Kaunas to be a Rail Baltic hub

  • 2003-02-27
  • Steven Paulikas

Kaunas will most likely be Lithuania's greatest beneficiary of the proposed massive Rail Baltic infrastructure project.

On Feb. 21, Kaunas officials met with members of the government's transit committee to decide which route the ambitious Helsinki - Berlin train would take through the territory of Lithuania.

The committee, which was chaired by Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas, decided that if Rail Baltic is implemented, the high-speed express train will run through Kaunus, Lithuania's second largest city.

"It's a matter of how close the train will come to the city," said Kaunas Mayor Giedrius Asmys.

Because of its location near the country's geographical center, Kaunas is the best candidate among the cities to receive major new infrastructure from the rail project.

However, for Kaunas the question of whether to build a new passenger terminal and how close that terminal would be to the city center.

"We would like them to position the line 30 kilometers closer to the center of the city than what is now in the plans," said the mayor.

The transit committee has until March 3 to study different proposals for a Kaunas terminal. At that time, it will make a preliminary decision on the matter in preparation for its March 31 final report.

"The committee is reviewing a large amount of data and considering a number of slight variations in proposals," said Paulius Gircys, adviser for transport affairs in the government's chancellery.

Kaunas also stands to become the home of Rail Baltic's logistical center in Lithuania.

While other major Lithuanian cities such as Vilnius and Klaipeda will not be included in Rail Baltic's direct route, the transport committee wants them to be connected to the state-of-the-art high-speed service by branch lines.

According to Alminas Maciulis, government secretary for the Transport Ministry, the Rail Baltic project is of fundamental importance to the EU's overall transport strategy in light of the organization's expansion.

"Currently, there is no direct rail connection between the existing countries of the EU and many of the candidate countries, including the Baltics," said Maciulis.

"The best transport option to unite the future territory of the EU is to run a railroad through the neck of the Polish-Lithuanian border," said Maciulis, referring to the 91-kilometer frontier bounded by Russian Kaliningrad to the west and Belarus to the east.

In spite of the grand plans announced by the EU at the end of 2002, the final decision on Rail Baltic has yet to be made.

A less ambitious yet more likely compromise is to upgrade Polish lines to European gauge standards and run an extension into Lithuania, in which case Kaunas would nonetheless serve as a terminal.

However, if completed, Rail Baltic would connect Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Germany with one of Europe's most modern railways. The potential cost of the project with all branches and non-rail infrastructure is estimated at 1.2 billion euros, much of which would be provided by the EU's Cohesion Fund.