Baltic States sign agreement for implementation of Rail Baltica project

1 February 2017  •  Author: Katie Sadler, European Railway Review

The Prime Ministers of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have signed an intergovernmental agreement on the implementation of the Rail Baltica project.

Baltic States sign agreement for implementation of Rail Baltica project

Credit: Government of Latvia / Aurelia Minev

On 31 January 2017, Latvian Prime Minister Māris Kučinskis, Prime Minister of Estonia Jüri Ratas and Prime Minister of Lithuania Saulius Skvernelis signed an agreement on the implementation of the Rail Baltica project. The joint venture was agreed within the framework of the Baltic Council of Ministers held in Tallinn.

Rail Baltica project agreement will implement the European standard gauge

The purpose of the agreement is to promote the implementation of the European standard gauge public railway Rail Baltica project, aimed at full integration of the Baltic States and their capitals into the EU rail and transport networks. Currently, all have wide gauge railways from the Soviet era.

The development of rail infrastructure within the Rail Baltica public railway is an object of strategic and economic importance for the region and its population. Furthermore, the benefits will extend to Nordic countries via an underwater rail tunnel, as well as the European Union, which aims to develop trans-European transport networks, including the North Sea – Baltic Corridor.

The implementation of the European standard 1435mm gauge railway will connect Tallinn – Riga – Kaunas – Vilnius – Warsaw – Berlin with extensions to other European cities such as Venice. The project will also allow for high-speed train operation.

After the signing of the agreement, Māris Kučinskis highlighted that a successful and timely implemented Rail Baltica project is a common strategic interest of all three Baltic States. “I am pleased to note that substantial progress has been made recently to develop this project – agreements on the framework for organising and supervising procurements of the project have been reached and put into practice, as well as there is an agreement at national level on tracking and border crossing points. They have to be put into practice immediately,” stressed Mr Kučinskis.

The agreement is a commitment by the Baltic States to implement the project before 2025 in order to launch operation in 2026. The countries will apply for European funding with the aim to receive 85 percent support for the project.

5 responses to “Baltic States sign agreement for implementation of Rail Baltica project”

  1. Tony Olsson says:

    The problem is that none of the three Baltic States have shown any interest in running passenger trains between their capital cities. They don’t even operate freight trains across the borders. If you want to travel between the capital cities and haven’t a car, you have to use coach services such as Eurolines of Ecolines.

    When you consider that when they were Soviet Socialist Republics, their railway systems were integrated under the name Pribaltiiskaya which was controlled from Riga in Latvia. I find it inconceivable that having thrown off the yoke of Soviet control twenty-six years ago, they have chosen to operate their railways in isolation. There really is no valid excuse – most of the 1520mm tracks still exist over the borders. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, some cross border lines have been lifted to prevent services being reinstated.

    Baltic Railways Magazine (with which I was involved from 2009 to 2015) ran a report about this problem early in 2010. There have been discussions between the state-owned railway companies since then, but no action. In fact I see the refusal of Estonia and Latvia to sign up to Railbaltica until the last possible minute (with the possibility that EU funding would be withdrawn), as an indication of their unwillingness to allow inter state travel.

    Lithuania has realised the advantages to itself of a high speed link with central Europe, and has even obtained approval for a branch from Kaunas to Vilnius; but Railbaltica was planned to operate from Berlin through Poland and into the Baltic States and on to Helsinki. Even Poland is dragging its brakes on its section of the project.

    If and when Railbaltica is finished, who will run the passenger trains? In a letter to Today’s Railways EUROPE issue 233 May 2015, I asked that very question, and suggested that in light of the complete lack of interest in running Russian-gauge trains between the capital cities, it might need the EU to order the rail companies of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to run passenger trains on Railbaltica, or more probably, take over control of the line.

