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Tartu-Riga rail link possible by next fall, says Elron

Passengers boarding an Estonian Elron train. Photo is illustrative.
Passengers boarding an Estonian Elron train. Photo is illustrative. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Passenger rail service between Tartu and Riga could begin in the second half of next year, promise executives at Estonian passenger rail operator Elron. Meanwhile, Latvia's offer, which could get the Estonian-Latvian rail link up and running faster and for less, still remains on the table.

Located on the Estonian side of the border, Valga Railway Station is currently served by both orange and white Elron trains from Tallinn – via Tartu – and Latvian passenger rail operator Vivi trains. Only no convenient connections between the two countries' trains currently exist.

Now as the newly reestablished Riga-Vilnius connection gains popularity, people in Lithuania and Latvia alike are increasingly asking why they can't take the train all the way to Tallinn.

Latvia has long since offered to operate its own trains between Riga and Tartu for €250,000 a year, but Estonian decisionmakers have indicated that there's no money for this rail link and no need for it either.

"We haven't received any response," said Latvian Railways (Vivi) CEO Rodžers Janis Grigulis. "We did a thorough job before submitting [our] offer. We've made all the arrangements on our end; our trains are even equipped with the necessary radio transmitters for international connections."

But decisions regarding further actions have been postponed, he noted.

"If they're prepared to book Riga-Tartu passenger transport through us and that becomes clear today, we could have trains on the route at the start of spring already," Grigulis emphasized. "But we need a clear position from Estonia that it is indeed their wish to launch a rail link."

A couple months back it was revealed that Elron is likewise interested in a Tartu-Riga rail link, and that Estonia's Ministry of Climate has earmarked €300,000 from next year's state budget for the cause. This came as a rather unexpected turn of events for the Latvian side, and it's currently yet unclear whether and to what extent the two neighboring countries' respective passenger rail operators will be cooperating on the route.

"We've planned for being able to start [operating trains on the route] in August, but realistic would be launching rail service between Tartu and Riga in October," Elron CTO Märt Ehrenpreis said.

"I believe our cooperation talks with the Latvians will continue," he continued. "The plan at first is to use an Estonian train to launch the route, which would mean a slight change to the current concept."

The passenger trains currently in use in Estonia are more comfortable than Latvia's. Whether they're faster as well will depend on railway infrastructure, and constraints to this end exist between Valga and the Latvian capital.

"Our trains could travel much faster," Grigulis admitted. "The question, however, is at what speed you can pass through specific sections. If you want to significantly increase that speed, the railway infrastructure will have to be updated too."

Platform heights in the two respective countries would need to be brought into line with one another as well.

"There are still low platforms in some places in Latvia; they're not at the same height as platforms in Estonia," Estonian Railways (EVR) CEO Kaido Zimmermann noted. "That's one concern."

Both Latvia and Lithuania are clearly angling to operate their own trains on international routes as much within their own territory as possible. In Elron's case, however, it's evident that the longer leg of the Tartu-Riga route would be on the Latvian side, as Riga is twice as far from Valga as Tartu is.

This is a substantial aspect in terms of revenue, however.

Lithuania's LTG Link, which operates the newly relaunched Vilnius-Riga route, currently doesn't facilitate domestic passenger travel between Latvian stations.

It is yet unclear what stations Elron would potentially serve on its own route between Tartu and Riga.

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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