ENE-MARGIT TIIT Why should construction of Rail Baltic be stopped?

Ene-Margit Tiit
, University of Tartu professor emeritus and statistician
Ene-Margit Tiit, University of Tartu professor emeritus and statistician.
Ene-Margit Tiit, University of Tartu professor emeritus and statistician. Photo: Margus Ansu
  • Many of the arguments in favor of Rail Baltic have become obsolete.
  • What remains is the high cost of the project, which has become even more expensive over time.
  • Rail Baltic is not an economically viable project, it is a burden on our budget in the future.

For several months now, the government's efforts to cut spending and increase revenues have been the main news in all of Estonia's nationwide news channels – newspapers, radio, TV. Backtracking on promises made to teachers, cutting research funding, slashing child and family benefits, problems with defense spending, a freeze on pensions, the car tax and the soda tax... The list goes on, writes University of Tartu professor emeritus and statistician Ene-Margit Tiit.

But there is one «sacred cow» that is not touched, not even mentioned as a possibility. This is Rail Baltic, the construction saga of whose starting point – the nearly 30-million-euro (according to initial estimates) Ülemiste terminal – was just started in a ceremony.

In discussions about the necessity, usefulness, or unprofitability of Rail Baltic (RB), many arguments and opinions have been presented over the years, if not decades. It has become clear that under current conditions, this project is not economically profitable: there are too few passengers and goods to be transported on it to cover the costs.

In order to justify the project, social, climate and, more recently, military factors have been cited as things offsetting the cons, which, they say, outweigh the problems. However, these positive aspects of the project have not been analyzed in detail and convincingly to the general public. On closer inspection, RB's pros tend to fade, and all that is left is a big money-absorbing hole.

In order to bring clarity to the matter, the RB project should be examined in a multidimensional way, and for each dimension, the pros and cons should be weighed to determine whether there is a balance or whether the concerns, damages and losses outweigh the profitability of the project.

The first and most fundamental argument for initiating the construction of RB was ideological: both symbolically and practically, a (fast?) direct connection to the core Europe was important to us. It was also important as a joint effort linking the Baltic states together, with the symbolic result of replacing Russian tracks and infrastructure with European standards. This was the great dream of Lennart Meri, for which Siim Kallas worked hard in Europe, securing support and funding for the project.

With all due respect to our great men, this ideological argument has almost been nullified over the years. We are now part of the European Union, we are linked to Europe by many economic and cultural ties. The symbolic importance of the railway linking the Baltic states to the core Europe has diminished. Rather, the emphasis placed on it is more of a sign of a lack of self-confidence (are we really true Europeans here on the periphery?). There are other ways to show cooperation between the Baltic states, and to scorn the existing railway for its «Russian tracks» is as pointless as scorning Lake Peipsi because Russia is behind it.

Second, almost every discussion supporting the RB emphasizes its social benefits. What are they, aside from ideology? Of course, the main social benefit of railway is the creation and expansion of mobility opportunities for residents. This has been very important in history, because in the 19th and early 20th centuries railway was very much more efficient, faster, more convenient and more accessible than the only mode of mobility until then – horse transport (let alone moving on foot). There are several towns in Estonia – such as Tapa and Jõgeva – that have either emerged or grown thanks to the railway. But this is a thing of the past.

The symbolic importance of the railway linking the Baltic states to the core Europe has diminished.

Nowadays, the credit side of social benefits only includes offering residents of Tallinn, Pärnu and their surrounding areas the opportunity to travel relatively quickly to Riga (initially only to somewhere near Riga) and Kaunas. Compared to a bus, the train from Tallinn to Riga allows passengers to save a couple of hours, but the well-known advantage of buses is the frequency of departures. (At this point, I guess I have to make it clear that I'm not an agent of any bus company).

