Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are pushing construction of the Rail Baltica line, which is doomed to remain empty in peacetime

LATVIA – Business news

Rail Baltica is a long-standing European project which aims to link the Baltic States with the rest of Europe by a high-speed railway with a 1435 gauge. After the Russian Armed Forces launched an air raid on Ukraine, statements about the geopolitical importance of the project have become increasingly frequent in the Baltic states. This apparently allows the uncomfortable question of its economic justification to be omitted. 

Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are pushing construction of the Rail Baltica line
Photo by vgudok.com

All three Baltic states emphasise what they see as the exceptional role that these states play in the confrontation between the West and Russia. The chairman of the RB Rail joint venture, Agnis Driksna, noted the security significance of the railway.

«Of course, five years ago a project like this was an opportunity! But after February 24 it is not only economically important, it is also important in terms of safety. At the moment the most important thing is that we have a task not just to build a fast railway, so that we can get from Riga to Tallinn in two hours – but to build it soon, too. So the question now is how to speed up construction, given this difficult geopolitical situation», he said.

The natural question that many have asked before is whether this bizarre project is intended to transport military cargo and manpower towards the borders with Russia. It is likely that if the road does get built, they will use it as well. But was there any point in designing and building a highway dedicated to passenger transportation? We could have limited ourselves to re-badging the gauge to the European standard and quietly drive Abrams platforms and GI trains from Poland to Estonia and back along the new railway, without cumbersome additional infrastructure.

Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are pushing construction of the Rail Baltica line
Photo by vgudok.com

Since the project was formally launched a decade ago, the European Union has regularly allocated money for its development and implementation. The latest grant from Brussels went out just the other day. It amounted to €353.9 million. The money is to be spent on the design of the main line. In total, the project has received €1.2 billion in EU funding since 2014, 85% of which has been allocated as part of the Connecting Europe Facility. The current budget for the project is €8.5 billion. Meanwhile, in 2014 it was 3.5 billion.

RB Rail, the company responsible for the design and construction of the route, is confident that the project will be completed by 2027.

The very idea of building the Rail Baltica line initially raised many questions about its feasibility. For example, why there is a high-speed railway in three not the most advanced and not the most densely populated countries in the European Union. The passenger traffic that the route can accommodate is, to put it mildly, small. And it is unlikely to grow by the time construction is completed. It may even be the other way round. How many passengers will want to go from Warsaw to Helsinki?

Even taking into account the current trend in Europe to develop rail passenger transport to the peak of expensive and environmentally unfriendly air travel. Moreover, the main competition to Rail Baltica is not airlines, but bus carriers. This mode of transport is very popular among Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian residents after direct passenger rail services between the three countries’ capitals were discontinued.

Even by bringing Rail Baltica to Tallinn and then through an underwater tunnel to the Finnish capital, the planners will still face the same 1520 gauge. If passengers can finish their route at Helsinki station, what about freight? The Finns are in no hurry to convert their tracks to the European standard.

Perhaps such a main line would make sense if it were connected to the Russian railway network. But in today’s geopolitical situation there are no prospects for this. The project itself has been conceived and implemented for the opposite purpose.

There are other difficulties. For example, a recent initiative of the Latvian Saeima (Parliament) has caused mixed reactions in Latvia. According to this initiative, natural and cultural monuments can now be removed for the construction of the high-speed railway. If it is not possible to preserve it completely or partially at the old site, the Latvian government will remove it from the list of protected cultural monuments. Similar decisions are being prepared in Estonia and Lithuania.

Even bringing Rail Baltica to Tallinn and then through an underwater tunnel to the Finnish capital, the planners will face the same 1520 gauge. If passengers can end their route at Helsinki station, what about freight? The Finns are in no hurry to convert their tracks to the European standard. Perhaps such a main line would make sense if it were linked to the Russian railway network. But in today’s geopolitical situation there is no prospect for that. And the project itself was conceived and is being implemented with the opposite goal in mind.

There are also more difficulties. For example, the latest initiative of the Latvian Saeima (parliament) caused mixed reactions in Latvia. According to it, natural and cultural monuments can now be liquidated for the construction of the high-speed railway. If it is not possible to preserve it completely or partially at the old location, the Latvian government will remove it from the list of protected cultural monuments. Similar decisions are being prepared in Estonia and Lithuania.

Especially if the project is being implemented largely at the expense of other people’s funds. Then such a project can be stretched over many years, obtaining successive instalments for design and development of various documentation. And they even start to build some infrastructure and individual road sections. And in the long term, the railways of the Baltic states face another, no less energy-intensive and costly task – to re-build all the tracks on track 1435.This position is contained in the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) strategy.

In Estonia, for example, it has been estimated that the country would need about 9 billion euros to switch to a 1,435mm gauge. Of these, 7.5 billion will be spent directly on replacing railway tracks, and 1.5 billion on the purchase of new rolling stock. However, it is planned to start work on this line only after the Rail Baltica line is completed.

The constructed and commissioned main line will also require continuous financing. It will not be able to be self-sufficient, the Baltic states will not be able to maintain it from their own budgets. Consequently, all these costs will have to be borne by the European Union. An endless and profitable way of earning money for the skinny wallets of the de-industrialised republics.

Data source: vgudok.com

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