Tartu trains could go 160 km/h in the near future

Škoda's initial design of the trains set to be used in Estonia in 2024.
Škoda's initial design of the trains set to be used in Estonia in 2024. Source: Elron

Trains should be able to traverse most of the railway section between Aegviidu and Tartu at 160 kilometers per hour starting from the end of next year, with more high speed sections added in 2025.

The electrification of Estonian railways will pick up in Aegviidu and head through Tapa to Tartu. Contractor GRK promises to get the work done by late 2024. Passenger trains operator Elron has ordered new electric trains from Skoda.

However, Indrek Laineveer, head of the railroads service of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, said that while there is hope, it cannot be said for certain whether the Tartu train can get up to 160 kilometers per hour New Year's after next.

"We hope that [transmission system operator] Elering and [distribution system operator] Elektrilevi will be able to facilitate those speeds," Laineveer said, adding that the contracts were signed recently. "That is one bottleneck we'll need to keep an eye on, whether everything will be done on time."

The contracts with Elering and Elektrilevi make no mention of 2025, with deadlines therein a few more years down the line. Developing the Elering side of the infrastructure requires more time. CEO of Estonian Railways Kaido Zimmermann said that Elektrilevi has promised to ensure power necessary for running electric trains by late 2024. "They have made such a verbal promise," Zimmermann said.

At first, the new trains will be able to open the taps starting in Aegviidu. The contact network between Tallinn and Aegviidu is outdated and only allows for speeds of up to 120 kilometers per hour. A tender is about to be declared for developing the Lagedi-Aegviidu stretch. Laineveer said the work should be completed in 2025.

From there toward Tallinn things will be a little more complicated. There's the Rail Baltica project a part of which is constructing a new trains depot for Elron. Those things require a complex solution. Therefore, the stretch between Lagedi and Tallinn could take longer," the ministry representative suggested.

Land acquisition to start soon

The contact network is not enough for faster trains. Old tracks or steep turns can also slow trains down. Work on straightening out railways has been going on for years and is most visible in Vorbuse near Tartu where a new bridge was constructed next to the existing Jänese railway bridge in the course of straightening work.

It proved impossible to straighten out the curve completely, meaning trains will have to cross the Emajõgi going at 150 kilometers per hour. There is a fair bit of straightening work to do elsewhere.

"As concerns the Tapa-Aegviidu section, work started last year and will be completed later this year. The next tenders will be handled in two parts and launched this year," Kaido Zimmermann said.

Reconstruction will be most extensive between Kaarepere and Tabivere where the developer needs to negotiate with several dozen landowners.

"We have not acquired a single plot yet. But we have a contract with the Land Board that is in charge of these processes," Zimmermann said, adding that everyone involved has been notified. "We hope to handle the first land acquisitions soon. The final plots will need to be acquired by next summer in order to finish the project."

Speeds will not rise to 160 kilometers per hour everywhere. Straightening work will not be carried out in Natura areas. "The speed will not go up to 160 km/h between Rakke and Vägeva," Zimmermann said. "We still have old Soviet crossties there that cannot facilitate such speeds. And we cannot replace them right now as we lack the necessary resources."

From relays to computers

In addition to tracks, faster speeds also require replacing the railroad's traffic control system. If right now, turns and signals are managed primarily using relays installed decades ago, this will be done digitally with the help of computers in the future. The quarter-century contract with new developer Siemens was signed in 2020.

"We want to get the Aegviidu-Tapa section done by the end of this year and Tapa-Tartu next year," Zimmermann said.

Faster speeds also mean more stringent safety requirements. Risk analyses need to determine what needs to happen with pedestrian and vehicle crossings and where to widen waiting platforms.

"We hope all risk analyses will be ready this year so we can execute their findings in 2024," the Estonian Railways CEO said.

Zimmermann added that vehicle crossings should be completed this year, while pedestrian crossings require more specific guidelines to reconstruct. We will likely need traffic lights or even bars in some places. "And some crossings, I believe, will have to be multilevel," he added.

Narva deadline 2026

Looking at plans and work to be done in the near future, Zimmermann believes it will be possible for trains to reach speeds of up to 160 km/h for most of the way between Aegviidu and Tartu by late 2024.

Estonian Railways' next major project will be to modernize the railway between Tapa and Narva. Speeds of up to 160 km/h should be attainable by 2026. Work that needs to be done is somewhat less than on the Tartu heading.

"There are fewer sections that need to be straightened. One longer sections is between Püssi and Kohtla, while the others are much more modest," Zimmermann said. However, electrification will have to take place on a similar stretch, and there are about the same number of stops. So we will need to rebuild as many platforms and crossings."


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Editor: Urmet Kook, Marcus Turovski

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