We could have a Tartu-Riga train tomorrow

Läti raudtee tehniline direktor Kaido Zimmermann.

PHOTO: Tairo Lutter

Former chief engineer of Latvian Railways, Rail Baltic consultant Kaido Zimmermann explains why we need a fast European railway through Pärnu, while bringing in Tartu would make everything more difficult.

101 dignitaries, the greens, and the Conservative People's Party have called into question building Rail Baltic on Estonia's western side instead of using the existing railroad in the east. Could the project be taken through Tartu?

The European Union wants the railroad it finances to be able to cross borders without problems. Therefore they will only subsidize a European track gauge railroad. Constructing such a railroad from Tallinn, through Tapa and Tartu, to Valga would be hugely complicated and expensive.

The new railroad would pass through several settlements and towns that already have a lot of buildings close to the railroad. A major demolition campaign would be in order. There are no areas in Tartu or Tapa the new railroad could pass through. We could get past some places only by tearing up the existing Russian gauge infrastructure. The existing network would take a very serious hit. Constructing the railroad to pass by Tartu would not meet people's expectations.

Problems with marrying the two track gauges manifested in Lithuania where a European gauge railway was constructed next to a Russian gauge one from Kaunas to the Polish border. They could not make trains go faster than 120 km/h. Right now they're trying to reconstruct existing infrastructure. The signaling systems of the two railways run crosswise, whereas building different gauge railways on two levels would be even more expensive.

Even continuing with the Russian gauge, they would have had to pursue major reconstruction. At speeds of 160 km/h and more you need to solve crossings on two levels, which would require much more room for railway junctions in cities. It would be impossible to construct such crossroads in several places, while it would still be necessary to close crossings.

At the same time, borders cannot be freely crossed with the Russian track gauge. It would be necessary to move either the trains or the passengers from one line to the other.

Does this mean it would be utterly impossible to involve European financing to develop Russian gauge railroad?

It is impossible to get money for Russian gauge infrastructure from the fund used to finance Rail Baltic as it is there only for cross-border projects sporting the European track gauge. The Lithuanians attempted to get support for their infrastructure from there– they failed. It is, however, possible to involve financing for the Russian specification railroad from the cohesion fund.

Why is there no rail connection between Riga and Tallinn?

The Latvians hadn't renovated their railways. They were given financing from the EU for Rail Baltic 1, and the state made major sums available to fix the railway between Valka and Riga. The bulk of the work was finished in 2015, while smaller things were still under construction this year. Now trains can travel at 120 km/h. Estonia finished work on the Valga railway back in 2011.

A train connection is currently stuck behind differences in the subsidy systems. Rules do not allow subsidies for international trains. Latvia has a much higher infrastructure usage fee than Estonia. No carrier can open that line without an agreement on the level of governments.

Does this mean that despite the railroad using the same track gauge, you first have to travel from Riga to Valka and then walk to the Estonian side of the border town and board a new train bound for Tartu right now?

That is exactly how it is today. However, infrastructure usage methodology will change in late 2017, early 2018. The state must prove that the market situation does not allow for anything else after which it will be possible to subsidize direct expenses, which make up about a third of the total cost. Passenger trains will become more expensive in Estonia and cheaper in Latvia, and conditions will even out.

Tallinn subsidizes free public transport. Tartu and Riga want their people to be able to travel – they could solve the problem together by paying the carrier. Citizens of Riga often visit Tartu's shopping centers and museums.

I read that Elron is buying three new trains to service the Tartu line. It could buy another three and open a line between Tartu and Riga. At speeds of 120 km/h, you would travel from Tartu to Riga in two hours that would effectively solve the problem people of Tartu have with Rail Baltic passing through Pärnu instead.

How could people exit our trains in Riga, seeing as the platforms are of different height?

Our trains should only stop in Cesis, Sigulda, and Valmiera that all have European platforms. The Riga station will be reconstructed because of Rail Baltic. It is possible to create a temporary solution for our trains in Riga without it proving too costly.

The letter of the 101 voiced concern that important science and cultural center Tartu would be completely cut off from important transport connections. Who should do what so we could get a rail connection between Tartu and Riga now?

The passenger carrier of Latvian Railways does not have suitable trains – its trains are the most outdated in the Baltic countries. Provided private business does not want the job, it should be something for Elron. The ministries of the two countries have to agree how to subsidize the connection if necessary. Estonia could subsidize the line as far as Valga, and Latvia could take over from there.

Oleg Ossinovski, who owns a major coach factory in Latvia, has said that he made Latvians the best and most modern passenger trains one can get.

These are far from all that. They fitted existing frames with new engines and interior; however, they are in essence still the same old Riga diesel trains that cost the same as new Stadlers.

Could Latvia even be interested in a Riga-Tartu rail line?

The Latvian state is always short on money. They owed Latvian Railways around ten million in infrastructure subsidies by the end of every year. The people of Latvia are very keen on visiting Tartu.

That said, it is clear these new trains could not operate like current Latvian trains that idle in every stop. It must be possible to get to Riga in two hours, with stops in Tartu, Elva, Valga, Valmiera, Cesis, Sigulda, and Riga. No more. The people of these cities are interested in a fast connection. Trains in Latvia are so slow that it would take more than three hours to reach Tartu at present, which is far too long.

