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Helena Spongenberg

Transport policies in the Nordic region: Open or closed networks?

The Nordic Ministerial Council for transport policies ceased to exist a few years ago although crossborder traffic is growing more than ever in the Nordic Region. Experience have also shown that grand crossborder transport projects can bind the Nordic countries closer together. Despite this increase and experience, it is still the national traffic projects that are prioritised when Nordic governments decide on transport policies. Analys Norden takes a look at what drives transport policies in the Nordic countries.

24.08.2011

One success in such crossborder link-up in the Nordic region, is the bridge over Øresund, linking the Danish capital Copenhagen with the Swedish city of Malmö. Every day, 20.000 vehicles and almost 200 trains cross the bridge. There are 20.000 commuters crossing the border every weekday. The bridge has increased the regional crossborder integration and has become an important gateway for import and export for both countries. Indeed, the traffic on the link between Denmark and Sweden has increased so much in the bridge's eleven years of existence, that the two countries are looking into whether another permanent connection between them further north would be useful.

Despite the success of Øresundsbron and despite many bold plans, most international transport projects between the Nordic countries are however not prioritised when governments decide on which transport networks they need to fund. Transport projects are an expensive and a long term investment, so when the little money the government has for such projects - especially now with the current worldwide economic crisis - are handed out, national projects are prioritised.

When politicians decide on transport policies they have their voters in mind. And as voters, the citizens, mainly travel on their local and national transport networks, it is the linking up of rural area and the maintaining of existing transport networks that get priority while the bolder international projects remain on the drawing boards.

Nation-building

Norway, for example, has been developing its infrastructure for nearly 200 years, but is still underway with more road networks, tunnels, railway lines and is seeking to become less dependent on ferry lines to travel across the country. One expert argues that it is political suicide for politicians in some parts of the country to fight for good transport connections with the outside world instead of fighting for improved traffic policies within the country. There is therefore not the same political pressure for international transport connections as there is for national connections between cities and rural areas. Traffic policy can also be seen as being part of classic nation-building, in this respect.

Iceland's transport policy is also very much determined by public opinion in the politicians' home constituency. Iceland is a big and very thinly populated country and in some parts of it are still not well-connected. Improving the traffic connections is therefore the most important task for some local politicians.

The north Atlantic island is very much a car-loving nation with more cars per inhabitant than any other European nation. There are no railways and the public bus network is little used. The large use of cars makes sense. But in the capital Reykjavík, the constant expansion of roads and parking spaces is increasingly becoming a problem for city planning. There have been talks of building a rail network in the capital, but the idea is seen as being too expensive.

In a recently published plan for energy use, the Icelandic government wants to use more of its natural abundance in renewable energy to make the island less dependent on expensive fossil fuels in its transport fleet. But a major change in the country's transport policy still seems far away as funding is limited following Iceland’s 2008 economic collapse.

In the rest of the Nordic countries, railway networks have received special attention in the later years as this mode of transport is seen as being a more environmentally friendly alternative to road and air transport and therefore part of greening the countries' transport system. Indeed, many national transport projects are focussed on maintaining the old and used rail networks. Sweden's rail - of which some lines are from 1871 - are plagues by delays and cancellations as its rail tracks are not up to scratch. The situation is the same in Finland, where rundown train lines and one-track routes are causing major delays for the inconvenience of passengers and businesses transporting goods.

As these delays on the national transport networks make the headlines and affect the citizens directly, those are the projects that get priority when Nordic governments are to decide on their traffic policies. Sometimes national transport policy even get the main act in a bigger political game when political parties aim to grab headlines and votes. One such example is the case of Denmark and its increased border control of goods.

In May this year the Danish government came out with an announcement saying that there would be a "Permanent customs control in Denmark (strengthened border control)". Denmark immediately drew headlines in the international press; caught the anger of the European Commission that worried that Denmark was jeopardizing the EU principle of free movement of people and goods; and received sharp critics from neighbouring Germany.

The government had to respond to much international criticism. "Denmark will remain a country with open borders," the Danish foreign minister reassured her German counterpart in a recent meeting. There will be no control of persons travelling in or out of Denmark but merely more checks on goods traffic, she added. However, what was meant to be a national win became an international loss for the Danish government.

Regions seek to internationalise themselves

Some regions of the different countries are, however, seeking to push for more cross-border transport projects. Locals regions, especially the ones in the periphery, are battling with economic problems and see an opportunity in better links with their neighbours across the border and beyond.

Northern regions in Finland, Norway and Sweden seek to become part of two large international projects of transporting goods in the northern hemisphere. One project is the North East Cargo Link which is set to be an alternative goods transport corridor between Russia and the United Kingdom. Another project is Northern East West Freight Corridor, which is another planned transport corridor of goods between China and the United States.

Norway's eastern regions are promoting a fast train that would cover the length of the country and then continue to both Sweden and Denmark, making travel distances between Oslo, Göteborg and Copenhagen easier and much faster.

Denmark is in the process of realising a new grand bridge building project connecting its eastern main islands with Germany over the Fehmern Belt for vehicles and trains. The project, which has been in the pipeline for years, will also have an effect on Denmark's Nordic neighbours - especially Sweden will also gain from a faster route down to the rest of Europe.

Northern regions in Finland and Sweden have begun to better connect their public bus networks and are building a common travel centre across the border in Sweden. Also in Finland, the city of Helsingfors has recently opened a new train line to St. Petersburg - a train ride that lasts less than four hours and with four departures a day.

Maintaining and expanding the national transport networks are important for the country and for the people and businesses using them. Cross border transport networks are also important for countries to connect with countries beyond the national borders in an ever increasing globalised world, where international trade and business has a growing importance for a country's economy.

In the case of the Finnish region of Åland, which has a special autonomous status, its entire economy depends on transport policy. Åland is not a member of the European Union and can therefore offer tax-free goods such as alcohol, perfume and tobacco. This attracts plenty of ferries on routes between Finland and Sweden as well as their passengers. Sea traffic is and has always been the cornerstone of the island's economy and politicians in all departments of the authority have therefore always focussed on keeping shipping and ferries on Åland.

However, Åland's main problem is that some of the decisions on sea traffic, which is so important to the local community, are taken in Helsinki where sea traffic is a marginal matter in the country's overall transport policy. It is a common situation for the local communities in the Nordic countries. The national governments in all of the Nordic countries face the question of how to best combine the need for costly transport policies for its society in rural areas, with the need to better connect good transport infrastructure to their neighbours in an attempt to improve international trade and consequently the national economy.

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