article

The Baltic States and Rail Baltica

Posted: 25 September 2017 | | 6 comments

On 30 August 2017, regular contributor, Graham Ellis, gave Global Railway Review his report on a recent visit to Lithuania and discussed the Rail Baltica project. Taking inspiration from that visit, Global Railway Review reader, Tony Olsson gives his own report on the country as well as some more information on Rail Baltica.

Latvia locamotive

Graham Ellis gave a a recent account of his visit to Lithuania and as a frequent visitor to Lithuania and the other Baltic States, Latvia and Estonia, I regard it almost as a second home. In this article I will reflect on Graham’s observations and share insights into the Baltic region’s railway and, in particular, the Rail Baltica project.

Before I comment on Graham’s article, let me clear up a couple of misconceptions. The Baltic States are not in Eastern Europe; they are officially in Northern Europe, immediately North of Poland, and are recognised as such by the UN. Also, they have no connection – either physically or politically – with The Balkans.

Baltic background

Eesti (Estonia), Latvija (Latvia) and Lietuva (Lithuania) were provinces of the Imperial Russian State until the Russian Revolution, during which time they gained their independence from Russia and the Soviet Union. They maintained their independence until 1942 when, under Stalin, they were occupied by the USSR and became Soviet Socialist Republics. Thus they remained until brave action against their oppressors by the unarmed people of Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania resulted in the collapse of Communism and the USSR in 1991.

Graham mentioned he was unable to travel by train – a pity, as there are regular train services linking the capital Vilnius with the Airport and the country’s second city of Kaunas. There are further trains that link major cities, ports and seasides, but admittedly the Baltic States suffer from low track mileage, with many of those lines being single track and freight only.

This is a consequence of history; during its fifty years of occupation by the Soviet Union, most rail traffic was freight between Russia and the Baltic ports. As people were housed near their place of work, their needs were sufficiently catered for by buses, trams and trolleybuses. The population of Lithuania is so small that one platform at London’s Waterloo Station handles as many passengers as LG Lietuvos Geležinkelis (Lithuanian Railways) handles in a year. Nevertheless, in recent years the entire rail infrastructure has been rebuilt or modernised, and all three Baltic States are also engaged in modernising their rolling stock. Compared to the rail services in the UK and central Europe, passenger services in the Baltic States are inadequate, but with support from the EU these limitations are being addressed. It is hoped that the replacement of the Soviet era diesel and electric passenger trains (all built in Riga, Latvia) by modern trains built in central Europe, coupled with electrification of some routes, will result in increased passenger usage.

Vilnius

The railway museum Graham visited is in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, and is situated to the left of the station. Access is via the station platform. There is a range of interesting exhibits including steam and diesel locomotives, passenger vehicles and track maintenance vehicles. An additional museum inside the station for smaller exhibits – paper records, etc – is up a flight of stairs on the right of the main station building.

Visitors to Lithuania will be interested to know that to the side of the large square outside Vilnius railway station is a large bus station that provides travel to many more destinations inside and outside Lithuania than are catered for by the railway.

The steam locomotive Graham described as ‘large’ is a Class T3 (TE in English), which some readers will recognise as an ex-German Class 52 ‘Kriegslok’. Approximately 2700 were captured from the retreating German Army during the closing days of WW2, and others were supplied as war reparations. Many were converted to 1520mm Russian gauge, which explains its presence in the museum. For a REALLY BIG Russian-built locomotive, look across the running tracks at the Л (L) Class locomotive at the far side of the station. Unfortunately, you can’t get close to it because it is fenced-off in the international part of the station that handles trains to and from Kaliningrad, St Peterburg, Moscow and Minsk. To get up close and personal with one of these awesome beasts (pictured above), I suggest you visit Klaipėda Station. Like our 9F, it’s a 2-10-0, but the L class is 11 feet longer, 4 feet taller (17ft) and much wider.

In addition to several museums, Lithuania has historic railway vehicles displayed at stations throughout the country. The green prisoner freight that car Graham illustrated in his article is the height of luxury compared to the usual cattle wagons used for transporting political prisoners to gulags in Siberia.

