Russian freight rail ban must be joint decision, Latvia and Lithuania say

Minister of Economic Affairs and Communications Riina Sikkut (SDE) with her Lithuanian and Latvian transport counterparts in Tallinn, Monday, January 23, 2023.
Minister of Economic Affairs and Communications Riina Sikkut (SDE) with her Lithuanian and Latvian transport counterparts in Tallinn, Monday, January 23, 2023. Source: Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications

While Estonia has barred all freight rail transit of Russian origin, Latvia and Lithuania are following a more collective approach, while noting that these trade flows are in any case fizzling out, ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported Monday.

State-owned rail cargo operator Operail halted the transit of Russian and Belarusian goods last year, following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

However, in Latvia and Lithuania, no such ban has been installed, to date.

Minister of Economic Affairs and Communications Riina Sikkut (SDE) said that this did not mean that either country was not of the same mind as Estonia, however.

"Naturally, they can see that Russia needs to be economically isolated, and there is a desire to avoid contributing to Russia's war effort," Sikkut, who had met with the transport ministers of Latvia and Lithuania in Tallinn on Monday, told AK.

"This time we discussed how to proceed on these national decisions," she went on.

Latvia and Lithuania consider this as one which could be taken jointly and at EU level, adding that business ties with Russia and Belarus are evaporating in any case.

Latvia's transport minister, Janis Vitenbergs, told AK that: "If we make those kind of steps, we will have to cooperate and that should be a collective decision, and then it could work."

"If we keep all the EU sanctions on Russia in place, then the cooperation will diminish naturally," Vitenbergs went on.

Vitenbergs and Sikkut's Lithuanian counterpart, Marius Skuodis, said: "Transport between Lithuania and Russia and between Lithuania and Belarus decreased manifold, and I can see the trend to continue in the same way, for a number of reasons."

Vitenbergs added that: "The Latvian railway company (LDz) carried in the previous year around 20 million tonnes, while in the next year we think it will fall by even more, approximately 15-16 million tonnes, which is LDz's forecast"

Lithuania is seeing comparable falls, Skuodis went on.

"The [2022] fall was around 40 percent, which is really a challenge that our railways have never seen and never experienced, in the history of our restored independence, and the same is the case with our port, where the fall was more than 20 percent," Skuodis said, referring to the port city of Klaipeda.

Lithuania's situation is particularly complex given that a special EU exception means that rail transit from the Kaliningrad exclave, sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland, to the Russian "mainland", must still be permitted.

Both countries. unlike Estonia, also share a border with Belarus.

Monday's meeting was the first of its kind to involve transport ministers from all three Baltic States for over four years.

Baltic ministers: Rail Baltica remains a priority

Monday's meeting also focused on the high-speed Rail Baltica project.

The link will connect Tallinn, via Riga, to the Lithuanian-Polish border, and with it the rest of Europe, but has been mired in delays and will not be open in 2026 as per its original schedule.

Nonetheless it remains a priority, all three ministers stated.

"One of the prerequisites for strengthening economic relations is a modern transport infrastructure. This means completing Rail Baltica is our highest geopolitical and economic priority," the statement read.

Better cooperation will also enhance the prospects of obtaining further EU funding, they added.

Marius Skuodis also proposed a Vilnius-Riga-Tallinn passenger rail route start operating even ahead of Rail Baltica, which minister Sikkut said would at least be taken into consideration.

She said: "In the overall scheme of things, we have nothing against the idea, but it would require thorough preliminary work and analysis, especially in terms of demand."

Sikkut also said that a switch to a 1,435mm gauge, the standard European measurement, was not out-of-the question across all Estonian railways.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania currently use the 1,520mm gauge, similar to that used both in Finland and in Russia.

Sikkut said that, again, this could be examined, though Rail Baltica (which will use the 1,435mm gauge) should remain a priority. The fact that new locomotives for the existing network are on order with the current gauge in mind would mean far greater investment and planning – Sikkut put the overall redesign of the Estonian rail network alone on 1,435mm track at €8.7 billion.

The three ministers also talked about ways Russia's role in the International Maritime Organization (IMO) might be diminished, . which was followed by aa joint statement issued, asking the IMO member states not to vote for Russia at council member elections.

The Baltic States' transport ministers usually meet annually, though Monday's meeting was the first for four years. Estonia chairs the format this year, while next Friday it will be the turn of the energy ministers from all three states, in Estonia's case Riina Sikkut again, to meet in Tallinn.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Merili Nael

Source: Aktuaalne kaamera, Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications

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