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Opinion digest: Rail Baltic debate finally gets more realistic

Rail Baltic is expected to cut the ground travel time between Tallinn and Riga in half.
Rail Baltic is expected to cut the ground travel time between Tallinn and Riga in half. Source: (Ernst & Young)

ETV’s weekly debate show, Suud Puhtaks (“Have it out”), discussed the pros and cons of the Rail Baltic project in its most recent issue. The topic has stirred up tempers in Estonian society and led to only a sort of debate where until quite recently, facts took second priority to people’s own ideas.

The discussion followed the publication earlier this week of a feasibility study by auditors Ernst & Young. As Estonia’s coordinator of the project, Kristjan Kaunissaare, explained, the study came to more or less the same results as earlier analyses, namely that building the railway line made sense.

“It will help solve our transport problems, take people from one place to another faster, help move freight away from the road, and with this will have a positive effect on the environment, as it reduces pollution,” Kaunissaare said.

Logistics businessman Karli Lambot disagreed. All the study did was confirm the opinions of those who supported the project, he said. “In any case, attention has to be paid to the fact that Ernst & Young themselves say in the introduction that the study does not answer the question whether or not this investment is the most optimal for the Baltic states, and also whether this transport solution is the best for the Baltic states. It answers the question whether or not the project under the given conditions, the criteria of the European Union, is feasible and makes sense,” Lambot said.

Lambot and his business stand to lose if a modern railway connection is built, taking freight south faster and more environmentally friendly than this is possible at the moment. Chances are that some of the freight transported on some 1,500 trucks passing the border crossing point at Ikla towards Latvia every day would likely end up on railway freight cars instead.

Ahti Kuningas, deputy secretary general at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, explained that the EU’s political decision was to connect the border countries more closely with the union’s core, and that for this funding had been allocated. “The European Commission itself opined that Estonia should be connected via railway,” Kuningas pointed out.

Former chairman of the Estonian Greens, Aleksander Laane, pointed out that Estonia already had a railway network leading to the southern border, and that there was no sign that it was “clogged up with passengers or freight”. Also, it wasn’t making much of a profit. Laane asked what exactly the government was trying to achieve with the construction of Rail Baltic.

In response to that, Kuningas pointed out that there were nine million passengers moving between Tallinn and Helsinki every year because of the good ferry connections. “Connections create passenger flows. Let’s not confuse business and politics. That we don’t have goods coming in from the East is pure politics—a drop from 35 million to 7 million tons. I find that the decision on the North-South route aren’t political, they are business-driven, and also this study was carried out based on business decisions,” Kuningas argued.

Laane might want to consider as well that the speed at which goods move matters, and that the number of passengers on any given line usually increases with comfort and practicality. Using the existing railway connection, anyone travelling from Tallinn to Valga on the Latvian border will spend just under three and a half hours on the train. In this time, once Rail Baltic is built, passengers will be able to travel from Tallinn all the way to Kaunas in Lithuania.

Andres Reimer, business journalist at daily Postimees, said that Rail Baltic would eventually be a chance for transport companies, as it opened a new North-South route for goods. “The problem is that those people whose current business schemes are based on road transport are hoping that with protests and political maneuvering they might manage to influence EU politics, the objective of which is to reduce road transports by 30 percent over the next 15 years, and by 50 percent by 2045,” Reimer pointed out.

Lambot answered that good railway connections would expand the opportunities of Estonian transport companies, and that they were useful. The problem, he said, much rather was that in the case of Rail Baltic, the expected volumes were twice higher than was realistic.

Analyst Kristjan Lepik added that in terms of technology, people often tended to underestimate the change a new element in the infrastructure could bring. Once a change had taken place, the new situation was taken for granted, and people didn’t look back to compare the new situation with the previous one. “If for example in 1995 a business like Tallink had talked about getting five or six new ships, this would have sounded like a stupid and unrealistic plan, too expensive and not reasonable. But they did it,” Lepik said.

Looking at how easy it was to move around and how much closer similar projects brought both people and places, people here underestimated future volumes in terms of freight as well as passengers. There wouldn’t be nine million passengers a year between Tallinn and Helsinki if the connection depended on a handful of small and decrepit old boats. “There likely wouldn’t even be five million, because the infrastructure wouldn’t be good, people wouldn’t move.” Rail Baltic would bring Estonia a completely new quality of life, once it was realised, Lepik said.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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