Wagon

Wagons used for transporting people to Siberian gulags

Rail Baltica

Rail Baltica is an EU project designed to enable a basic tenet of EU rail policy; that trains from one country should be able to run on those of other countries. When the railways of the Baltic States (1520mm Russian gauge) joined the EU, there was no way 1435mm standard gauge trains could be operated in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The desire to include Finland (not an EU country) in this aspiration further complicated matters, as Finland is built to the original Russian gauge of 1524mm. Russia reduced the gauge of its tracks by 4mm in the 1960s, but having escaped annexation during WW2, Finland retained its Russian gauge. The difference in gauge between Finland and Russia, however, doesn’t prevent trains of either gauge running between the two countries.

Since independence there has been a standard gauge line across the Polish-Lithuanian border bringing freight trains to Mockava where the loads were transferred to Russian gauge trains or road vehicles. Passenger trains stopped at Šeštokai where passengers crossed the platform to a Russian-gauge train. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, trains between Warszawa and Vilnius ran straight through Belarus with a bogie change at Grodno/Hrodna.

Modified Rail Baltica map

When originally announced, Rail Baltica was to run from Berlin through Poland via Warszawa, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, then by train ferry to Helsinki in Finland. Since then, a railway tunnel between Tallinn and Helsinki has been proposed, which now seems the most likely option as (I’m told) there are no train ferry facilities in Helsinki. Sadly, the history of Rail Baltica has been one of confusion with many different routes proposed and Estonia, Latvia and Poland withholding their backing for the project until the EU threatened to withdraw its financial support. Fortunately, these hindrances were resolved late in 2016, so now it’s full steam (albeit diesel and electric) ahead. Amid the discussions and argument, Lithuania went ahead and built and opened the Poland/Lithuania link to Kaunas, and is now progressing with extending its line to the Lithuania/Latvia border, as well as an additional branch from Kaunas to Vilnius using the existing electrified line.

I am sceptical of the value of Rail Baltica. Traditionally, there has been little north-south freight traffic through the Baltic States; indeed, since independence, apart from the occasional freight across the Lithuania/Latvia border between Siauliai and Jelgava, there has been nothing – even though the 1520mm lines still exist from Soviet times. The EU had to take legal action to have the line between Mažeikiai (Lithuania) and Reņģe (Latvia) reinstated after it was illegally lifted. The only cross-border line within the Baltic States that remains in regular use is that between Lithuania and Russia, which crosses Latvia near Daugavpils providing travel between Kaliningrad and Moscow.

A similar situation exists with passenger trains within the Baltic States. When they were constituent republics of the USSR, the Baltic States railways were operated from Riga as one railway Pribaltiiskaya. It is an enduring source of frustration to residents and tourists alike, that once you’ve arrived in any of the Baltic States (even across Europe by rail), you cannot travel between the countries by train. There have been talks, but so far no action to remedy this anomaly, so unless Rail Baltica really does provide the promised north-south passenger trains, travellers will continue to use long-distance coach services such as Eurolines and Ecolines. In view of the twenty-six years of inaction by the national rail companies since independence, I do wonder who will operate the passenger services on Rail Baltica.

Graham mentioned that Rail Baltica will provide a link to Riga Airport. It’s worth also mentioning that Vilnius has had a PESA-built railcar operating between its station and the airport since 2 October 2008. Having experienced the ‘cowboy’ minibus services in the past, that was a welcome improvement.

Riga port

Visitors to Riga might be aware that much of the area around the city is occupied by huge marshalling yards that handle mainly coal and oil traffic from Russia. The Baltic States are vitally dependent on this traffic – as Estonia discovered to its cost when it upset Russia over a dispute regarding a statue commemorating a Russian soldier. Brits who remember the marshalling yards of the early 20th century (before Beeching closed down our rail freight business and put it onto the roads) can reminisce to their heart’s content in Riga. Throughout the Baltic States, new yards are being built and old ones modernised.

I’ve watched a train ferry being loaded at Klaipėda (Lithuania). Until you see it in action, it is difficult to appreciate the delicate operation it entails; with two trains having to be loaded or unloaded simultaneously to prevent the ferry tilting sideways. As far as I know, train ferries from Latvia and Lithuania take mainly Russian coal to Germany and further afield, including no doubt, to Britain. As in Britain, container traffic is a growing business in the Baltic States, and Lithuania has for some years been promoting the trade from China to central Europe to avoid the delays caused by sending products by ship.

