The long and winding Lithuanian Rail Baltic

Nils Niitra
, reporter
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While Estonians and Latvians are toiling towards an up to 240 km/h railway, Lithuanians have derailed the effort from the start – between Kaunas and the border of Poland, the trains must roll twice as slow. 

The act hath already been committed – last fall, the neighbours opened a 123 kilometre section fitting to European width from Kaunas to Poland’s border and proudly so. We up and finished the final part of Rail Baltica (In Lithuania, they end it with an «a») while you guys are still just planning! At the section mentioned, trains with the narrower European and the wider Russian running track width can both go.

But the whole project comes with a big «but»: along that section, maximal speed is 120 kilometres an hour and not a bit higher! In the videos showing the railway, countless village roads are crossing the rails – no viaducts, no protective bars. That’s the Tallinn-Tartu speed.

A glance at the section on a map reveals that just before the border the railway does a merry twenty-some kilometre curve to go thru Šeštokai, a town of less than thousand. While Estonian politicians were all about the Rail Baltic speed from the very beginning and therefore gave up going via Tartu, the Lithuanians are into all-out regional policy for which the EU funds came from the Rail Baltic budget line.

On ministers’ level, indeed the talk is still about a speedy Kaunas-Poland section while among the participants many have long ceased to believe it will ever be that way.

Polish problem

In its own way, Poland is also problematic. More specifically, the part from Lithuanian-Poland border to Białystok town 200 kilometres along the path. At the moment, it is in a condition so bad that at times the speeds ate to the tune of 30 km/h. Thus far, the government in Warsaw has not promised to upgrade the section from the capital to border for 240 km/h max. But they have promised 160 km/h. But by now even that has become questionable.

Last October, the Latvian public broadcasting wrote about Polish government having approved a €16bn plan to modernise railways by 2023 with not a penny earmarked to redo the Białystok to Lithuanian border part. The entire project is features in the reserve list. As told Latvian media by polish infrastructure and development ministry representative, modernising the couple of hundred kilometres of railway could be an option if money is left over from main list projects, or if EU gives extra euros.

Thus, the worst-case scenario may mean that one we cross the Lithuania-Poland border it gets worse yet, and the 120 km/h moments after Kaunas become precious memories. No Estonian with his/her wits intact will travel a train like that, there being not the faintest hope of making it to Warsaw in less than seven hours.

State enterprise Rail Baltic Estonia head Indrek Orav admits that problems exist with Lithuania. Just like Estonians and Latvians, the Lithuanians were planning a proper 240 km/h new railway from Latvian border to Kaunas but something happened after that to directly contradict the initial spirit of the project. True, even Estonia and Latvia will surely have their slower sections as the train rolls thru towns or passes curvy parts of the journey – Indeed, in Riga the track goes through the city centre. Even so, 90 percent of the way the speeds are 230–240 km/h. The stops counted, average speed will be 170 km/h.

Pyrrhic victory

Between Kaunas and Polish border, however, the Lithuanians took a Pyrrhic victory – all they did was broaden the Soviet time corridor and added the European track width. «On the negative side, it must be admitted that this isn’t the railway regarding which Baltic prime ministers have repeatedly agreed since 2011 and confirmed by declarations,»  said Mr Orav. «Also, a railway of speed up to 240 km/h is written into the applications for money presented to European Commission.»

Mr Orav says the Lithuanians have secured EU support for a project not conformable to Rail Baltic goal. «The financing decision was taken at the European Commission several years ago – I don’t know the detailed history – but I understand it was Lithuanian lobby on the one hand and on the other hand a desire at the commission to not let a financial year’s means go waste and to use up the funds anyway.»

Why did Lithuanian do that? Because this seemed easier. Now, Lithuania’s second largest city is connected to European railways and will in the future benefit from cargo carriage, mostly. Also, a large logistics centre is being built in Kaunas which looks promising for reloading goods from Poland to be taken Eastward, and vice versa. «Call it occupational accident, but this is just the way it is – Lithuanian economy will definitely benefit as that speed is sufficient to move goods.»

Now, many a MEP is asking what’s going on – €400m of EU money has already been buried under the Kaunas-to-border section but in words they are about to be planning some other straighter and speedier section to parallel what is already there. Truth be told, the Lithuanians never planned a new one.

But why is it a Pyrrhic win? Because no train is going along the new railway at the moment. «The railway is there but two vital things are missing: it is not totally covered with electric lines, and they do not have a European standard traffic control system,» explained Mr Orav. «Until these are in place, the corresponding Lithuanian agency will not be able to grant operating rights. The traffic control system alone costs close to €70m. For that, Lithuania is again applying for funds from European Commission while having also explicitly said that to such financing to be considered, they should present a clear plan on how to straighten out the existing section within the upcoming ten years or build a new section allowing 240 km/h.» Thus far, the commission has been rigid because as soon Lithuania gets what it wants, no speedy Rail Baltic will ever appear between Kaunas and Poland.

Independent study

According to Mr Orav there will again be a study ordered by the Baltic joint company RB Rail on how to still achieve the hoped-for speed. «It’s a positive that the study will be by the joint company and not by Lithuanians themselves,» he added. It is only after that that the European Commission will decide which traffic control system to finance.

Mr Orav does not believe that the section the Lithuanians have completed could amount to 240 km/h without being totally reconstructed. «Maybe, Lithuanian could lift it to 160 km/h, but from what we know today we cannot say that what they cane completed corresponds to the interests of Rail Baltic as a whole,» admitted Mr Orav. In case Lithuania up and updates the Kaunas-Poland section to speeds twice as high, it will get so expensive as to raise the issue of why. So they are trying to freeze the situation, which ain’t easy.  

Till now, a trump card up Lithuanian sleeve has been problems in Poland – why build a speed railway while in Poland it is at times down to 30 km/h? «Initially, they placed the up-to-border section as among the last of ca 145 investment objects, but we hear they have tweaked the plan afterwards,» said Mr Orav. «Still, they have undertaken to still complete the section by 2025 i.e. the final Rail Baltic deadline.»

As told Postimees by Lithuanian transport and communication ministry international relations and development department deputy head Nerijus Kaučikas, Lithuanian is intending to engage the completed railway section from Kaunas to Poland but to readjust it to speeds up to 240 km/h. At that, it is planned to straighten it so it does not pass the little town of Šeštokai. «Our analysis shows this is possible and also cheaper than to build a totally new railway,» he said. «The partners have agreed that at that section speed needs to be lifted to 204 km/h max. We have also completed a study to analyse the cost of reaching that goal and it reached a solution how to achieve the result faster and cheaper on the railway already built.» Mr Kaučikas added that Estonian and Latvian partners still desired the assurance that such is the best solution. «As a result of such doubt and insecurity, an agreement was born to do a new study – this is a strange situation hinting at lack of trust.»