Rail Baltica is more then just a railroad

  • 2012-03-30
  • Kaur Lass, planning expert and CEO of OÜ Head

The vision of Rail Baltica has existed a long time. In official documents it was first mentioned in the Vision and Strategies around the Baltic Sea 2010 report ca 20 years ago. The importance of Rail Baltica was also stated in the final report of the co-operation project Via Baltica Spatial Development Zone that was carried out in 2001 with the co-operation of six countries: Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Germany.

Now this vision has a chance to become reality. Poland is talking about high-speed train connections between Warsaw and Berlin as well as Warsaw and Vienna etc. We here in Estonia are now on actual planning phase of Rail Baltica from Tallinn to Warsaw, as there is a feasibility study, carried out by AECOM last year, showing that there is an economic point of building it.

The competitiveness of European businesses depends a lot on how easy co-operation is within the EU. So far our corner of the EU territory has remained with poor land connections toward central Europe. This was proven by the Icelandic volcano eruption some years back. When we look at the existing railroad map of Europe, then we see that Estonia is not connected to Europe at all. It is time to change this. So Rail Baltica is not just a railroad. It is the missing link in our connection with Europe.

Estonia realized this while preparing its new National Spatial Plan Estonia 2030+. Railroad is seen in the plan as the only form of transport on land that can shorten existing travel time. This is mainly due to a fact that our seasonal differences will never let us get German-type speed limitless highways. Lately two questions are increasingly important in connection with planning: the environment and the infrastructure. Both these issues are of a geographically comprehensive nature as it is not possible to solve environmental problems or infrastructure related questions within one region or municipality. Rail Baltica is an infrastructure project that crosses many borders and provides environmentally friendly means of fast transport.

Realizing Rail Baltica demands a new quality of co-operation both between countries as well as between different officials and policy makers. It should be possible as the benefits are much larger then those mentioned on the feasibility study. Besides cargo traffic, these include growing relations and new business opportunities, the possibility to choose work within bigger work force area, more tourism, etc, that may not be so visible at first. The fact is that all trustful relations develop slowly. So we have to have the infrastructure first and then keep in mind that it takes time to “run it in.” Railroad and trains alone do not make the shift. We need to have trains running at suitable times for passengers, we need to have enough speed and we need to have reliability for cargo traffic. Precision and the capability to handle things quickly and correctly is something that differentiates us from most Asian countries or from Russia. Lets develop it and make it our competition advantage!

After completion, Rail Baltica will create the possibility to have new jobs and improve relations within our region. The Baltic States and Finland are relatively small countries, especially if we look at the size of the work force living in these countries. Our key to success is more effective business and effective co-operation. Especially when we consider highly educated or skilled specialist co-operation as important. The main competitive advantage Europe holds over Asia is know-how. But our specialists are few and they value time. Rail Baltica enables us to save time when travelling between two neighbouring capitals in the Baltic region.

So far it has been impossible to have effective travel times between Baltic States with the exception of planes. And those are often full. Buying a ticket a week advance, as is my personal practice, mostly means buying a ticket with an extremely high price or giving up public transport and taking a car. A lot of business trips are made by car or cancelled. Buses seem cheap and comfortable and are sometimes options, but mostly they are not feasible as travel time is the same with car. A modern train would offer far better travel times then car or bus. It seems that even bus companies have understood this, as Lux Express has its own plans to run trains between St Petersburg and Tallinn. This again would support the use of Rail Baltica as passengers from there could use Tallinn as transit point on the way to Pärnu, Riga, or beyond.
Today the amount of cargo going on the Via Baltica road are high. Via Baltica needs new lanes, mostly because of trucks. But reconstruction of the road will not enable faster travel times. Even the safety of existing roads needs improvement, and that alone does not require new lanes. So, to be honest, we have to compare building a railroad against building new international multilane highways – this is both expensive and land consuming. If we have the fast train then we probably do not need such wide roads and society could save money by just improving road quality within existing road corridors. We also need to update our ideas on what is a good public transport solution in general. For that, Estonia has finally made a transportation model for the whole country. It has been done through the co-operation of the Estonian Ministry of Interior and Tallinn Technical University. It will help us to get a better idea what happens if we take travellers from one means of transport to another.

And it shows as well what happens if we have higher travel speeds, more connections, etc. What the model will never show is how a fast connection itself creates much more co-operation possibilities, such as tourism, friendly relations and business opportunities. Those will not come over night and depend on whether we – Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles – are willing to use it! It was not long ago we had an era when phones were connected to cables, but now we have a generation growing up that has a phone and some kind of computer with them everywhere. Their friends us it, they are dependent on it. So future business for them is increasingly handled virtually wherever they find themselves to be. But travelling will mostly take you where it is easy to go and where you have friends.

In Estonia we hear more and more that friends are overseas, in Asia, in Europe etc. If we miss a link to our neighbouring countries, we have less and less business and less and less friends there. We alienate ourselves from our own neighbours. So here proactive measures are need. A private person will never take their business permanently to a place where it is hard and expensive to go. Personally, I have tried doing business in Latvia – the travel time or the high cost of plain tickets was never worth it. So I have turned my eyes elsewhere. Longer travel is in many cases easier and cheaper when it comes buying plain tickets. And the best planes already have phones allowed and working Wi-Fi on them.

If the situation remains so, we force the young to develop relations in countries far from home. And often they move to where they have their friends. Trains would be a good alternative to travel – you can properly work there and travelling to Riga from Tallinn would be faster than with a plane as you can escape airport security lines and other inconveniences, which makes travelling by air on shorter distances so unpleasant. And, more importantly, travelling by train is more comfortable and much faster then travelling with car. 

So Rail Baltica as our railroad to Europe is not only about missing infrastructure or about the feasibility of cargo flows and passenger travel. What is behind the cargo flows and travel is important – jobs, united work force areas, relations and a change of travel habits, as well as bringing our neighbours much closer to us in terms of travel time. A shift towards more Baltic co-operation as well as environmental friendly travel possibilities have been awaited by many. Cars are good and I love them, but I also know from my personal experience that while I lived in Sweden I parked my car and took trains to most places, as it was easier and approximately had the same price as driving the car alone.

A bonus was saving time. And time is valued today more and more by experts. As China and India have higher and higher production prices over the coming years, a shift toward local business co-operation within Europe should again become visible and more desired. There is a trend of environmental improvement, as well as a rise in consumer consciousness supporting it. So there is much more to win than loose, especially if EU supports the building of the railroad, as seems possible.

To summarise, the building of Rail Baltica should be our priority number one when it comes to infrastructure projects. This was also a common understanding while working out our new National Spatial Plan Estonia 2030+. The first phase of Rail Baltica over Tartu is now working within Estonia, and soon we will have new trains. But updating the speed from 120 km/h to 160 km/h is important there as well. We also need to further develop the existing Rail Baltica line between Valga and Riga.

Then in the future, trains from Tartu can take people directly to Tallinn airport where we could have more flights or to Riga, where a new Rail Baltica train is easy to meet and continue travel toward Warsaw. And from Warsaw we could in future have 400 km/h trains to Berlin, Prague, and Vienna, etc, if all goes according Polish plans. The vision of having us connected with Europe by fast travel possibility on land is now more real then ever before. We should now start to plan and run it as soon as possible – what we need here much more than money is a positive attitude and a willingness to co-operate.