The Baltic States and Rail Baltica
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.