TALLINN – Although the construction of Rail Baltic is already underway in all three Baltic states, the current goal of completing the project by 2026 is no longer possible; the completion of the railway will be postponed to the end of the decade, the Estonian daily Postimees writes.
This is also the last deadline to move the project to, because the European transport network TENT-T must be ready by 2030. "So far, 2026 has been our own goal, it has not been set in stone at European level. Unfortunately, it is now clear that this schedule is no longer possible. On the one hand, it cannot be carried out technically and structurally, on the other hand, the financing of the entire project is not covered," Tonu Grunberg, chairman of the management board of Rail Baltic Estonia, told the daily.
There are currently two large obstacles in the time frame of the Estonian section of Rail Baltic -- the Parnu County county plan and the design of the main route. The Ministry of Finance plans to come out with a new version of the county plan annulled by the Supreme Court at the end of this year.
"We have found very good alternatives to the previously proposed route. However, they also have their disadvantages. Now we have to consider what is the best solution for nature. In terms of time, it does not matter anymore whether we stay on the old route corridor or make changes to it. Public consultations, coordination and the rest of the whole involvement process must still be carried out again, in accordance with the law. If the new plan is approved by the end of next year, it will be fine," Grunberg said.
In the preliminary project of Rail Baltic, completed in 2018, the cost of the Estonian section was estimated at 1.68 billion euros, but now there is already talk of a somewhat larger amount. It is likely that additional funding will have to be requested from the budget period starting in 2028. While the first objects ended up being cheaper than planned on Rail Baltic, then now the situation seems to be the opposite.
"Rising construction prices are affecting us, especially the construction of wildlife crossings and viaducts. We also know that we must not overheat the construction market. We have assessed the project schedules with the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications and the Transport Administration and reviewed that there be no insane construction volumes in 2024 and 2025. The Estonian construction sector would not be able to manage it and prices would go up a lot. This, too, is why it is actually good that 2026 will not be the deadline," Grunberg said.
While Estonia has so far been involved in the procurement and construction of wildlife crossings and road bridges, Latvians and Lithuanians are seemingly moving faster. A passenger terminal is being built in Riga, all the necessary land from the Latvian border to Kaunas has been acquired in Lithuania.
According to Grunberg, a different strategy has been chosen in all three countries. "We have started with building a supportive infrastructure. For example, Latvians have not yet started building any road bridges," the head of Rail Baltic Estonia said.
However, the construction of passenger terminals should also start in Estonia in the near future. "We are quite close to the construction of the Ulemiste terminal. The original plan was to announce the construction tender this year, but different nuances have come into play. We still have to coordinate the detailed plan with the city and make some technical improvements. But next year we definitely want to enter into procurement," Grunberg said.
According to him, the whole railway project should also be viewed as a unified whole, which means that the completion of the objects cannot be rushed too much. "If we build a very magnificent terminal and it does not have enough use at the beginning, then we are figuratively heating the air. If we know that Rail Baltic will start operating at the end of the decade, there is no need to complete it by the initially planned 2025," Grunberg said.
The Saustinomme road viaduct is the first of the Rail Baltic objects completed in Estonia, while five more objects are currently being built. In total, however, more than a hundred railway bridges, wildlife crossings, railway and road viaducts have been planned, most of which will be built in parallel with the main route.
"We are currently building these objects separately in order to save time and spread costs. Most of the viaducts involved in the project will still be completed together with the construction of the main route, just like in road construction," Grunberg said, admitting that the pace is nevertheless slower than hoped -- of the first 60 million euro procurement volume, contracts have been concluded in the extent of less than 20 million euros.
Although Rail Baltic will not be completed on time and new problems are constantly emerging, according to the chairman of the management board of Rail Baltic Estonia, it is clear by now that the Baltic connection project will no longer be shelved. "The excavator's bucket has hit the ground and construction is underway in every country. Rail Baltic is coming, the question is when, and in its financing model," Grunberg added.