Rail Baltica is one of the priority projects of the European Union: Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T). The project is supposed to link Finland, the Baltic States and Poland and also improve the connection between Central and Northern Europe and Germany. It envisages a continuous rail link from Tallinn (Estonia), to Warsaw (Poland), going via Riga (Latvia) and Kaunas (Lithuania). It will by-pass the Kaliningrad Oblast (Russia) and Hrodno (Belarus) where the two historic rail routes Poland-Lithuania have been going.
The section from Helsinki to Tallinn will be operated by existing commercial ferries. In the future a proposed Helsinki to Tallinn Tunnel could provide a rail link between the two cities. The length of the railway between Tallinn and Warsaw will be at least 950 kilometres (590 mi).
Route and standard
There are two options to build the Rail Baltica. Both options include an upgrade of the existing railway (with standard gauge) to 160 km/h (99 mph) for the stretch that runs from Warsaw via Białystok and Ełk to Trakiszki, followed by a new railway with standard gauge Trakiszki-Kaunas.
For the remainder of the route to Tallinn there are two options.
- Option one is to upgrade the existing railway from Joniškis via Riga and Tartu to Tallinn to 160 km/h, keeping the current Russian gauge, and a new railway Kaunas-Joniškis with 160 km/h, also at Russian Gauge. Because of the break of gauge at Kaunas, passengers would have to change trains there. For freight, a reloading facility or a bogie exchange station would be placed near Kaunas.
- Option two is a new railway with 200 km/h (120 mph) speed and standard gauge from Kaunas via Joniškis to Riga, as above, but then continuing in a straighter line via Pärnu to Tallinn. Reports in March 2011 indicate plans are moving towards this option of a standard gauge railway, but with a slightly modified route: from Kaunas to Riga the new railway might run via Panevėžys and Bauska. A feasibility study for this option estimated the line will cost about €3.86 billion in total.
Although there is an EU high-speed directive saying that new TEN-T lines should have a speed of 250 km/h (160 mph), with only upgraded lines allowed at a lower speed of 200 km/h, it is hard to finance the project as it is, and so if the project succeeds, 200 km/h is most likely for the newly constructed line, and 160 km/h for the upgraded section.
Financing and the time horizon
The project will be financed by the member states and by the European Union TEN-T budget (€124 million), Structural and Cohesion Funds provided to the EU New Member States. The total cost is expected to be around €1.5 billion for option one and around €2.4 billion for option two.
The first phase of the project will be completed by 2013, while the second phase should be finished in 2020.
The 66 kilometres (41 mi) line between Tartu to Valga (on the Latvian border) in Estonia was the first part to be renovated. This was done by the Finnish VR Group from 2008 to 2010. The cost was €40M.
In Lithuania, the two parts Polish border-Marijampolė (using standard gauge) and Šiauliai-Latvian border (using broad gauge) will be new built, to be finished 2015, costing €270M. In Latvia the existing railway will be upgraded, to be finished 2015, costing €97M. The EU will contribute with about 25% of the cost for the three parts.
The EU also finances a technical study for a new standard gauge railway between Estonia and Poland.
According to Juhan Parts, the Estonian Minister of Economy and Communications, on the 10th of November, 2011, the prime ministers of the Baltic countries agreed to form a joint venture to move the project forward. The timetable envisages construction starting in 2018 and completion in 2023.
Rail Baltica creates the possibility to shift the major freight transport in the regions from road to rail, which for the time being is transported towards Russia and then north by heavy trucks. In the case of Poland the trucks follow the local roads and directly cross the villages of Podlaskie Voivodeship (north-east Poland) creating danger to their inhabitants. Transporting the freight by rail would increase the safety of the local roads and also reduce the CO2 emissions and oil consumption. Furthermore, it would create a convenient passenger connection which does not exist at the moment.
Rail Baltica could be a sustainable sound alternative to the planned Via Baltica motorway which has proved controversial on environmental grounds. In contrast to Via Baltica, the implementation of the Rail Baltica project could become a good practical example of sustainable and efficient utilisation of the Cohesion and Structural Funds, bringing social and economical benefits, as well as environmental and climatic improvements.
Railways currently have a low number of passengers along the route, especially in Estonia and Latvia. International and regional travel is done by car, bus and air with very little by train.
Constraints to be resolved
One of the project's aspects is the conversion of the Baltic States' rail network to Standard Gauge (1,435 mm/4 ft 8 1⁄2 in), thus improving rail integration with Europe at the expense of integration with the Russian system (1,520 mm/4 ft 11 5⁄6 in).
If the north-south railways are converted to standard gauge, the west-east railways are still not likely to be converted, since they are used for freight and passenger trains to Russia. There is even a consideration to build a new west-east high-speed railway Riga–Moscow which will use Russian gauge. That project is not prioritized by the EU and Latvia until Rail Baltica is finished.
Lithuanian railways are freight-oriented, with not so much passenger traffic, on the other hand, the railways transport the largest proportion of goods by train in Europe (over 57 percent).
- "Helsinki-Tallinn Rail Tunnel Link?". YLE News. October 31, 2008.
- European Commission, Directorate-General Regional Policy (January 2007). "Feasibility study on Rail Baltica railways" (PDF).
- Baltic Course (March 2011). "Rail Baltica's fate to become clearer by the end of May" (PDF).
- Baltic Course (June 2011). "Project Rail Baltica would cost EUR 3.68 bln" (http).
- European Union (November 21, 2007). "Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T): selection of projects for the TEN-T multi-annual programme 2007–2013 and the annual TEN-T programme 2007" (Press release).
- "Latvia to Begin Constructing Rail Baltica". RZD-Partner Portal. April 18, 2008.
- Mid-Term Review. Detailed report from 2010. See pdf page number 161-172. (65 MB)
- VR Group (April 28, 2008). "VR-Track wins superstructure renovation contract for Tartu-Valga track" (Press release). Finland.
- "Estonian Economy Minister: Finland an important factor in Estonian success". Finland: Helsingin Sanomat. 2011-11-11.
- "Lietuvos Respublikos Susisiekimo Ministerija".[dead link]
- Augulis: high-speed railroad project between Riga and Moscow must be self-sufficient
- Website of the Rail Baltica project
- Rail Baltica Growth Corridor: Rail Baltica directory
- Rail Baltica Growth Corridor: A Feasibility Study - kick-off presentation, 9 June 2011
- European Commission: Progress report on Rail Baltica compiled by the European coordinator of the project Pavel Telička, July 2007- July 2008
- Information about Rail Baltica on the TEN-T website of Greens/EFA in the European Parliament
- European Commission: Feasibility study on Rail Baltica railways - Main conclusions and recommendations January 2007
- European Commission: Feasibility study on Rail Baltica railways - Annexes January 2007
- Priority Project 27