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Estonia prefers not to postpone Rail Baltica completion to have it pass through Riga

An artist's rendering of how the Rail Baltica Ülemiste Terminal might look like when completed.
An artist's rendering of how the Rail Baltica Ülemiste Terminal might look like when completed. Source: Rail Baltic Estonia

According to Andres Lindemann, responsible for the Rail Baltica project at the Ministry of Climate, Estonia's position is that if the execution of Rail Baltica through Riga endangers the completion of the main line by 2030, the construction of the Riga connection should be postponed, and the focus should be on the Tallinn-Warsaw main line. Lindemann states that initially, one set of tracks is just as good as two.

Recently, there have been stories in the press of all Baltic countries about difficult choices, or rather cuts, that need to be made in the construction of Rail Baltica. Why has this issue come up now?

One of the most important reasons is that long-delayed construction projects are beginning to be completed, and we are also preparing new budgets that show the cost and impacts of the railway and its associated infrastructure.

Am I correct to say that this crucial moment of choice, of what and how we do, is approaching soon? Will there be an important meeting between the Baltic countries on this topic in a few days?

Indeed, there are important meetings coming up in the next few days. The prime ministers of the Baltic countries will meet, and it is likely that Rail Baltica will be discussed there.

It is known that all important documents related to the railway construction state that Rail Baltica is a railway with two parallel tracks. On Friday, we heard from "Aktuaalne kaamera" news that there is now a discussion about initially making one track. It was said that two tracks are not needed until at least the year 2040. Does this mean that such heavy traffic is no longer predicted, which previously necessitated two tracks?

When designing the project and making plans, we have to look far ahead and make the railway such that it meets our needs even 30 or 50 years from now. However, we see that the traffic forecasts for the first decade do not necessarily require us to be ready with two tracks.

A sufficient number of passing places, which could be local stops, ensure that the traffic for the first decade can function well within the forecasted volume. And then, as the need grows, we can start building the second track in sections.

I couldn't find in the 2017 Rail Baltica feasibility study the question of whether it is more sensible to make one or two tracks. At that time, it was calculated that Rail Baltica would be completed by 2026. Did the feasibility studies then already take into account that there would be enough railway traffic for only one track until 2040?

We have taken the traffic loads from the same initial data and modeled them based on different scenarios and looked at whether such a phased implementation of the project is possible. And today we can say that it is possible.

So was it considered from the beginning that until 2040, in fact, two tracks would not be necessary?

Generally, the growth in demand is gradual or comes with a small delay when there are changes in the economy. We just have to be a little ahead of the demand to ensure that all goods and passengers are well served.

What will drive this demand growth in the future? RB Estonia's head Anvar Salomets explained that the next phase could come in 2040, and the following one in 2050. What are we basing our expectations on for increased railway use then?

Such large and long cargo corridors are developed over a very long period. As time goes on, their reliability and precision improve, and more and more goods will start to use this segment than previously forecast because we have seen that trade is increasing. We see that all new groups of goods could move to Rail Baltica and start using it.

And when we look at passenger transport, the more the railway can serve, the better it can be integrated with other modes of transport. And the better the integration, the more passengers we have. Maybe everything can't be built all at once, but both businesses and people have to get used to it.

Allow me to clarify. When the railway opens in 2030, will one track be just as good as two tracks? Meaning, can schedules be made just as frequently, and can both international and local trains travel just as fast as previously planned?

Definitely in the first few years. A sufficient number of passing places will allow us to meet the forecasts and schedules of the first years, and the travel times for trains should remain the same as we have estimated today. That is, it will take about 45 minutes to Pärnu and less than two hours in the direction of Riga. And the railway is no less safe in any way.

Anvar Salomets said that savings are also being sought from local stops. How can savings be made there?

One option is to build station buildings in the first phase in the smallest possible size and then expand them as the number of passengers grows. That's why our local stop buildings use typical designs, which consist of modules in a way.

Where else can savings be made?

It is important to point out that in addition to not laying two pairs of rails and sleepers on the embankment built for two tracks, there is also, for example, a smaller volume of electrical work. Communication solutions also do not need to be built on such a large scale. Actually, these smaller costs add up to quite a significant amount.

