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Finland Table of Contents


Transportation and Communications

Figure 18. Transportation System, 1986

Finland's geography and climate make transportation and communications difficult. For centuries, coastal ports, which were closed by ice each winter for at least one month in the south and for as long as five months in the north, provided the only links with Europe. Internal communications, hampered by long distances interrupted by swamps and bogs, were likewise paralyzed each spring by slowly melting snows. As in most industrialized countries, during the postwar period newer technologies supplanted traditional means of transport. Thus, in the early postwar years, truck traffic grew at the expense of rail and water transport, only to be displaced later by airplanes. Traditional mail gave way to telecommunications. External commerce still depended primarily on oceangoing ships, but air freight services provided an increasingly important supplement.

The natural environment compensated somewhat for the difficulties of climate and geography in the form of a network of lakes and rivers that provided an economical means of moving forest products downstream to processing centers and on to ports for export. Although trucks handled more than half of Finland's forest products in the late 1980s, the wood industries still operated some 9,200 kilometers of floatways. Internal waterways for general use covered another 6,100 kilometers, of which about 70 kilometers were canals. The most important artificial waterway, the Saimaa Canal, runs from Lake Saimaa to the Baltic port of Viipuri (see fig. 18). In 1962 the Soviet Union, which had annexed the waterway and the port after World War II, granted a long-term lease to Finland that allowed the Finns to renovate and to operate them.

Finland lagged behind the other Nordic countries in developing railroads--as late as the early 1970s, Finland continued to lay tracks. Yet by the early 1980s, the railroads had begun to decline in importance, and of the more than 9,000 kilometers of track, less than 6,000 kilometers of track were in operation (25 percent of which was electrified). The rail network served southern and central Finland better than the north, and it specialized in carrying bulk products to processing centers and to export ports. The railroads, almost all of which were stateowned , had lost business and were running operating deficits by the mid-1980s. Finnish railroads used the same gauge as Russian lines (1.524 meters), which allowed easy exchanges with Soviet railroads but blocked shipments to Finland's Western neighbors.

By 1987 Finland maintained about 76,000 kilometers of roadways, of which 43,000 kilometers were paved roads and 200 kilometers were divided highways. During the first half of the 1980s, local routes accounted for most new road construction, as the national highways were largely complete. Although the highways covered most of the country, specialists reported that Finland would need to improve its major routes to meet European standards and to allow increased trade with Western Europe during the 1990s.

By 1987 the Finns operated about 1.7 million automobiles, 9,000 buses, 52,000 freight trucks, 135,000 vans and delivery trucks, and 50,000 motorcycles. During the early 1980s, the number of vehicles had risen by almost 20 percent as more and more Finns purchased cars and motorcycles and many companies shifted from rail to road transport.

Finland's position on the northern shore of the Baltic, far from the commercial centers of Western Europe, placed a premium on shipping. Because harbors freeze up each winter, the Finns have employed a fleet of icebreakers and have equipped many ships with strengthened hulls, the construction of which has become a specialty of the metal-working industry (see Industry , this ch.). The national oceangoing fleet expanded tenfold to about 2.5 million gross registered tons (GRT) between the end of World War II and about 1980, but it shrank thereafter to about 1.6 million GRT. The Finnish merchant marine carried most of the country's trade and provided a significant source of foreign exchange; however, merchant shipping declined somewhat in the 1980s because of competition from air freight services and from foreign shipping. In the 1980s, Finland's ports handled about 50 million net registered tons each year, of which 60 percent were exports. Ships also carried a significant number of passengers, 2 million of whom traveled by way of Helsinki.

Air transport grew rapidly in the 1970s and the 1980s. For passengers, domestic traffic was growing faster than international travel, but for freight, the reverse was true. Affordable air fares--the lowest in Europe--contributed to the rapid expansion of domestic air travel. Almost 3 million passengers and more than 50,000 tons of freight and mail passed through the main airport, Helsinki-Vantaa, each year. Finland also operated about forty smaller airports.

Two state-controlled firms, Finnair and Karair, dominated Finnish airways. The state owned a majority of shares in Finnair (founded in 1923), which maintained regular international and domestic service. Karair, established in 1957, was linked to Finnair (which owned a majority interest) and specialized in charter flights.

Finland's postal and telecommunications services maintained efficient links among the country's thinly settled population. In the late 1980s, the government operated about 3,600 post offices and 581 telegraph bureaus. Nevertheless, many rural areas were so sparsely inhabited that the postal carriers made deliveries to groups of mailboxes located at crossroads. The relatively great distances among settlements made telecommunications popular; by the late 1980s, telecommunications had become more important than traditional postal services. Among European states, Finland was unusual in maintaining a combination of public and private telephone systems. Some fifty-eight companies provided services in local communities, while the Public Telecommunications Agency (PTA) enjoyed a monopoly on long-distance services. Starting in the mid-1980s, local companies began to compete in the lucrative data transmission field, a move that put them in competition with the PTA's long-distance services. Observers expected that pending legislation would effectively deregulate the telecommunications market.

Data as of December 1988

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