The building contractor, the Norwegian company Linstow Varner, invested $8.8 million in the reconstruction of the station building and the tunnels behind it, Linstow Varner's director general Peter Solomonsen said at a highly celebratory opening.
Apart from new shopping and recreation areas, new communication systems were installed as well. New premises for the station's personnel, including the police force, were built. The project was financed by the Norwegians, without any participation by the Latvian state or state-owned railway operator Latvijas Dzelzcels.
Solomonsen called the new station a gift to Riga on its 800th anniversary. "It is the largest gift a Norwegian company has ever given abroad," he noted.
"We wanted to make it one of the safest train stations in Europe," Solomonsen said. The stations' safety systems underwent a test two weeks ago when a five-year-old girl put her hand under an escalator's handrail. The escalator stopped immediately and the girl escaped with only minor bruises. Eyewitnesses said that she was left unattended and had tried for quite a while to put her hand under the handrail.
The reconstruction of the station was started step-by-step in 1997. Since then, the station has changed its looks considerably. New, modern shops and cafeterias have squeezed out run-down outlets of fast food and "belasi" (oily dumplings stuffed with mashed meat), once considered to be a symbol of the train station and central market area nearby. Still, belasi lovers don't need to worry - one can still get them outside the building, at the station's square.
However, if you really want to sample one, you need to hurry, as the square's reconstruction is about to start as well. A new underground parking lot for 130 cars and two new shopping centers will be built, but a new parking lot with capacity for 430 cars will be constructed just next to the station. "We still lack some stamps and approvals from authorities, but we hope to announce the tender for the construction works by Aug. 25," Solomonsen said.
In the meantime, the railway is loosing its popularity year-on-year. People traveling to and from the countryside prefer to do so by bus, while the electric railway still holds its share in Riga's suburbs, Biruta Sakse, Latvijas Dzelzcels' spokeswoman, told The Baltic Times. Since 1996, the number of passengers dropped by almost half, with 34 million passengers reported in 1996, but only 18.2 million in 2000. The majority take the shuttle trains from and to Riga. Since 1996, Latvijas Dzelzcels has cut 15 unprofitable routes, the two most recent ones being the Riga-Liepaja and Riga-Ventspils, which shut down on Aug. 15.
Sakse said Latvijas Dzelzcels would like to develop the Riga suburban routes, "which can't be replaced by buses," and cut the unprofitable ones. But the company needs more state subsidies to renovate the electric trains and maintain the infrastructure. Some 300,000 lats ($476,000) per year has been provided by the state to the passenger transportation network since 1998 and has been used mainly for the renovation of electric trains, but that hasn't been enough, Sakse said.
Latvijas Dzelzcels has taken out a loan of 1.68 million lats to renovate more train cars. The railway's passenger arm is kept in operation from profits on the cargo side, which are very dependent on Russian trade, Latvia's main rail transit partner. "When Russia sets some unfavorable tariffs or conditions, we are in trouble," Sakse said. "This year and 2000 were good, but the years 1998 and 1999 following the Russian crisis brought only losses to cargo as well," she noted. The company's planned profits for 2001 is 1.2 million lats, but last year's audited results haven't yet been announced.