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Rail Baltica – a much needed North-South Rail Connection across Baltic Borders

Submitted by on 28 Mar 2013 – 14:44

By Petri Sarvamaa MEP, Member of the European Parliament Committee on Transport and Tourism

The European Parliament’s Committee on Transport and Tourism approved the guidelines for a Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) in December 2012. One of the projects listed in the guidelines is of special interest to the Baltic area; Priority project no. 27, better known as Rail Baltica.

The Rail Baltica project is a plan to create a modern, high-speed 1 435mm UIC gauge railway line from Berlin to Tallinn, via Warsaw and Riga, with Helsinki connecting by ferry. Preparation for the construction of the project is under way and part-funding from the European Union secured. The plan is for the railway line to be completed in 2020.

Rail Baltica would form the northern-most part of the Baltic-Adriatic transport corridor, expanding the reach of cross-border networks in Central Europe and providing connections covering routes between Ravenna and Helsinki. It would also be the first high-speed railway travelling across Baltic state borders. As such, its significance to the Baltic economy and infrastructure should not be underestimated.

The reasoning behind the construction of a modern cross-Baltic railway connection is primarily practical and economic. It is nonetheless worth mentioning that the project bears with it a certain geopolitical significance as well.

The practical reasons first: Expanding the network and cutting down travel time for passengers and cargo creates a strong incentive to move traffic from roads to railways. This in turn cuts down CO2-emissions and helps preserve the environment. More efficient means of transport mean long-term savings for both companies and states, and provide a solid foundation for trade throughout the internal market of the European Union.

In addition to the noted benefit of providing companies and their products better access to Central European markets, the new infrastructure should aid citizens and regions as well. New railway lines expand the available workforce for companies by allowing employees to live further away, even across borders, and still commute to work on a daily basis. Cities and towns along the track will add a high profile platform to their infrastructure that could allow them to better establish a profile as a transport hub, while benefitting from the presumed increase in travel.

Existing railways throughout the Baltic have so far been built for the Russian 1,520mm gauge. This is not just some old remnant of history, but a crucial feature in maintaining close trade relations with the Western parts of the Russian Federation, allowing for multiple cross-border connections without changes in technical specifications. Because of this difference in track gauge infrastructure, however, the Baltic states have simultaneously been isolated from the railway networks of Central Europe. Those same cross-border connections that serve the Eastern trade so well have not even existed between the three states, much less with Central Europe. This reality has been less than conducive to the multimodality of trade and freight, as the motorway Via Baltica has practically been the only method of transportation for goods to the core markets of Europe.

The 1,435mm line for Rail Baltica will be the first step in connecting the Baltic rail infrastructure to Central European networks. The introduction of a north-south connection alongside the traditional gauge for east-west networks is undoubtedly an important addition to Baltic infrastructure and fills a long-standing void.

There is obvious symbolism in connecting the Baltic states first to each other, and then to Central Europe by the railway. The act will physically bring the countries closer to Europe and tie them in to the same networks that link the rest of the EU together. Regardless, the symbolism is an added bonus in the equation. For many, the practical and financial reasons alone are reason enough to go ahead.

In order for the single market area to provide the prosperity and competitive advantage it is capable of delivering, the need for overarching and stable political planning in the field of transport cannot be ignored. Given the way the European Union seems to be developing towards a closer economic and political union in the future, it is especially important that the means to take advantage of the single market are made available to as many areas, companies and individuals as we can, as effectively as possible.

As an example of just such a vision, the Rail Baltica project covers the most important aspects of future EU transportation policy: it seeks to provide us a modern, fast and efficient cross-border connection that saves us time and money; it complements the existing networks of transport while offering us something we haven’t had before; all the while it helps us move traffic and cargo from road to rail, cut down on CO2 and preserve the environment as well.

Cross-border ventures like this have been rare in the Baltic states, but Rail Baltica has been met with enthusiasm and excitement. The geographical proximity of the area, both to Russia and to the heart of Europe, gives unique opportunities that have been under-utilised in the past. It can certainly be hoped that further co-operation will follow if, and hopefully when, the project yields good experiences to those involved.