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Bus companies in a pickle as eastern border increasingly closed

A Lux Express bus on Tartu maantee in Tallinn.
A Lux Express bus on Tartu maantee in Tallinn. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

The closures of the border bridge at Estonia's Narva-1 border checkpoint to vehicles as well as Finland's entire eastern border have bus transport companies in a bind, as they don't have enough work or pay to go around for their drivers as a result.

Bus drivers who had been driving on the Helsinki-St. Petersburg route ended up losing their jobs after Finland shut down its entire border with Russia late last year. Now the Tallinn-St. Petersburg route faces a similar fate, as the border bridge connecting Narva and Ivangorod was closed to vehicular traffic from Thursday.

"Quite a significant part of our income vanished," admitted Ecolines board member Elis Kovaljov. "How long it will take is now unclear, as Russia hasn't said in what timeframe they will be conducting maintenance work on the border."

Passenger bus company Ecolines previously operated four departures a day from Tallinn to St. Petersburg; now, only one departure remains. It had also operated a couple of departures a day in both directions between Helsinki and St. Petersburg as well.

Ecolines hasn't laid off any of its bus drivers for now, in hopes they can reassign the drivers to other European routes.

According to Baltic Shuttle CEO Igor Pashchuk, their bus drivers agreed to work part-time at least through summer. What will happen after that, however, still remains uncertain.

"For now we've cut back or had to let go around a dozen bus drivers," Lux Express CEO Ingmar Roos acknowledged. "We're waiting for spring, when we can transport larger volumes in the Baltics and within Estonia. We've made deals with some drivers, reducing their hours; some have gone on unpaid leave."

Lux Express had previously already halved their number of departures; now they had to halve them again in turn, from six departures a day on its Tallinn-St. Petersburg route in January to now just three.

The company had also previously operated as many as five departures a day between Helsinki and St. Petersburg. It is maintaining its Riga-St. Petersburg route for now, which passes through Tartu, but according to Roos, its future is unclear as well.

"Its economic viability is very much in question," he acknowledged. "In fact, we'd actually like to add connections during [Tartu's] year as the [European] Capital of Culture, but right now, when ridership is at an all-time low, it's highly unlikely to be commercially operated before summer."

As not all passengers want or are able to make the more than one-kilometer trek across the border bridge – as a pedestrian – between its bus in Narva and its other bus on the Ivangorod side, Ecolines intends to launch a new route that would cross the Estonian-Russian border at Luhamaa in the country's southeast.

"Every route has its own segment that uses it even to our surprise," Kovaljov said. "I'm sure there will be people who will endure the six-hour-longer trip because they can travel by bus."

Currently, six companies operate passenger buses on the Tallinn-St. Petersburg route, half of which are Estonian.

Estonian carriers will continue operating routes to Russia for as long as they remain nationally authorized to do so.

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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