Laidvee wants Estonia to manage Rail Baltic

Erik Laidvee.

PHOTO: Liis Treimann

Estonian Railways, previously skeptical of Rail Baltic, is plotting a course for Europe under new CEO Erik Laidvee who recommends today’s high school students aim for specialties tied to the western-gauge railroad.

The new director will soon send trains loaded with Finnish paper to the Adriatic and the Black Sea from Muuga. While Rail Baltic will later take over the route to the Port of Koper, trains to Odessa could stay on the 1,520 mm railroad running through Tartu also in the future.

Why has Estonian Railways looked sideways at Rail Baltic so far?

This approach has remained unintelligible for me, and effecting a change took some effort. The worst thing that could happen once Rail Baltic is finished is a situation where we have two railroad managers. It would not make economic sense as Estonian Railways’ volumes have plummeted. We are hoping to move 12 million tons this year in a situation where it used to be nearly 45 million tons. Creating a parallel structure next to us would be insensible.

I believe the Rail Baltic joint company should procure infrastructure management from railroad companies in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania.

We have trained our people for 1,520 mm regulations; however, now we have to expand our know-how and skills to Europe. We are betting on young specialists the training of whom needs to start today. We are looking at possibilities in Finland and Germany. Deutsche Bahn has suitable training programs, while they are quite expensive. We are looking at the European heading as an integral part of our training program for next year. This means that graduates of the Tallinn University of Applied Sciences and the Tallinn University of Technology should first come to us for in-service training. Next we can see whether we can find scholarships for them or create our own scholarship to have them study abroad.

How long will it take Estonian Railways to train employees who know both railroads?

Estonian Railways currently employs 790 people. Rail Baltic will be ready in 2026. Whether we will need another 30 or 50 people, I cannot say. However, I’m confident we will have the specialists we need in five to six years. High school graduates would do well to consider the railroad in terms of their future. I’m referring especially to IT specialties as automation will be the name of the game.

Because we compete with the IT sector, the average salary of these specialist will have to be competitive at around 2,000 euros a month.

Should it prove possible to launch north-south transit on the Russian-gauge railroad, we will have two competing routes. Is Estonian Railways prepared to plow both fields?

We still have time until Rail Baltic becomes reality, while eastbound transit is not doing well. We need to secure more transport operations on the north-south heading and from Asia, and that is what we’re working on. Once Rail Baltic comes online, that is where these goods will move.

The “1,520” could remain operational on the Odessa route regarding which we have full access and could dispatch a train tomorrow.

Rather I see the two track gauges complementing each other. It needs to result in synergy where, for example, we would have double gauge tracks in the Port of Muuga. The port would have three rails to accommodate trains of both gauges so that goods could be loaded from a container train from Russia onto a European train.

The port’s junction has a total of 42 tracks that are seriously underutilized. Estonian Railways owns 24 tracks, while Port of Tallinn owns two. Others are operated by terminals. We want to construct the Rail Baltic terminal in the middle of that existing junction.

How much could the terminal cost?

The project could end up costing a lot. However, following the solution I have proposed of complementing existing infrastructure, the cost would be quite sensible. Laying an additional rail is hardly a problem, while a same grade crossing of 1,520 and 1,435 tracks is problematic, experts say.

We believe that it is possible to facilitate same grade crossings if speeds are limited to 10 km/h. Should a few wheels go off, we can pull them back on. There has been talk of a need for overpasses. Deutsche Bahn is looking into the matter.

You tried to launch north-south carriage of goods years ago, when you were still head of Transiidikeskuse AS. What has changed?

We cannot say when the train will run. Volumes of eastbound transit are down in which connection everyone has realized that the initially suggested tariffs are not feasible.

Rail companies are offering much more competitive tariffs. Interest of terminals is also bigger - compared to when 20-30 million tons of goods were handled monthly. A single train a day was not appealing then.

What Finnish companies will you cooperate with on the north-south heading?

The timber, paper, and forest industry. A company is currently willing to supply one trainload of goods.

The Finns have been interested all along; however, they want to see a concrete offer from us. The good news is that after six years a ro-ro connection will be restored between Muuga and Vuosaari that will facilitate this train.

What route will these trains follow?

Trains going to Trieste or the Port of Koper will move through Kaunas to the 1,520 to 1,435 break-of-gauge terminal in Sestokai. Those headed for Odessa will move through Belarus.