€17 million to buy railroad for a decade

Tiina Kaukvere
, reporter
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Photo: Teet Malsroos / Õhtuleht

While even Pärnu County local government heads deem it senseless to spend €17 million on emergency repairs of a stretch of railroad, the economy ministry's plan is serious.

The idea of renovating the Lelle-Pärnu railroad has been around for years. Now a decision is needed on whether to renovate the connection or end rail traffic.

The Technical Regulatory Authority (TJA) has estimated that passenger trains have to be limited to 80 kilometers per hour on unrenovated stretches of railroad until 2019. „The speed will probably be reduced from 2019 as tracks and sleepers are worn. The future of that stretch of railroad is for the government to decide – whether to invest, and if so then how much,“ said PR chief specialist at TJA Anu Võlma.

60 kilometers per hour

Former Pärnu mayor, Reform Party MP Toomas Kivimägi said that once speeds are limited to 60 kilometers per hour the railroad will lose its meaning. „A bold decision of whether to invest or close the railroad and say Rail Baltic will make up for it is needed,“ Kivimägi, who is a member of the Riigikogu Economic Affairs Committee, said.

Adviser at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications Mihkel Loide pointed out that rail traffic will not commence on Rail Baltic until at least 2026. „Renovation of the Lelle-Pärnu section will cost approximately €17 million in total. That would make it possible to ensure speeds of up to 120 kilometers per hour for a decade, or until Rail Baltic is completed,“ Loide said. „The government is set to have a regional rail network development plan in June based on which the decision will be made.“

Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Kadri Simson, elected to the Riigikogu in Pärnu County, said toward the beginning of the year that the Lelle-Pärnu section of the railroad needs to be renovated. Renovation work is allegedly an item on the state's list of strategic investments the government discussed last week.

„If the government believes in Rail Baltic, I do not deem it rational to invest in the Lelle-Pärnu railroad. While it would extend the old railroad's lifespan, it would not be sensible in light of the major future investment,“ Kivimägi said. The politician added the county holds Rail Baltic, Via Baltica, and Pärnu Airport to be far more important objects.

„Had we all these, we could of course also invest in the Lelle-Pärnu railroad; however, we have no reason to believe Pärnu County will get the money for all four,“ he said.

„There is no sense in reconstructing the old railroad while waiting for Rail Baltic,“ said county governor Kalev Kaljuste (SDE).

The city of Pärnu asked the ministry to reallocate €20 million intended for reconstruction of the railroad for the Pärnu Airport and a four-lane stretch of the Via Baltica highway between Pärnu and Uulu late last year.

112 people a day

Passenger operator Elron reports that the Lelle-Pärnu connection serviced 41,000 passengers last year, or 112 people a day.

Passengers are residents of rural areas whose transport needs should be taken care of by the state should the railroad be closed, Kaljuste believes. „I doubt people take the train to Pärnu these days. It is already too slow. The days of rail traffic are over,“ he added.

Kaljuste said that Pärnu County candidate Simson is between a rock and hard place. „The minister doesn't want to be the one to shut down rail traffic in the county. That is probably not the message she wants to send. While we need to understand her, we also need to understand local leaders – and listen to them. If possible, the money should be used for smarter decisions,“ Kaljuste added. He said that Rail Baltic could also service local rail traffic.

„Today there is only a single stop in Pärnu. However, there could be others. We could have a regional stop near Tootsi and Häädemeeste. It would bring Rail Baltic closer to the locals.“