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The Adventure of connecting Tallinn and Berlin

Submitted by on 28 Mar 2013 – 14:53

By Michael Cramer MEP, Member in the Committee for Transport and Tourism

I always considered Europe to be a great adventure in many ways. Not only a political adventure for the European people, nations and leaders but also a personal one for me. Politically, my European adventure started in 2004 but already before that I explored our continent. I hiked through the Alps and the Pyrenees, I biked from Hamburg to Prague and I paddled the Danube River from Ingolstadt to the Black Sea. By far the most adventurous of my European trips was a railway trip from Berlin to the Estonian capital Tallinn in 2003.

It took me almost 60 hours, I had to change trains nine times and stop at 60 different stations! The 1,700 kilometres in 60 equals an average speed of 30 km/h. The European Green Party backs an initiative for a speed limit of 30 km/h for cars within urban areas – but not in international railway connections!

It should be possible to do this differently. The ICE between Berlin and Hamburg only needs 1:30 hours for the 300 kilometres, the 500 kilometres connecting London and Paris nowadays take 2:15 hours and even the 1,675 kilometres long route from Berlin to Naples can be travelled in less than half of the time of Berlin – Tallinn, 24 hours at an average speed of 70 km/h.

And yet the connection is nowadays more important than ever. The idea of Europe is a great one and the integration of the Eastern countries, which were forced to stand by as Europe united in the past, is of huge cultural and also economical benefit for all of us. Still, concerning the railway system, Europe has not yet overcome the division of the Iron Curtain. From Berlin, Paris, Rome, London and Athens to Prague, Budapest, Bratislava, Ljubljana, Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn – from North to South and East to West – cross-border regions can only become a reality if there are transport links. The old railway between Warsaw and Tallinn crosses through Belarus and therefore does not allow visa-free travelling, which is what we actually want in the European Union. We need an EU-route from Paris to Tallinn!

The EU has the optimistic goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 20% compared to 1990, by 2020. However, emissions in the transport sector have risen by 29% since 1990 and today account for the 2nd largest share of greenhouse gases. While emissions decreased in all the other sectors, such as industry (-34%) and energy (-15%), the rise in the transport sector nullifies these achievements. At the same time, we see the modal share of the railways shrink each year in the EU. If we want to reach our goals in the fight against climate change, we have to stop the shift from rail to road! Above all, my home country Germany, as the main European transit country, should be interested in a clean transport corridor to the East.

That is why I and the European Green Party strongly support the Rail-Baltica project instead of the Via-Baltica, a European road connection between Poland and the Baltic states.

In 2006 we achieved the Rail-Baltica project becoming one of the six priority projects out of 30, which were adopted in 2004. A budget of 200 million Euros was allocated to the project and since 2003 some progress has been made. Today the trip from Berlin to Tallinn takes about 40 hours. Nevertheless it is astonishing that this is still a lot more than the 27 hours the steam train needed in 1935!

If we want to bring this redundant European adventure to an end, we have to keep pushing for further improvement. By upgrading the slowest existing tracks, co-ordinating the timetables, carrying out border controls in the riding train and closing the existing gaps in cross-border sections, a huge improvement could already be achieved without spending significant amounts of money. It is an evidence of incapacity that these measures – inexpensive but highly efficient – have not been carried out a long time ago already. Concerning the tracks, the whole route should use the European standard gauge and not the wider Russian gauge, in order to prevent being disconnected from the high speed network of Western Europe. In Spain a standard-gauge network was installed and is operating very successfully. The Russian gauge can be used for the East-West routes linking the Baltic ports with Moscow and St. Petersburg. But in the direction North-South a journey without interruptions must be possible. Furthermore tracks have to be electrified to allow travelling at higher speeds in the medium term.

We have to overcome national interests that block smooth cross-border travel and too often favour road over rail! We have to re-orient European transport policy. Too much money is being spent on expensive mega-projects with questionable European added value, like the fixed link over the Fehmarnbelt, the Brenner-Base-Tunnel or the tunnel between Lyon and Turin! We have to make it possible to visit the easternmost capitals of our union without hurting the climate! And it is our responsibility to make a united, sustainable Europe reaching from Lisbon to Tallinn and from Dublin to Athens reality!