Kristjan Kaunissaare: Railroad cannot be built on gut feeling

Kristjan Kaunissaare.
Kristjan Kaunissaare.

Progress on the Rail Baltic project was helped by a recent Supreme Court ruling as only a single challenge of more than 20 presented by the project's opponents was satisfied, Kristjan Kaunissaare writes.

It took almost six years, instead of the planned three, to process Rail Baltic's county plan. This was no accident as what took place was an exceptional involvement process, looking at the history of national infrastructure projects. Different route options were weighed, an intensive public debate took place, with over 80 public debates held and dozens of surveys commissioned.

That is why it took until early 2018 to arrive at a plan. That finalized the Rail Baltic corridor and it is unfortunate we are still seeing attempts to paint it as a question that could be reopened or regarding which there has not been enough analysis, consideration or involvement.

Aspiring historians who are still convinced the initial solution saw the railroad pass through Tartu would do well to study the Estonia 2010+ plan. Both this plan, in effect until August 30, 2012, and the following Estonia 2030+ nationwide plan clearly mention Rail Baltic as following the Tallinn-Pärnu-Ikla route.

In between these two documents and under then economy minister Juhan Parts, the cabinet made a positive decision in September of 2011. Unintended confusion could, however, arise from the fact that EU support was used to reconstruct the Tallinn-Tapa-Tartu-Valga railroad under the Rail Baltic project name.

However, this work was completed by late 2011 and is the reason people can take a modern train from Tartu to Tallinn in under two hours today.

There have always been those who are hard to convince in the language of argumentation. Perhaps it is sensible then to admit that Rail Baltic is first and foremost a geopolitically significant project. Perhaps this could bring peace to interest groups who still want to hop on board and go somewhere the train cannot take them in a situation where it has already left the station.

The Rail Baltic project's county plans were initiated in 2012. It is not sensible to try and turn back the clock today, when main design work is well underway in the corridor picked by people with a mandate to do so and construction has already begun. Because time, not just sums already spent, is what we cannot get back. When it comes to European projects, time tends to be lost along with foreign investments.

Those who say that rail transport's environmental friendliness when compared to road transport is a well-worn truth are right – moving goods and people on the railroad is on average six times more energy efficient and produces nine times less CO2 emissions.

Hundred-year-old track bed not suitable for a new railroad

If we were to compare the construction of a railroad and a four-lane highway, it is clear that while construction phase carbon emissions and climate effect would be similar, the railroad's ecological footprint per passenger is several times smaller during the operating phase.

We should not limit ourselves to talking about the carbon footprint. Even if we were to construct the railroad in an existing corridor so to speak, its impact would be comparable to that of a new route and offer no drastic environmental gain.

The track bed of the existing railroad that has been constructed 100 years ago in some places to cope with trains going up to 120 kilometers per hour and the vibration it causes cannot be used to facilitate trains doing twice that speed.

The bed would need to be removed, cultivated and reworked, causing additional CO2 emissions and environmental disturbances. Not to mention that it is unthinkable to have two pairs of tracks in a corridor meant for a single pair.

Claims according to which the existing bed's materials could be reused have not been proven. But you cannot build a railroad based on a gut feeling. The existing route has been considered and discarded as it would need to be straightened, dozens of households dismantled and dozens of kilometers of noise barriers built, while construction in the Ülemiste region would jeopardize a major source of drinking water for the capital.

To ensure some semblance of quality of life in settlements on the railroad's path it would need to bypass them, while this would require a new corridor, which is something opponents are fighting.

People who are enthusiastic about moving the corridor enthusiastically gloss over the question of what would happen to people who use the existing railroad and take the train from Tallinn to Kiisa, Kohila, Rapla or Käru. Will they buy a car, take their commute on the highway for six years, adding to its CO2 footprint? How would people take the train to Türi or Viljandi or from there to the capital in a situation where the existing railroad and Rail Baltic would sport a different track gauge?

Luckily, progress on the Rail Baltic project was helped by a recent Supreme Court ruling as only a single challenge of more than 20 presented by the project's opponents was satisfied. This means that while attempts were made to challenge almost everything about the project, including three county plans, the Supreme Court largely upheld the rulings of previous court instances that no county plan needs to be revoked in full.

The Supreme Court emphasized that with the exception of indirect impact on a single Natura conservation area, all processes have been executed properly. The Supreme Court also saw no legal grounds for reopening a debate over a so-called existing corridor.

Doomsaying irresponsible

From time to time, we can see opponents of Rail Baltic promoting the misconception that constructing a railroad over wetlands is unheard of. In truth, it is almost impossible to avoid passing through wetlands when constructing any kind of transport infrastructure in Estonia.

Of the 213 kilometers of Rail Baltic in Estonia, just 2-3 percent passes through moorlands. The Rääma Bog is often given as an example of this disaster, even though its poor condition has not made the news for decades. Conservation of the bog has been considered both on the local and national level, while its condition and conservation potential has not been deemed sufficient.

The peat layer in parts of the bog Rail Baltic is set to pass through will not go down ten meters even as a result of persistent lying – test drilling has put the thickness of the layer at six meters.

The bog that is used as a peatery and has been in a rather poor condition for years nevertheless has potential to become a suburban recreational area. It is also a local water preservation area and home to a few protected species.

Because of this, it has been decided to only have the railroad impact the bog's water regime minimally. Yes, Rääma Bog is a challenge, but it is not an insurmountable one. We are no longer living in the 19th century, even though a seven-kilometer stretch of railroad was built through a marsh in England already at that time. We just need to pass a few kilometers of bog in the 21st century.

Of course, infrastructure always has an effect on the environment, while the modern era means there is both the desire and possibility to mitigate these effects that should be among the most important goals when planning manmade objects, such as Rail Baltic.

Environmental impact is a factor for whichever kind of infrastructure, whether it follows a new or an existing route. No one should try and make it look like the railroad would have a drastic impact in one place and virtually no impact somewhere else.

The Rail Baltic route is set, design work is coming along and construction underway. People want to travel, local governments want stops to liven up the economy. Attempts to create the misconception according to which the debate concerning the Rail Baltic route could be reopened are inappropriate. The alternatives have been weighed and the best one chosen.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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