RIGA - At the end of May, the line of cargo trucks waiting to cross the border from Latvia into Russia reached 1,900, a new record, and all indicators are that truck traffic on the Russian-Latvian border will only increase. But in spite of the wait, businesses are not likely to consider other ways to deliver their products to Russian markets, according to insiders.
"It is not foreseen that in the nearest future the amount of cargo could diminish," said Tija Ezerina, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Transportation. "On the contrary, the [flow] to Russia will grow and develop if there aren't any new administrative barriers from Russia's side."
"Most customers prefer truck delivery because it offers an opportunity to deliver the product directly to the customer," explained Valdis Trezins, the president of Latvijas Auto, an association representing the interests of the trucking industry in Latvia.
The most recent numbers showed that the situation had eased somewhat. On the morning of June 11 some 700 trucks were standing at a border crossing in Terehovo and another 380 trucks were at the border crossing in Grebneva. That means at least two days of waiting for trucks to cross the Latvian-Russian border, said Trezins. The trucks do not form a physical line, but wait in designated areas on the Latvian side.
The numbers were similar in late April when more than 1,000 trucks were waiting daily. Then, the truck lines disappeared altogether, but recently started to develop again.
Trezins noted that the entire Baltic region 's Latvia, Estonia and Finland 's shares only seven border crossing points with Russia that are equipped to handle freight trucks. It's insufficient, he said. The way Russian customs officials are handling trucks is the cause of the problem.
Ezerina echoed the point. "The problem of border crossing is mainly on the Russian side," she said. "In order to cross the border from Latvia to Russia, there are some verifications needed 's on the Latvian side these verifications take approximately 3.5 minutes per truck but on the Russian side this time varies from one to eight hours per truck. The state into which the truck is entering usually does more thorough inspections," she said.
She added that the two Russian border checkpoints have lower capacities compared to those on the Latvian side. They were built in the early 1990s and are not equipped to handle the increased traffic.
Truck traffic through the border points has been steadily increasing since Latvia joined the European Union in 2004. According to data from the Ministry of Transportation, in 2004 around 99,000 vehicles crossed the border at Terehovo, whereas the figure in 2006 was 140,000, a 40 percent increase in traffic. The other border crossing at Grebneva saw a similar increase 's from around 50,000 vehicles in 2004 to more than 76,000 trucks in 2006.
About 40 percent of the traffic going across the border both ways comes from Lithuania, 25 percent from Latvia, 20 percent from Russia. The rest of the traffic comes from Netherlands, Kazakhstan, and, surprisingly, Belarus. Trezins said that because of heavy regulations, Belarusian drivers prefer to enter Russia through the Latvian border points rather than through Belarusian ones.
The popularity of the Latvian truck route seems to be down to the lack of better alternatives. Western companies shipping to Russia like to keep their goods in the EU for as much of the journey as possible, but Scandinavian and Estonian routes are farther and more expensive. And using the railroads presents its own problems.
"Theoretically railway freight could be an alternative but this process is more complicated than road conveyances," Ezerina said.
In particular, hauling freight by rail is more expensive as Russia charges high tariffs on railroad transportation from abroad.
And the trend of railroad cargo turnover has been on the decline in recent years. Russia has announced that in the next two or three years it would be willing to lower the railway freight rates for transportation in the Baltic direction along with raising the rates for cargo destined for Russian ports, but until then, the amount of freight is on the decline. If in 2005 Latvijas Dzelzcels (Latvian Railways) achieved a cargo turnover of 54.9 million tons, the following year the cargo turnover fell by 11.2 percent to 48.7 million tons.
There may be some hope that the truck situation will improve. High-ranking officials from Latvia, Russia and representatives of the trucking industry are expected to discuss the border crossing problems at a meeting in Moscow on June 18, Trezins said, adding that Latvijas Auto has proposed improvements in border crossing technology.
And with the help of EU funding, the government plans to open a modern border crossing point in Opuli to handle truck traffic. Also, the government is in negotiations with Russian officials to ease border crossing legalities and hopefully speed up the truck traffic through the border.