Any attempt to evaluate the cost of this social benefit – such as the time savings for passengers – must take into account both the construction of the new track (including all the ecoducts, bridges, tunnels, and other related infrastructure) and the construction of the Ülemiste terminal-palace and the Riga station. According to the latest calculations, the total cost of this new railway complex will be at least five billion euros (not including operating costs). In any case, it is clear that RB passengers will save valuable time on their journeys, the cost of which will be paid for with great effort by taxpayers in Estonia, Latvia and elsewhere in Europe. Now let us try to assess how expensive these hours saved on travel time are.

At present, the buses operating between Tallinn and Riga carry a maximum of 800 passengers (in one direction) per day, and the total number of passengers in both directions (taking into account seasonal fluctuations) is estimated at 500,000 per year. Compared to the current bus ride of about 4.5 hours, according to optimistic estimates, the journey with RB would be about two hours faster, so the total time gain for all passengers traveling by train would be one million hours a year.

If everything remains the same (which is certainly not quite true, as the populations of Estonia and Latvia are rather about to decrease according to forecasts), then passengers would gain a total of 50 million hours in 50 years. Given the railway's cost of five billion euros, the price of each hour saved would be one hundred euros. True, the value of money may not remain the same, and bank interests must also be taken into account. There are certainly few passengers who can afford a train ticket so expensive, therefore this «social benefit» has to be paid for by society as a whole.

A third concern, also related to social benefits, stems from the development of Estonia's transport network. Before World War II, the Republic of Estonia developed a transportation network that was efficient for its time. It allowed longer distances to be covered by rail, and from every village, one could reach the nearest railway station by road (which was mostly unpaved) using a horse, bicycle, or on foot. This road network had evolved over many generations to be the most suitable for both the nature and road users. It is also important to remember that the railway already then connected all parts of Estonia (through railway stations) to St. Petersburg, Riga, Kaunas, Warsaw, Berlin, and Moscow, thus in fact effectively linking it to the entire world of that time.

The current transport network of Estonia constitutes a development of that network and largely builds on it. Compared to the past, the road network has improved significantly, because in Estonia, as in all of Europe, a large part (more than three quarters) of the transport of goods and passengers has moved from rail to road. In contrast, the development of railways in Estonia has been lagging, trains are slow compared to the rest of Europe, and any reasonable opportunity to travel abroad by train – even to neighboring countries – has been lost.

However, RB will not significantly improve the state of Estonia's transport network, as this railway is an alien element in the Estonian transport system. The different track gauge does not allow for changing trains. Unlike all previous routes, the selected corridor does not take into account existing terrain elements and settlements. The locations of the planned new stops do not align with the existing road network. Unlike the rest of Estonia's railways, the RB route passes through relatively sparsely populated areas. These are not minor details, as the social benefit of a railway depends on how it fits in with the natural and social environment and especially the population density, which in western Estonia is (tens of) times lower than in the core Europe.

It is sad that the development of RB will absorb a large part of the funds that would otherwise be spent on the construction of roads, thus causing a general deterioration of the Estonian transport network.

Fourth, the rationale behind the construction of new grandiose terminals in Ülemiste and Riga is also questionable. While they may be architectural masterpieces, they are not very practical. My impression is that in major European cities, railway station buildings are rather emptying and becoming places for quick passage. The era of stations where people leisurely spent (waiting) time is over.

It is sad that the development of RB will absorb a large part of the funds that would otherwise be spent on the construction of roads, thus causing a general deterioration of the Estonian transport network.

A fifth social benefit, which is sometimes mentioned, is the job creation linked to RB. Since Estonia continues to have a shortage of labor, this factor too rather has an adverse effect and may instead lead to an influx of foreign labor not wanted by society. To sum up: the social benefits of RB are limited and excessively costly.

A sixth aspect, which is very important: one often-used adjective for the RB is that it is «green» and climate-friendly. This usually refers to the train powered by electricity, as opposed to road transport that uses fossil fuels. However, the specifications of transport fuels are constantly changing (for example, hydrogen has already come onboard), and it is unclear what the pollution ratio between road and rail transport will be in five, ten, or several dozen years. In any case, it is clear that using a train without additional road transport is possible only in exceptional cases.