Approximately, how much money can be saved with the one-track solution?

Today I would not like to speculate. We hope that by early next year we will be wiser. Currently, one total cost figure proposed is just under €3 billion. What the final choices and sums are, we might talk about next year.

If we don't know the absolute amounts, then percentage-wise, how much could we save if we made one track instead of two?

Certainly, it does not give us a 50 percent gain if we build one track, but it falls between zero and fifty percent.

Does that mean then zero to €1.5 billion?

That might be the honest conclusion today.

Latvia's public broadcaster wrote in November that Latvia is considering postponing the construction of the Riga passage. As is known, a large passenger terminal is being built in the center of Riga. Why are the Latvians thinking that the train might not reach there initially?

We currently have different scenarios under consideration, and we have to look at what are the most important elements of this large three-country strategic rail connection that would ensure the operation of the railway.

It cannot be said that the Riga city center rail connection has been decided today to be built or not built. It is just one of the choices that are on the table today.

Did this question come up because of the construction cost, or is it more about the time it takes to build? After all, the ministers of all three Baltic countries have set a goal of getting Rail Baltica to go from Tallinn to Warsaw by the end of 2030. And the main railway route bypasses Riga. Why is there a discussion about the possibility that the train will not initially go into Riga?

You mentioned both aspects yourself. Indeed, building in urban space is very resource-intensive and also takes a lot of time. Considering the possibility of creating an international connection, it might be necessary to consider that for the first few years, one might have to transfer somewhere on the outskirts of the city to get to the center of Riga.

The main route of Rail Baltica bypasses the center of Riga by about 20 kilometers. For example, it crosses the Daugava River near Salaspils. If now you have to get off the train in Salaspils, how will passengers reach Riga within the promised time. So far, one of the main selling points of the railway has been that you can get from Tallinn to Riga in one hour and 42 minutes. Does the journey from Salaspils to the center of Riga have to fit within this time?

Certainly, in the first few years, it will be difficult to fit that into one hour and 42 minutes.

However, in the following years, it could be entirely feasible if the railway is built to the city center.

I understand, these decisions are made in negotiations. Countries are deciding where they stand. If we have to choose whether the first passenger can travel comfortably from Tallinn to Warsaw in 2030 or whether the train goes through the center of Riga but the railway will be completed a little later, will Estonia choose that the main railway route is ready by 2030?

Yes, our position is that this strategic connection is important to us by 2030. The European Commission, which co-finances this project, has a similar position.

We consider it very important that capitals are connected and that passengers have the most convenient and quick connection possible. But looking at the project in the big picture, we might have to divide these things into stages and build them in parts.

So our position in the negotiations is, dear Latvians, please focus on the main route. If you can't manage the Riga connection by 2030, do it later?

We can't exactly dictate that to the Latvians. Each country has to make its own choices. But still, we must keep in mind the big picture of the project and certainly pay attention to it.

The feasibility study has taken into account how much time passengers save by traveling from Tallinn to Riga in one hour and 42 minutes. The saved minutes are calculated into tens and hundreds of millions of euros for socio-economic benefit. If the time to reach Riga is extended, does the feasibility study need to be rewritten and the project's viability re-evaluated?

Certainly, the impacts of the inconveniences of the first years need to be considered. They need to be anticipated in some form and their impact on the realization of the project needs to be looked at.

Had the public broadcaster not demanded to see documents taken to the government last Thursday and started asking what was discussed, would these Rail Baltica-related choices have been opened? Or would the number of tracks and the question of whether to pass through Riga have been made public only after decisions had been made? In other words, when was the Ministry of Climate planning to hold the public debate phase?

Such public debate for weighing different solutions is important for us, and we will be holding it in stages as the project moves forward.

We are still in talks with Latvia and Lithuania to determine these aspects. And once we have real alternatives to choose from, we believe the debate to be entirely in order.

When might we have those real alternatives to choose from, and when might the relevant discussions be launched?

The first or second month of 2024 most likely.

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Editor: Mirjam Mäekivi, Marcus Turovski

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