Thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) are still not fully integrated with the European Union. A new High-Speed Rail (HSR) line will change some of that by finally connecting the three countries with the European standard gauge network. It will be the largest infrastructure project in the Baltic states in the past 100 years.
There have been no direct trains running between the three Baltic states since they regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. In fact, a special express train that traveled from Vilnius to Tallinn in 2021 to mark the European Year of Rail needed more than ten hours to arrive at its destination. Once completed by the end of this decade, a journey with Rail Baltica between the same two cities will take only four hours. The railway line will foster economic growth by creating a new economic corridor through high-speed passenger travel combined with multimodal freight logistics. It will also speed up passenger and freight travel with the rest of the EU.
Rail Baltica: connectivity on track
Historically, all Baltic railways have used the wider Russian-gauge train tracks. That means that until now, all passengers and freight heading for Poland and beyond have had to, at some point, board a new train adapted to the more narrow European standard gauge. The Baltic states have been very eager to fully integrate their infrastructure with the rest of the EU and are in the process of connecting their energy grid and gas pipeline network with the EU as well, meaning that Rail Baltica should be seen as part of a bigger geopolitical ambition.
A project under construction
The EU voiced support and promised to contribute with funds for Rail Baltica as early as 2008. However, with the signing of an intergovernmental agreement between the prime ministers of the three Baltic states in 2017, the project started picking up pace. In the following year, it was placed on the list of official priority projects of the Three Seas Initiative, a regional forum for cooperation stretching from Estonia in the north to Bulgaria and Croatia in the south.
Work on the technical design is in progress for the 643 km of the main track, with construction having started on the many bridges needed to eliminate level crossings with roads and flat crossings with the Russian gauge network. In Latvia, the Riga Central Station construction began in late 2020, while work on the Riga Airport Station began in mid-2021. In total, there will be seven international passenger stations in Tallinn, Pärnu, Riga, Riga Airport, Panevežys, Kaunas, and Vilnius. Freight will be served by three multimodal terminals, which will be located in Muuga Harbour (Estonia), Salaspils (Latvia), and Kaunas (Lithuania). The new terminals will be built to create synergies with the existing Russian gauge network.
Crucial phase ahead
In late 2021, the Latvian Ministry of Transport confirmed that the country is committed to completing the entire pIan late 2021, the Latvian Ministry of Transport confirmed that the country is committed to completing the entire project as soon as possible, but no later than 2030. The ministry stated that construction on the mainline would start in 2023 and that the stretch between Warsaw and Riga would be completed by 2027. The Riga to Tallinn section is to be built by 2030, and there are preliminary plans for the potential construction of an underwater railway tunnel stretching for 50 km under the Gulf of Finland. If built, it would be the longest underwater tunnel in the world.
Apart from the economic benefits of Rail Baltica, a cost-benefit study ordered by the European Commission and provided by Ernst&Young in 2017 calculated that thanks to the removal of level road crossings, Rail Baltica will save 400 lives during its first 29 years in operation as well as contribute significantly to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the relatively short distances between cities in north-eastern Poland and the Baltic states, air travel has until now been practically the only viable option for travelers in the region.
By the end of the decade, Rail Baltica will have revolutionized connectivity in the regions while also finally fulfilling the long-held ambition of linking the Baltic states closer to the European Union.