This makes the argument about the environmental friendliness of rail questionable: the use of rail generally also requires additional road transport, plus it entails loading costs. Doubts about the RB's environmental friendliness are exacerbated if we look at environmental sustainability more broadly.

Seventh, let us recall that preserving the natural environment is not limited to reducing carbon emissions, nor is recycling only the recycling of plastic boxes and glass bottles. Preserving forests, bogs and arable land, rather than turning them into lifeless facilities (such as railways), is also about preserving the environment. Recycling is also the use of existing roadways that fit in well with nature and the environment instead of building new ones. The price of minutes and seconds won thanks to a straighter road should always be weighed against the cost of the spent (non-renewable or slowly renewable) natural resources, as well as the amount of labor.

Building a new track to replace an existing one is expensive, but even more valuable than the money spent are the destroyed natural resources – old-growth forest, peat deposits and semi-natural communities. Diverting the track to bypass the habitat of some rare bird or animal will not solve the problem, the landscape as a whole is valuable. Sacrificing natural values for the benefit of humankind is not always excluded, but it must be very thoroughly thought out, considered and fully justified.

According to current plans, the RB will cause significantly more damage to Estonia's nature (including considering the natural resources spent on construction) than the benefit that would arise from placing car passengers and trucks transporting goods on a train.

Eighth, we must also consider the economic benefits and expected profitability of RB, which was the goal when the project was started. It is primarily freight transport that has been seen as the real benefit of RB, which, according to initial calculations, was supposed to cover the losses from passenger transport. This topic has been widely discussed and written about, but it now seems that the high hopes for large-scale freight transport (which were largely related to Russia and China) have dwindled. It also seems that the Helsinki tunnel will not be built anytime soon either. The world is moving towards reducing the transport of goods and shifting production closer to home.

Ninth argument – RB as a military project. All railways (as well as other modes of transport) are important for defense, but they in turn need to be protected. Compared to the rest of Estonia's rail network, the RB has the advantage of being located in the western part of the country, some distance from the eastern border, but this does not spare it from attacks, given today's offensive capabilities.

While completing the RB has become a problem in all three Baltic states, it is unclear whether it is possible to jointly decide to terminate the project.

The political atmosphere in Europe and globally is constantly changing, and military technology is also developing very rapidly. Therefore, it is difficult to assess what the military value of the RB will be in 2030, when it will be completed according to plans. All the more so since, as of now, there is no guarantee that the railway will be completed by the deadline. In any case, when it is completed, the RB will not be a miracle weapon that would greatly enhance Estonia's defenses against an aggressor. It seems that, as things stand, spending resources on strengthening Estonia's border with national defense capabilities in mind would be more efficient than building the RB primarily for military needs.

Tenth, we have to acknowledge that, despite all the arguments listed, the most difficult thing is to change a decision made, to make a U-turn. To some extent, this also means acknowledging the mistakes made, even though the decision-makers have changed.

While completing the RB has become a problem in all three Baltic states, it is unclear whether it is possible to jointly decide to terminate the project. Estonia is in a good position in this regard, as us terminating the RB project would not significantly harm Latvia's and Lithuania's opportunities and prospects. The construction of the Latvian part of the Riga-Ikla-Parnu section connecting us with Latvia has not yet started (and it seems that the Latvians are not very interested either, as this line also passes through a relatively sparsely populated area in Latvia). In any case, the realization of the RB project is difficult in all three countries, and success has only been achieved on individual sections that are of importance for the respective country. The expenses already incurred do not justify moving forward with the project blindly and stubbornly, despite knowing that it is not a viable project.

The world is changing fast today. Only those who recognize and take account of these changes will succeed. In today's world, President Ilves' words are true: «What got us here will not get us there.» It seems that railways, too, are not the best way forward for our children and grandchildren. Giving up is not always a sign of weakness, but sometimes also of wisdom.