14 Dec 2020
EUR 56.10 million
A thousand-kilometre high-speed link between Tallinn and Warsaw that has for twenty years been just a distant ambitious idea is finally taking shape. “The question is no longer whether we are building it or not; the discussion is about how and when,” says Stasys Dailydka, head of the Lithuanian railway operator company.
Rail Baltica can be easily labelled the project of the century for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. An investment into infrastructure of a magnitude historically unprecedented for the Baltic trio, its significance in the second decade of the 21st century compares to opening the national borders after the fall of the Iron Curtain in the early 1990s.
Currently, the trickle of rail traffic between the Baltic countries and mainland Europe stops at the Lithuanian railway station Šeštokai to switch to a different gauge. The Baltic railway networks use the so-called Russian, 1,520-mm gauge, which is wider than the European principal standard of 1,435 mm. It is little wonder the direct passenger service or freight connection by rail between the region and the rest of the EU is close to non-existent.
The project of building a 1,200-kilometre high-speed European-gauge rail string from Tallinn via Riga and Kaunas to Warsaw has been debated and scrutinised since 1994, but its sheer size and level of ambition has not allowed the Baltic countries to undertake practical steps and start implementing it. The Baltic countries have historically been linked along the East-West axis, which is the principle source of revenue for both the harbours and the railway transit operators in all three countries.
“Rail Baltica will ensure a safe, fast and high-quality connection between the Baltic countries and the major centres in the rest of the EU. The new link will create new opportunities for export industries, transit, tourism and many other branches,” says Stasys Dailydka, CEO of Lithuania’s state railway company Lietuvos Gelezinkeliai.
The studies for the project emphasise the importance of the Baltic railway system’s interoperability with Polish and German 1,435-mm gauge networks, because international traffic in the North-South direction with the present 1,520-mm gauge rail network in the Baltic countries is very inefficient.
“In Lithuania, we are happy to see that, within the European Union, there is full consensus that the Baltic countries need to be fully integrated into the wider rail transport system,” says Mr Dailydka.
In September 2013, the Baltic countries agreed to establish a joint venture for Rail Baltica. The joint venture will act as an applicant for funding and carry out preparatory work necessary for the planning, design and construction of the new line.
The building of the route Warszawa-Kaunas-Riga-Tallinn-Helsinki is included in the list of the EU’s 30 priority infrastructure projects for the programming period 2014–2020. Feasibility studies suggest that the project schedule will stretch over twelve years.
Table: Project timeline for Rail Baltica joint venture (source: Triniti)
“The question is no longer whether we are building or not. The discussion is about how we coordinate it between the countries involved,” says Mr Dailydka.
The costs of the project are estimated at about EUR 4 billion. Most of the necessary financing is expected to be covered with EU funds, while the remaining part will be financed with loans from international financial institutions and private investments.
Building the first stretch in Lithuania
Lietuvos Gelezinkeliai is gearing up for the construction of the first 123 kilometres of the European-gauge track between the country’s second-largest city of Kaunas and the border with Poland.
The project is being co-financed with a EUR 114 million loan from NIB. The European-gauge track will be built parallel to the existing wider-gauge line. Lietuvos Gelezinkeliai is also planning to reconstruct a 210-kilometre wider-gauge track from Kaunas to the Lithuanian-Latvian border. Both the newly built and the reconstructed lines will allow train services to run at up to 120 kilometres per hour.
The volume of freight, crossing the Lithuanian-Polish border on road, totals 25 to 28 million tonnes a year. The idea is to move truck semitrailers onto railway platforms to reduce the burden on motorways caused by the increased freight flows.
“We are prepared to launch the construction of the first Rail Baltica stretch. Speeding up the freight flows and passenger traffic is immensely important for our economy to keep growing,” says Mr Dailydka.
The stretch to Kaunas is expected to be in operation at the end of 2015. The section further northward to the Latvian border is to be completed in 2025.