the missing link from Finland to Sweden would cost 100 million euro. 

The most imaginative proposals have included an eastern connection to the Murmansk railway, for example via Salla-Kandalaksha line, but these connections have been in a head wind for the part of the Russian functionaries and therefore not gained much support from the Finnish side either.

Norway’s Minister of Transport Marit Arnstad  has welcomed the Finnish plans to establish railway connections with Norwegian port towns. Potentially, supplementary funding for the project would be found from Norwegian pension funds.

But whenever a Finnish politician proposes a new idea concerning Arctic connections, there are a few civil servants to undermine the proposal. This occurred in January 2013, as the Finnish Transport Agency (Liikennevirasto) published its calculations on the proposed routes to the Arctic. The connection to Skibotten was deemed the most expensive, costing 3 – 3.5 billion euro, the link to Kirkenes being between 2.8 and 3.2 billion, to Narvik (though Sweden) 0.8 – 1.1 billion and to Murmansk 0.7 – 1.6 billion euro. That is why the Liikennevirasto recommended to strengthen the existing transport lines via Bottenviken to the European market.

Although the potential costs appear to be high, a question remains: why the Swedish government can afford spending totally 0.7 billion euro on the Kalix-Haparanda railway, the Malmbanan and the Pajala-Svappavaara connection but the Finnish one cannot provide such a sum? Furthermore in the abovementioned Finnish endeavours, private enterprises would be ready to contribute to the expenses besides the state budget spending.

To conclude, when it comes to carrying into practice and finances, there is a lack of initiative in Finland. Obviously Finland seems to remain as an impotent partner in a joint Arctic effort. But what about marrying the two doers, Russia and Sweden, together? The latter countries have both resources and the ability to carry out such project in common.

There remains one option for connecting Finland to the Arctic coast that either politicians or civil servants have not taken into account. That is to say, the alternative of supplementing the Malmbanan with an extra pair of 1524 millimetre-gauge rails, thus providing the connection with a dual gauge gauntlet. Such a maneouvre would allow both Russian and Finnish trains to enter the Norwegian coast.

The dual gauge gauntlet track arrangement has been successfully used in many countries, but the Finnish authorities have not so far understood its benefits. The Haparanda town architect, Göran Wikgren, was quoted to say that Finnish functionaries do not understand that only small investments are needed for a functioning cross-border railway connection between Finland and Sweden, using such a gauntlet (YLE Uutiset 6 February 2013).

The gauntlet track would be projected in the form of a joint venture between the Scandinavian countries, Finland and Russia. An East-West railway connection from the Murmansk railway via Finland to Narvik would be a natural extension to the Belkomur track. It would further promote economic cooperation between the countries involved in Barents cooperation.