Growth of traffic between Helsinki and Tallinn

The growth of traffic between Helsinki and Tallinn has surpassed all expectations. It has turned two separate cities into a twin city, and traffic continues to grow.

Estonia became independent in the early 1990s, and traffic between Finland and Estonia began to grow gradually. However, growth was so deceptively slow that no one believed traffic would grow to current levels. In 2017, Helsinki became the world’s busiest international passenger port. The most reliable estimates from the 1990s of how much traffic would grow were approximately a third of current volumes.

Traffic increased with the same concept of slow passenger ships until about 2005, when Tallink introduced its first super-fast passenger-car ferries. High speeds had already been experienced previously in summer passenger traffic, along with fast catamaran ferries, but Tallink’s financially adventurous shuttle concept greatly increased the number of passengers.

There were still some cabins on Tallink’s first high-speed ferry, but the quick day cruises of two hours or so offered both tourists and commuters an easy crossing and eventually made cabins practically redundant. The concept had overwhelming advantages: due to the crossing time of a couple of hours, and a one-hour turnaround time, the ship was able to complete 4–6 trips per day and thus cover the expensive capital costs and the extremely high fuel costs due to the high speed. The redundant, dark cabin decks not required by passengers were sold for cars and cargo, which, especially during the quiet winter season, generated part of the ship’s revenue. Other transport concepts, such as helicopters and expensive lightweight vessels, gradually disappeared from the market.

To simplify, it can be said that the twin-city phenomenon came to everyone’s attention with Tallink’s new ship concept. In freight traffic, most of the cargo only moved between the Helsinki metropolitan area and the Tallinn area. On the other hand, the traffic frequency was so high that consumer goods and industrial raw materials requiring a fast connection to Europe partially transferred to this route. More and more Finns and Estonians divided their time between the two countries. The connection from Helsinki to Tallinn was faster and more reliable than from Helsinki to Jyväskylä.

Traffic grew more or less steadily between 2005 and 2019, with only the coronavirus creating a dip in growth in 2020. During this time, there were several attempts to tap into demand with traffic between Hanko and Paldiski. The most recent of these undertakings was in operation between 2011 and 2020, involving several actors.

In 2015, Tallink started a freight transport line from Vuosaari to Muuga. Eckerö Line opened a similar route in 2019, and at the time of writing, about a third of the freight units pass through Vuosaari. But what happens from now on? The coronavirus has hit passenger traffic to Estonia hard. When travel restrictions are eased, passenger numbers will rise again, but by how much? And will all three shipping companies operating passenger-car ferries survive? We do not know this yet. The City of Helsinki has made a policy decision to transfer all passenger-car ferry traffic between Helsinki and Tallinn to the West Harbour, while, at the same time, the Port of Helsinki is building new ramps and customs checkpoints for freight traffic in Vuosaari. So there is room for traffic growth.

Figure 1. Sea passenger traffic between Helsinki and Tallinn. Source: Traficom and its predecessors
Figure 2. Truck traffic between Finland and Estonia. For statistical reasons, the figure only differentiates between traffic departing from Helsinki centre and that from Vuosaari starting in 2019. In addition, information on traffic departing from Hanko was only added starting in 2012. Source: Traficom and its predecessors

Photo: Toomas Volmer, Visit Tallinn.

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