Rail Baltica express train to slow down in Kaunas

PHOTO: Pm

Due to different national interests, Rail Baltica’s speed is about to be limited to Estonia and Latvia, with no express in Poland and people having to change trains.

From the beginning, the Rail Baltica railway express has been advertised as an Estonian-European project, a link between Tallinn and Berlin. One would take his seat in Tallinn, nod off... and look around surprised. Lo and behold: I’m in downtown, Berlin. Or Warsaw, or Riga. The rails would be brand new and allow trains to blast at 240 km/h (150 mph) max.

Considering the stops, speeding-ups and slowing-downs, the average speed would be lower, of course. Interestingly, however: peeking into an AECOM study and glancing into plans by states between Tallinn and Berlin, it can in no way be claimed with certainty that we would surely benefit from a straight-to-Berlin blessing. As evidenced by quite a few facts.

«Looking into the AECOM study, the train schedules and plans – this document being the basis for all current activity – we may say that, on our way towards Berlin, from Tallinn, trains should be changed at least twice. Once in Kaunas, the second time in Warsaw,» says Vahur Tõnissoo, leading popular initiative by Kehtna Commune folks. The said initiative being the largest activist group, having evolved into a kind of partner for officialdom and ministry.

Indrek Sirp, responsible for the Rail Baltica project at economy ministry, is of an opinion somewhat different. According to him, the Kaunas change of trains cannot clearly be seen in the AECOM study; even so, regarding Warsaw Mr Sirp admits things to be unclear – this is uncharted waters. Estonian ambassador to Vilnius, Toomas Kukk, also says there’s no certainty regarding change of trains at Kaunas – but the connection looks certain in Warsaw.

In all such issues, the AECOM study leaves things open and offers options for various interpretations. True: looking at schedules, amounts of pairs of trains, and travel times, changing trains in Kaunas would be the best solution, perhaps. Regarding the entire study (this is the supporting document for the entire Rail Baltica project), it must of course be stressed that Rail Baltica end at Lithuanian-Polish border.

In reality, the Rail Baltica project goes from Tallinn to Lithuanian-Polish border line; the entire Poland being totally blank regarding the project. If, how, which route, how fast, how much? – nothing at all known about that.

The same is true when looking towards Berlin – no information. Finally, one has to admit: whoever says anything regarding Rail Baltica travel from Tallinn to Warsaw or Berlin, cannot claim anything as certain. We simply do not know what will be happening after the Lithuania-Poland border.

To understand the core issues of travel times and connections, it’s best to consider the entire Rail Baltica journey all the way through. With Estonia and Latvia, it’s a piece of cake. Local issues aside, it is clear that Estonia and Latvia will indeed be having a brand new track with trains speeding up to 240 km/h. Things are more-or-less settled regarding the northern part of Lithuania, as well. Up to Kaunas. From thence onwards, it gets confusing.

Ambassador Toomas Kukk explains the Lithuanian background. For starters: Lithuanians are already building a Rail Baltica, having called it Rail Baltica 1. This is a railway with European width, to travel parallel to the current Russian-width railway, with planned speeds up to 120 km/h (75 mph). The section is planned to be finished in 2015. From the Estonian-Latvian point of view, this naturally isn’t the «real» Rail Baltica. At the same time, it is an irrefutable fact that the Lithuanians are already building it; and to Estonians and Latvians, this has hit home.

Now, Estonia and Latvia are attempting simply to convince the Lithuanians that, from Kaunas and onwards, they would build a new, fast and straight Rail Baltica (which, by the way, is called Rail Baltica 2, by Lithuanians). Officially, Lithuania has repeatedly underlined the priority of the construction of Rail Baltica.

Meanwhile, there may be those in Lithuania who would not like to have that fast Rail Baltica, fearing competition with current plans. The more so that, should the fast link, from Kaunas to Lithuania/Poland border, finally appear, Lithuania would end up with three railways heading onwards from Kaunas: the current Russian-width one, the new one in the process of building (European-width by up to 120 km/h) and then thirdly the real 240 km/h Rail Baltica in a more distant future. Three different railways in the South-Western corner of Lithuania.

As said, Poland is totally blank when it comes to Rail Baltica: it is not known what will be happening over there. True: a few weeks ago Poland did officially say they are planning to renovate the current Warsaw to Lithuania/Poland border section for trains speeding up to 160 km/h (100 mph). On the one hand, this is a step forward.

On the other hand, by this the Poles will be perpetuating their view that they aren’t interested in a new direct trail, prefer the old one taking a longer curve via Bialystok. At the end of the day, that will mean that should Estonians and Latvians succeed in constructing an express railway and manage to make Lithuanians comply in the Kaunas issue, Poland will have slower trains anyway.

Here, arms of Estonian officials fall short, Rail Baltica indeed being the Baltic trio project and Poland bearing no official responsibility at all. Indrek Sirp says that Poland is a big country and all the Baltics can do is build their part of the track, provide an example, hopefully stirring Poland into a step of their own, someday. Against this, Vahur Tõnissoo will not argue. «Someday all things will be completed, even a railway connection to Arctic, once the sea there becomes more navigable,» says Mr Tõnissoo.

Mainly, critique by him is aimed at how the entire project has been «sold» as a fast train connection with Warsaw and Berlin, even though this is currently far from reality.

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