Kadio Zimmerman, board chair of rail-track operator Eesti Raudtee, told ERR that the volume of goods imported by rail from Russia to Estonia has more than halved, from nine, to 3.5 trains per day, since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. By comparison, in 2006, an average of 32.4 trains per day entered Estonia from Russia on Eesti Raudtee tracks, Zimmerman said in an interview with ERR's Indrek Kiisler, which follows in its entirety.
In the spring, when Russia invaded Ukraine, some goods were still being transported. What is the situation now?
Until these various sanctions packages were put in place, and until the sanctioned goods, or the goods from companies owned by the people who are under sanctions, were in place, this transport was working. Some wound up in February, others in March. As things stand, since the beginning of August, for example, we have had one fuel oil shipment fall through, as was coal-based, and sanctions have started to apply to coal. Every month, something has fallen through and the general situation is such that, while at the same time last year somewhere between 8.5 and nine trains crossed the border of Narva, Koidula and Valga every day, today we have 3.5 trains. The volume of freight has decreased by more than half [in that time].
Are these trains carrying Russian goods or are some of them transporting goods from, for example, Kazakhstan?
Yes, some of it comes from Kazakhstan and Central Asia. But there will also be Russian goods. For example, raw materials, some chemicals, are arriving at Estonian factories in Kohtla-Järve, which they use later to produce something. Similarly, some raw materials go to [fuel retailer] Alexela. In this way, little-by-little, such cargo drips through, and there are also oil products from Kazakhstan and other smaller quantities of goods from that country.
Is there a sense the air that Russia is trying to block transit to Kazakhstan and China as well?
They have been obstructing it since 2007. They get in the way at all times, and it is an extraordinary event when anything gets through there.
Will this average of three-and-a-half trains per day be kept up, or might the situation deteriorate even further?
Half of this crosses the border at Valga, and most of which comes from Orlen (a Polish fuel group – ed.); oil products that are consumed in Estonia. I believe that this will remain, but as for what is coming from Russia today, I don't know how long that will last - what they let through there - and if at any point they get stopped at all.
We work here one day at a time, and see what the next day brings and see how we can save as much as possible. We have gone from a 24-hour shifts to a 12-hour shift. Most of the stations which still saw the carriage of goods now no longer do so. Everything that can be done to save money is being done. In winter, we turn off the heating and turn off the lights where they are no longer needed.
But at the same time, our passenger train traffic is at the same level as it was last year. There are no problems with the number of passenger trains, the volume of passengers has actually increased by 23 percent, on Elron trains. The number of passengers does not directly affect Eesti Raudtee, as we are paid based on the weight of a train. But we are in a situation where at least the infrastructure fee is properly received from the passenger sector, and the trains run well.
Isn't it viable to raise the fee for using the infrastructure? How many are really short of money?
The infrastructure fee cannot be hiked very much, because some goods are still price-sensitive and what Russia allows through is small... After all, the competition between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania exists. If we raise the prices ourselves, of course we can lose business to the Latvians and Lithuanians as well. On the other hand, raising the price for passengers also means that it would derive from the state budget anyway. For sure, our costs have risen, mainly because of energy carriers. And some outsourced services have become more expensive. Currently, this infrastructure fee is calculated by the Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority (TTJA). We have an agreement with the state that Eesti Raudtee cannot increase its price by more than 5 percent.
The future for transit freight is bleak. Considering the type of regime Russia has now, will we actually see total silence?
I could not say 'silence'. We still have passenger trains, and from June of this year, we're into a period where the infrastructure fee from passenger train traffic is higher than from freight train traffic. All the investments that we are making today and tomorrow are all related only to passenger train traffic. Nothing is being done in relation to freight train traffic. Electrification, increasing train speeds, traffic management, are all related to passenger train traffic, and passenger trains will run properly, and faster, in the future.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Aleksander Krjukov