For information, the locomotive in the last picture of Graham’s article is diesel electric shunting locomotive ЧМЗ3 (ChME3) number 3758 which was built in the 1960/70s. Whilst used as a shunting locomotive, it’s considerably bigger, heavier and more powerful than Britain’s Class 20s. Only industry in the Baltic States uses shunters the size of our 08s. Everything in the former Soviet Union was BIG – even the TУ2 (TU2) locomotives used on many 750mm narrow-gauge railways are bigger than an 08. Unbelievably, these were driven by children on the Soviet Pioneer railways – much more fun than an H0 train set. Vilnius had a Pioneer Railway but it closed in the 1950s and no trace remains.

I do hope readers will be tempted to visit the Baltic States and experience railways and trains unlike any in mainland Europe. The countryside is also spectacular with gorgeous forests, wide open spaces, unpolluted rivers and lakes, charming Italianate ‘old towns’ within the main cities; a wonderful collection of ancient, old and modern buildings, including housing, side by side in the towns and cities. In the fourteen years I’ve been involved with the Baltic States, Lithuania in particular has been transformed from a rundown former Soviet country into a modern European nation.

Whilst relatively unknown in the West, there are many opportunities for outside companies to invest in the Baltic States.

Biography

Since 2003, Tony has made frequent visits to the Baltic States by numerous means of transport – planes, trains and coaches (not automobiles) – and been involved in the production of several publications on the region’s rail transport. These include Baltic Railways Magazine¸ a book on the steam locomotives of Lithuania during its period of independence between the two World Wars; a complementary volume on railcars (not yet published); and numerous other publications including a guide book for Lithuania’s only narrow-gauge railway, ASG Siaurukas. Having retired, he now contributes articles about the Baltic States railways to a range of railway and ex-pat magazines, and in April gave his first lecture on the subject.

6 responses to “The Baltic States and Rail Baltica”

  1. Tori says:

    Very useful, informative article. I just needed information about the Baltic countries, Latvia.

  2. Tomass says:

    I believe RailBaltic is coming anyway, there is no discussion about that anymore. The question is- who are the brightest minds to take use of that opportunity? For example, Klaipeda holds one of the best free Economic Zones in Europe I know. I can vouch for that. But if you have the opportunity to use both marine and railway transportation for your industry- you’d be a fool not to use this advantage.

    In the Baltic region, transit is one of the money makers. All goods and services coming from Russia (or the other way around) need to move through the Baltics anyway. These days there’s an option to use railways in addition to trucks. And furthermore using also marine transit.

    Right now our business is located in Port of Paldiski, but since the tax policy here is unreasonable, we are moving on. Right now our best option is Klaipeda’s FEZ ( see https://www.fez.lt/how-we-help/ ).
    Promising saving, convenience with a built infrastructure and greatest of all – educated and new-school employees! Since RailBaltic is coming – I think we can grow our business furthermore with these two solutions. What could be additional options?

  3. Jarmo says:

    For your information, Finland has been a member of EU since 1995. Please be more accurate with the facts.

  4. Tony Olsson says:

    Sorry CWMJr for not replying earlier; I’m in the process of moving home so have not had the opportunity to check for responses to my article.

    As you will have read in my biography, I was involved in Baltic Railways Magazine so do have some inside knowledge regarding your questions. I was invited by the Lithuanian editor and publisher in 2009 to help produce an English and Lithuanian version of the magazine he had launched earlier that year in the Lithuanian and Russian languages. My role was to correct the English translations, write the occasional article, and sell the magazine in Britain. Sadly there was not enough interest in the magazine and the railways in this country to cover the cost of production, so the magazine closed with issue 17 in early 2015.

    The first Baltic Railways Magazine issue 3 in which I was involved contained an article When shall we go from Tallinn to Vilnius by train again? Clearly you and I are not alone in wanting to do that journey. The article was written following interviews with the CEOs of the railway companies and some locally-based rail tour operators.