    Having been a regular visitor to the Baltic States since 2003, I consider ignoring the travel needs of tourists in this manner to be a very blinkered attitude. Having travelled all the way by trains from St Pancras to Kaunas, it makes no sense after arriving at Kaunas in Lithuania, to find you cannot go further north to Riga and Tallinn. There can be no surprise that the Baltic States are off the tourist track, and most people here view the Baltic States merely as countries in the news because of the USA’s attempt to wrest Ukraine from the influence of Russia, and the place where so many foreigners come from, “stealing our jobs”.

    Tony Olsson
    Flat 2, 10 Oxford Grove, Ilfracombe, North Devon, EX34 9HQ
    01271 879319 [email protected]

  2. Fiorenzo Sperotto says:

    It is not much clear to me how the adoption of the European standard gauge for this high-speed line would reflect on the existing network, still employing the Russian gauge (note: a Soviet gauge does not exist, as it is the same that was in use before 1917). Should we expect that in the long-term the old gauge will be eventually abandoned, further to railways progressive revamping?

    • Tony Olsson says:

      Two points I’d like to make Fiorenzo.

      1 Like you I do not see much advantage in Railbaltica. As you might judge from my answer to Geoff Hughes, I regard Railbaltica as a white elephant, a desperate attempt by EU bureaucrats to deal with the problem that the latest members of the European Union do not have railways over which (in accord with EU legislation) they can run their trains.

      Obviously there will be some advantages in having a standard gauge line connection with central Europe, but only if it is used. Apart from Lithuania which is making use of the section of line it has built, and which has prompted it to achieve approval for a branch to Vilnius; after years of avoiding running passenger and freight services over the existing 1520mm gauge lines between the states, I doubt that the rail authorities will be more willing to operate passenger trains on the new line than they were on the old lines. It might need compulsion from the EU to ensure passenger services are provided; services which I am convinced will do wonders for tourism.

      Freight of course has to be transhipped from standard gauge to Russian gauge or road for distribution within the Baltic States and Finland.

      2 Finland is true Russian gauge 1524mm. Finland resisted occupation by the USSR during WW2 unlike the Baltic States, so avoided having its gauge reduced in the 60s when the USSR narrowed its railways. The difference is so small that Finland and Russia run their trains over each other’s tracks without problem.

      Consequently the same limitations of transhipment of cargoes will happen at Helsinki when standard gauge trains roll off the ferry or emerge from the proposed tunnel from Tallinn.

      It is extremely unlikely that the Baltic States railways will be converted to standard gauge. The Baltic States have always been a transit point between Russia and the Baltic Sea ports; handling huge volumes of coal, grain, oil, manufactured goods etc in very long freight trains on single track lines. There is no north/south freight traffic, only east/west. Most of the lines convey only freight. Passenger traffic is very sparse except between major centres of occupation such as Vilnius and Kaunas. The only long-distance passenger trains run between the Baltic States capitals and Moscow and Leningrad. Lithuania is upgrading the line from Vilnius to Minsk in Belarus with new electric trains. Passenger services on rural lines (even those between cities such as Siauliai and Panevėžys) have a very poor service and are often threatened with closure.

      If Russia does decide to bring the Baltic States back under its control (I see no evidence that the West will risk a war with Russia to prevent this happening), Railbaltica will the first EU project to go.

      Tony Olsson
      Flat 2, 10 Oxford Grove, Ilfracombe, North Devon, EX34 9HQ
      01271 879319 [email protected]

  3. CharlesWilliamMorganJr says:

    I agree that we need to get the project underway promptly! There has been far too much artificial and inexcusable delay in the process to date. Can anyone state when actual WORK will be in progress on the project? These nations need to be members of the EURAIL Pass system in order to facilitate travel and tourism, as well as shipment of goods!

  4. Geoff Hughes says:

    Is this not the tenth time there has been a public commitment to the Rail Baltica project? One wonders how many more meetings and announcements there need to be before the project really gets underway. The token bit of new track across the Lithuania-Poland border took years to build and is hardly used.

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