Keeping stops to a minimum, it would be possible to travel from Tallinn to Riga in 4.5 hours, which is the same time it takes by bus. To be able to compete and win, trains would need comfortable seats. No one can live through 4.5 hours on Elron's hard benches. When the time comes to buy new trains, cars sporting softer seats will also have to be procured for the Tallinn-Tartu line, with it being absolutely vital on the Riga line.

Estonia's largest container terminal recently attempted transit on the north-south heading, using Russian gauge infrastructure in the spirit of Rail Baltic, and failed. What went wrong?

I worked for Estonian Railways in 2012 when we made thorough calculations, got a feel for the market, visited major Finnish goods carriers. The Finns were very interested as they feared an impending fuel price hike and the Baltic Sea sulfur directive. We managed to offer them a price they could accept. However, we couldn't handle their schedule.

I personally proposed the creation of a joint venture to heads of Latvian and Lithuanian railway companies. To achieve the necessary speed, the entire route would have to be traversed with the same locomotive without any additional operations at border crossings. While the Latvians agreed, Lithuania said it does not want another operator on its railroad. Had we managed to strike an agreement and done our best, it would still have taken us 24 hours to get from Tallinn to the border of Lithuania and Poland. This is no good as trucks can manage it in half the time.

Rail Baltic will be 85 km shorter passing through Pärnu than it would Tartu. We can get from Tallinn to Valka in 6-8 hours on the busy Tallinn-Tartu line. It will take even longer from there as all trains have to pass through Riga's central station where passenger traffic is so heavy that you can only get a move on again at night. Switching trains from one gauge to the other in Kaunas proved very inefficient. That is to say we would not be competitive using existing infrastructure, and no one would haul goods on it even at favorable prices.

Why is it necessary to switch trains and engineers on the border?

Estonia uses heavy-load US locomotives Latvia does not allow. A Latvian locomotive will have to meet us on the border. A lot of Latvian locomotives are too weak to haul major freight trains. Brake tests and documentation mean that switching locomotives takes a few hours.

Every Baltic railroad uses a different frequency communication system. This means that every locomotive would have to support three different communication systems. There are no such locomotives in the Baltic countries.

Does this mean that taking Rail Baltic through Pärnu, it would be possible to avoid all of the old railroad's problems?

Rail Baltic uses double-track railways that makes it possible to allow faster trains to overtake. The Pärnu route would be around one hundred kilometers shorter than the existing one in Estonia. In Latvia, passenger trains will pass through Riga, while freight trains will be redirected through Salaspils. In Lithuania, freight trains would no longer enter Kaunas. There will be no need to move cars on the Polish border. This will provide the railroad with a clear time and competition advantage over the highway.

What would happen were Estonia to say it has to take Rail Baltic through Tartu following public pressure?

The Latvians have said with certainty that the government designated the railroad as passing through Ainazi. That they will not discuss any further options. Latvian Railways was initially very much against Rail Baltic as it would disrupt their cooperation with Russian clients. Taking the new route through Riga would interfere with their carriage of goods, and no one wants to hurt their business. Neither the Riga nor Ventspils port want the question raised again.

In Estonia, we need to properly launch passenger traffic on the existing railroad. Because our signaling system is very old, it will need to be replaced soon, and then it will be possible to bring speeds to 160 km/h. We would not have to invest a lot more in crossings as they travel at much higher speeds on a single level in Sweden. We need proper barriers people and vehicles couldn't get past.

What is your comment on doubts that goods and passenger volumes will not be enough to maintain Rail Baltic, and that the taxpayer will have to pick up the tab?

When we looked into the possibilities of using the old route, we learned that trucks are used to transport 300,000 trailers between Finland and the rest of Europe every year of which 200,000 go to Germany and 100,000 to Eastern Europe and Italy. That is a lot of transit.

When I took my car to work in Riga, I personally counted 298 big trailers between the Tallinn and Riga ring roads in three hours on a Tuesday evening. I counted 423 in May of this year. Data from the Road Administration suggests more than 1,300 trailers cross the border at Ikla every 24 hours. The goods volume to make Rail Baltic profitable already exists. A single European freight train takes on 40 trailers. We need 800 trailers a day to have ten trains going back and forth.

Every manufacturer in the region wants to show they are environmentally friendly and use the railroad; it is especially popular in Europe. Taking a ferry to a port in Germany does not mean they can continue by road. A lot of routes force them to load their trucks onto trains and continue that way. They would save time by loading them onto train cars still in Tallinn.

Right now you have to battle Polish truck drivers who form five-truck convoys and let no one pass. It is frightening and dangerous.

However, all of these goods will not migrate to the railroad just like that. We will need proper terminals and Poland will need to have caught up.

Critics say that it is a wasteland after the Polish border and that it is impossible to continue by train from there.

The Poles cannot build a high-speed railroad in the border region because of the number of national parks there. They have to use the existing railroad as far as Bialystok that lies more than a hundred km from the border. Speeds can fall as low as 60 km/h there.

The Polish railroad operator has promised to increase speeds to 120 km/h for freight trains and 160 km/h for passenger trains by 2025, which is when trains will start traveling on Rail Baltic.

There is a proper double-track railway running from Bialystok to Warsaw where there are no problems with speed. While it has not seen investments until now as the Poles prioritize connections with Berlin and Vienna, speeds will reach up to 240 km/h there by the time it will matter to us. However, it is only worth the investment if Rail Baltic happens.