Rail Baltic Would Prevent Estonia From Turning Into a Backwater (4)

Freie Universität Berlin/Arne Sattler
1/14/2014 2:46 PM
Category: Opinion

Journalist Külli-Riin Tigasson says that a high-speed connection to Western Europe is Estonia's big chance to go from its current insular status to part of the EU "mainland." 

I flew from Tallinn to Berlin in the beginning of January and had to wake up at 05:00. As I was packing my suitcase and weighing it again just in case, I found it was too heavy.

The good part was that Santa had been generous this year, but the bad part was that I had to quickly pay an extra fee of 30 euros. I was at the airport a little after 06:00. The flight made one stop in Riga and six hours later I would be in Berlin. After we touched down and disembarked, I had to wait for the bags, then get on a bus, followed by the S-Bahn and finally the metro, and only then was I at my destination.

If there were a modern rail connection between Tallinn and Berlin (as promised, 240 kilometers per hour), it wouldn't have taken more time than it did for me to fly via Riga, clear security and ride the S-Bahn. The other option would have been to fly through Helsinki or Stockholm, but that's even more time-consuming, although there would have been no concern about baggage weight, and a single train would have taken me right downtown.

But the question is not just about comfort level for some girl from the countryside. Or bag weight. Or the need to connect two cities, Tallinn and Berlin. The question is whether or not Estonia has a modern land connection to Western Europe.

And let's not even bring buses and cars into it: 24 hours in a bus is just not everyone's cup of tea and traveling long distance in a car is a good idea only if it's an holiday-style road trip adventure, not if you have to travel frequently or on business.

The fact that an anti-Rail Baltic protest is brewing in Estonia (classic NIMBY syndrome) is not surprising. But what people are essentially opposing is nonetheless the possibility of getting EU money to build a modern rail connection to the rest of the continent, and that is short-sighted to say the least.

The Baltic states have become something like an island. What characterizes an island? The fact that it is cut off from the rest of the world and only reachable by ship or plane (again, let's not talk about road connections to Western Europe as a serious alternative in Estonia's case. I have taken the bus from Tartu to Berlin in the company of business people going to buy cars in bulk, and they drank all the way there.)

An island. Something romantic, symbolizing life lived at one's own pace, peace. But it also means being away from the rest of the world, being peripheral. Moreover, Estonia is currently like a little island in a larger archipelago. To fly to Berlin, you first have to fly to the island nation's capital (Riga or Helsinki). The poor connection can even occasionally be a reason for not going (or coming here) in the first place.

As time goes on, the more expensive airfares will get. The price of fuel is rising, the EU is doing battle with carbon emissions, and Germany's statistical office says that economy seats became 17.2 percent more costly from 2009 to 2011. There is no reason to expect airfares to decrease in the long term, even though engineers are trying to build more efficient planes.

Trains will inevitably hold an edge over aviation, as train fuel costs and greenhouse gas emissions per passenger and kilometer are so much lower than those of planes. One kilometer of air travel means 380 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger is emitted per kilometer, but train passengers "cost" only 40 grams per kilometer. It's nearly a tenfold difference! Considering rising fuel costs and the war against climate change, logic says the gap will only widen.

Talk of a Tallinn-Berlin flight being an alternative to train connections between those two cities is not credible. On the other hand, Rail Baltic could connect Estonia with the entire modern European rail transport network and it would also connect the Baltic states to one another.

It's another question whether the current route of the rail line - through Pärnu - is the best one for Estonia. If thanks to Rail Baltic, Estonia were to get a high-speed connection between Tallinn and Tartu as well (just consider how much travel there is between those two cities), that could only be good. It would outweigh the minor loss of minutes and the additional money the slightly longer route would require, since Tallinn and Tartu need a high-speed connection in any case.

It is really scandalous that Rail Baltic does not already exist. What are the hallmarks of an Eastern European backwater? It is hard to get to, and hard to get away from. I became convinced when I sat in a small microbus lurching from Chisinau to Lviv from the crack of dawn to midnight back in the fall. On board, homemade wine was drunk from a 2L soda bottle and people played drinking games. Abandoned villages flitted by outside, unfinished homes surrounded by fields, fuming factory smokestacks against the night sky, and small towns whose cellar bars all had the word "City" in their names.

This is a translation of a piece originally published on uudised.err.ee.

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