    To understand the problem, you need to understand that the railway infrastructure of the three states is owned by the states. The trains are also owned and run by the individual states. All against EU rules of course; legal actions are being taken against each of the Baltic States to force them to abide by EU rules. In addition there are a number of independent train operators who have access rights to the tracks.

    When under USSR rule, the railways operated as one autonomous network called Pribaltiiskaya operated from Riga, but since independence in 1991, no trains have operated between the individual states and across their borders even though the track remains.

    When Baltic Railways Magazine interviewed the rail companies in 2009 they clearly indicated they were not interested in providing cross-border trains, citing financial considerations, and speed of operation. Bizarrely, all operators claimed that road coaches can do the journeys quicker than trains. Consequently Eurolines and Ecolines handle that traffic including links to many cities throughout Europe including London.

    A typical excuse for not operating across borders was that road coaches had less safety tests than rail coaches, so the rail companies couldn’t compete economically. There was no possibility of cooperation because the Lithuanians claimed that Latvians would only travel at night, whilst Lithuanians preferred to travel by day.

    The Director of Lithuanian Railways stated that before agreement to run trains between the three capital cities, agreement would have to be reached about who would be liable for covering the losses of running the trains. “In my opinion, the passenger flow is too small at present for such a route unless the three states make a political decision on connecting the three Baltic States by common passenger train”. Also the Director was concerned that competition from the railway could make the coaches uneconomic.

    Estonia sounded more interested, though like the Latvians, said the trains should run at night. Of course the Chairman of UAB West Express’s mention of bringing tourists and businessmen to Tallinn couldn’t happen without cooperation from Lithuania and Latvia. Worth taking into account here is that Estonia and Latvia nearly scuppered Rail Baltica by delaying signing cooperation agreements until the last minute.

    Why the preference to travel at night I don’t know. When I travelled all across Europe by train, I made a point of travelling during daylight hours so I could see where I was going. That meant a few overnight hotel stops and extra expense, so no doubt people on business would wish to avoid such matters.

    I’m afraid the answer at the moment is that if you want to travel across borders in the Baltic States, you have to do it by coach or private car. I can’t imagine that having promoted and financed Rail Baltica (the individual states are building their sections) the EU will stand by and watch the existing rail companies refuse to operate trains on Rail Baltica. Limited passenger and freight trains are running on the Poland/Lithuania section of the line, but I envisage that the EU will have to pay an independent rail operator to run the passenger services which the national companies have shown no interest in running on the existing Russian gauge tracks.

    I suspect a similar lack of interest is the reason why the Baltic States are not in the Eurailpass system. When I travelled from St Pancras to Kaunas in 2010, I bought my tickets online from Rail Europe in London who charged me £8 for their work and helpful advice. The ticket for the last section of the journey from Warszawa to Šeštokai to Kaunas had to be bought at Warszawa Station. That cost slightly more than the journey in a Thalys from Bruxelles to Köln, and less than half the cost of Köln to Berlin in an ICE.

    If any reader is contemplating travelling from Britain to Lithuania by trains, drop me an email on [email protected] and I’ll send you my 2pp illustrated account of the trip and other guidance you might need.

    When will Rail Baltica be completed?

    The Lithuanian section from Šeštokai to Kaunas is open, and I’ve no doubt the extension from Kaunas is under construction, though modern fast double-deck electric trains have been operating on the route for some years.

    Work is under way in Latvia and Estonia, but as they delayed signing up to the project until late in 2016, they are way behind Lithuania in planning and construction. I’ve read various completion dates from the late 2020s to 2030; no doubt it will be opened in sections. Don’t hold your breath!

  5. CharlesWilliamMorganJr says:

    Could someone explain why Latvia and Estonia have trains that go to their borders, but then require a change of trains to travel to the next country? Why is it not possible to run “through” trains between these two nations? Further, why are the Baltic nations not a part of the Eurailpass system?

  6. CharlesWilliamMorganJr says:

    It would be interesting to know when the Baltic Rail project will be completed. We have visited most of Europe and plan to visit the three Baltic nations when we can travel by rail. We have not understood why there have been so many delays in connection with this important project.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Send this to a friend