Switching to European track gauge would cost €8.7 billion

A section of rail track in Estonia (photo is illustrative).
A section of rail track in Estonia (photo is illustrative). Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Estonian Railways CEO Kaido Zimmermann says that reconstructing the entire Estonian railroad infrastructure to switch to the European track gauge would cost €8.7 billion.

The Baltic states use the 1,520 mm Russian track gauge, while the European Commission-recommended 1,435 so-called narrow gauge tracks are used in most of the rest of Europe.

Estonian Railways CEO Kaido Zimmermann wrote in a letter sent to the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications (MKM) that according to the company's calculations, reconstructing the entire 1,520/1,524 mm rail system would cost €8.7 billion of which €7.5 billion would have to be spent on tracks and €1.2 billion on new trains.

The director added that the 1,520/1,524 mm system cannot, in Estonia, be rebuilt following the example of Spain where a third rail was added to the tracks allowing the use of two different track gauges.

Because the original track gauge in Spain (1,668 mm) is wider than our tracks, there is no room for the third rail in between the two existing ones. A double-gauge railroad with four rails (a solution used on some sections in Lithuania) could only be used on non-electrified sections in Estonia as the nominal height of overhead contact wires differs for different track gauges."

A four-rail railroad would require sufficient throughput capacity for both gauges and separate stations for trains to pass one another by.

"For example, throughput capacity would be all but exhausted between Tapa and Tartu during the day were passenger train speeds to be raised to 160 kilometers per hour. There is also a shortage of throughput between Tallinn and Rapla. It would be impossible to use double tracks on such sections and a new railroad next to or in place of the current one would have to be built."

Zimmermann said that a railroad infrastructure project of this magnitude would effectively halt rail traffic in Estonia for a decade, which would be contrary to the goal of Estonian and European transport policy to bring more passengers and goods to the railroad in the next decade.

"Therefore, the only way to switch to the European track gauge would be to construct a parallel railroad system next to the existing one and then tear up the latter."

Zimmermann said that the new railroad would have to facilitate speeds of at least 200 km/h to create sensible links between Tallinn and Tartu, Narva, Valga, Viljandi and other cities and settlements.

"This would in turn entail route corrections, additional land acquisition to make room for a four-rail system and overpasses. It needs to be kept in mind that railroad signaling and comms systems can only be developed inside an ERTMS system in Europe."

Considering the colossal cost of reconstructing the entire rail network, the Rail Baltica project linking Estonia to the 1,432 mm system should be finished before launching the rest of the work, Zimmermann finds.

"For example, starting with the Edelaraudtee Lelle-Pärnu section and linking it to Rail Baltica in Pärnu. This kind of section-by-section reconstruction would allow us to eventually reach the Ülemiste terminal [in Tallinn] without major disruptions to passenger rail traffic. Development could continue on other routes after that."

Estonia has 2,500 kilometers of railways

Data from Statistics Estonia suggests registered public and non-public railways run for a total of 2,143 kilometers in Estonia to which 300-400 kilometers of unregistered railways can be added. The entire 1,520/1,524 mm system therefore spans some 2,500 kilometers.

The network is made up of Estonian Railways, Edelaraudtee, Eesti Energia, Port of Tallinn, Port of Sillamäe, Maardu Railways, the Kunda Railway and many terminals and depots' linked tracks that would all need to be reconstructed as part of the switch.

In addition to the tracks, fleets operated by Elron, Operail, GoRail, Skinest, Port of Sillamäe and many other smaller companies would also need to be replaced. In addition, around 15,000 railcars have been registered to private owners that could be returned to their Estonian owners in the future.

The Commission's plans for a universal track gauge

The idea of the TEN-T (Trans-European Transport Network) is to better connect European cities and regions and shorten the time it takes to travel between them. The Commission believes that the TEN-T regulation needs to be updated to construct missing links and modernize infrastructure. The corresponding proposal was published on December 14, 2021, with negotiations currently underway. The Commission has deemed it necessary to introduce a motion to amend in light of the war in Ukraine.

The latter aims to lengthen EU transport corridors to reach as far as Ukraine and Moldova, including, for example, the ports of Mariupol and Odessa. Russia and Belarus would be removed from TEN-T maps.

The Commission is also proposing to downgrade the last miles of all cross-border connections between the EU and Russia/Belarus from "core network" to "comprehensive network."

In connection with obstacles due to different track gauges inside EU territory and as highlighted during the Ukraine conflict, the bill requires Member States that operate different track gauges than 1,435 mm (except Ireland) to put forward preliminary plans for migrating to the 1,435 mm system.

If a Member States is reluctant to do so on certain stretches of railroad, it must give an economic reason. Rail infrastructure constructed after the entry into force of the regulation must observe the 1,435 mm standard or facilitate corresponding traffic.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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