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Last EU train out of Russia arrives in Helsinki

HELSINKI (AFP) – Just after 7pm on Sunday, the Allegro express train from St Petersburg pulled into the Finnish capital, marking the closure of the last rail link between Russia and the European Union (EU).

Finnish railway operator VR announced on Friday it was suspending the Allegro service, which since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been regularly sold-out with Russians eager to get out before Western sanctions make leaving all but impossible.

“Now that I’ve picked up my cats, I don’t have a reason to go back. I have everything that’s most valuable to me,” said Alex, who got off the train wheeling a carry case containing his two long-haired pets.

The Muscovite who has lived for some years in Helsinki gave only his first name.

“The situation in Russia has become more complicated,” university student Ivan told AFP, travelling with his mother from Moscow where he studies back to his home in Portugal for the holidays.

He is due to return to the Russian capital for his exams in a few weeks.

Passengers disembark from the last Allegro train from St Petersburg, Russia, at the central railway station in Helsinki, Finland. PHOTO: AFP

“I can’t tell how I’m going to get back to Moscow, we’ll see how this situation gets resolved,” he said.

Despite a lack of official statistics, thousands of Russians are reported to have left their country since the invasion.

With airspace closures grounding direct flights to Europe, those wishing to leave Russia turned to flights via Turkey and Belgrade, or to road and rail.

Since the February 24 invasion, some 700 passengers a day have packed the trains to Finland, with the service remaining open at the request of the Finnish authorities to allow Finns in Russia to exit the country if they wanted.

However, on Thursday the government informed VR that “operating the service was no longer appropriate” in light of the heavy sanctions against Russia, and all trains were cancelled starting yesterday.

Run jointly by Finland and Russia’s national railways, the cross-border Allegro train was a symbol of partnership between the two nations when it opened in 2010.

President Vladimir Putin and his then Finnish counterpart Tarja Halonen travelled on the inaugural service, which cut travel times on the 400-kilometre journey between Helsinki and St Petersburg down by two hours to three and a half hours.

Although many Russians have reportedly sought to leave since the start of the war, the Allegro link to Helsinki has only been open to a select few.

Moscow stipulates that passengers must be Russian or Finnish citizens, and a visa is required as well as proof of an EU-recognised Covid vaccination – not the Sputnik dose which is most commonly given in Russia.