The government is hoping to improve Estonia's transport links to other countries by directly subsidizing the planned Tartu-Riga train connection. But the new line could end up an expensive undertaking and pull away coach operators' already less than numerous customers.
Right now, taking the rails from Tartu to Riga requires one to switch trains in Valga. The train also makes additional stops when it reaches Latvia, which makes the ride long and rather unpopular. The residents of Tartu prefer to take their cars to Latvia instead, said Rein Riisalu, lecturer at TalTech and train transport expert. Estonia now wants to improve the situation by adding a direct Tartu-Riga line.
But Riisalu is skeptical in terms of whether enough passengers can be found to make the link feasible.
He pointed to an analysis from 2012 in which Riisalu and colleagues concluded that a Riga train would require €2.4 million in subsidies annually. Many of the problems highlighted in the analysis have not been solved. For example, many passengers are looking to reach Riga Airport, while a single daily train means having to wait for a long time for the plane to depart.
"As we know, airline schedules roughly cover an 18-hour window. Taking the train to Riga to then have to wait six hours at the airport sounds less than attractive," the expert remarked.
Another problem is how many stops the train should make in Latvia. While an express train would save time, it would mean fewer passengers who would like to only go part of the way. There are also technical concerns, such as platform compatibility, language skills of engineers and attendants etc.
Estonia will be allocating €300,000 to try and solve these bottlenecks and test the rail link next year. Ministry of Climate Undersecretary Sander Salmu said that the new connection will serve two main purposes.
The first is to get people to switch their cars for public transport and the second to improve Southern Estonia's links to Riga.
Salmu said that the cost of operating the line will become clear once it is launched next summer or fall at the latest, adding that it is clear based on the experience of other countries that a subsidy will be required.
"We are committed to launching the connection and not just for testing purposes but regularly. Looking ahead, we will need to link Southern Estonia to Rail Baltica once it is finished in 2030, in addition to linking Tartu and Riga, which is when people will be able to choose whether to catch the Rail Baltica train from Tallinn or Riga. But we will need to close that triangle in the future in any case."
Salmu pointed out that it's been more than a decade since Riisalu's analysis and passenger numbers have been growing on all other rail lines. Demand follows functional connections, he suggested.
"Looking if only at [passenger rail carrier] Elron figures, before it took delivery of its new trains, around one million people took the train each year. We have eight million annual passengers today, meaning that we have attracted almost a million additional passengers every year over the past decade."
The Vilnius-Warsaw train is another such example.
"It is slower than driving and requires switching trains on the border, while Lithuania's recent experience is that the train is completely sold out."
Coach operator anxious
But the people of Tartu might not be served should the experiment turn out less than successful. Coach operator Lux Express' parent company Mootor Grupp is worried that the train might pull customers away from buses.
"The planned morning departure would definitely overlap with Lux Express departures from Tartu. There is competition. We see the market not as modest, but very modest. There is little public transport demand during those hours. It would be difficult to imagine two operators surviving on the same line," said Mart Raamat, head of business development for Mootor Grupp.
He said that the company's forecasts do not suggest growing demand. "We have three Tartu-Riga departures because it is on the way from Riga to Saint Petersburg. We get at best 15-20 percent of our passengers from Tartu," Raamat said.
The coach operator also pointed out in a letter sent to the ministry that state transport subsidies require an EU state aid permit and an analysis of whether demand exists.
Raamat also said that a bus is more flexible in taking people directly from the heart of Tartu to Riga Airport, which is why the train line might even worsen Tartu residents' transport options should Lux Express be forced to ax some of its departures as a result. But Sander Salmu said that the ministry is not out to compete with coaches but is rather going after personal car use.
"If we manage to pull people out of cars and get them to use public transport, both modes of transport [buses and trains] will benefit. I believe we share a goal here."
Rein Riisalu suggested that a Tartu-Riga link might work with more than a single daily departure. He said that a single daily train cannot be used to offer a useful schedule. Sander Salmu agreed that it would be more sensible to test having three or four trains right out the gate.
"We don't have enough trains today, while Estonia will take delivery of 16 new trains in 2025 and 2026. This will allow us to consider a busier schedule after we launch the daily train next year."
Riisalu added that while expenses on fuel, salaries and maintenance will grow with the addition of the new train link, infrastructure costs will be less affected.
"Infrastructure costs are divided between all trains, both passenger and cargo. In other words, if we estimate that the Tartu-Riga line will add €100,000 in infrastructure expenses, the cost will not grow by as much as it will make operating the remaining 200 lines that much cheaper."
But the expert added that the question of whether this will fall to Estonia or Latvia remains. He also said that getting people to use public transport requires commute times to become shorter instead of longer, which is why the Tartu-Riga train should also go 160 kilometers per hour if that can be facilitated on the Latvian side.
Therefore, introducing a permanent rail link between Tartu and Riga is an expensive undertaking that will take years and requires agreements with both the European Commission and Latvia. Its success is less than guaranteed, while it would be a step closer to a European rail network in the Baltics where catching a train to a neighboring country is commonplace.
Editor: Mirjam Mäekivi, Marcus Turovski