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From Berlin to Tampere in a few hours?

By Helga Balode

The inhabitants of the Baltic Sea region have always had much in common psychologically, historically and economically. And therefore the superproject Via Baltica, which concerns the interests of the inhabitants of this region - from the Finnish city Tampere via Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Warsaw to Berlin in Germany, relates to diverse spheres such as environmental protection and preservation of cultural heritage as well as infrastructure - air, sea and land road systems

Contrary to state strategists and private enterprises, the interests of society are first of all connected with land. Therefore it is the land road Via Baltica itself that is discussed most often, including the building of cycle tracks or the project Amber Throne. The project has acquired a particular national importance in Latvia providing a possibility to attract travelers to the Soviet exploited but still rather wild and beautiful seaside.

Janis Veidemanis, director of the railways department at the Latvian Ministry of Communications:
"Europe has understood that the railway is much cleaner ecologically, it does not pollute the environment. It is a hundred times safer that cars, the number of fatalities of casualties compared. Europe takes into consideration the so-called internal expenses, which are not immediately obvious. Those are losses inflicted by environmental pollution, traffic jams which make hundreds, thousands of people wait, expenses connected with the treatment of accident victims. In the European Union these expenses amount to thousand millions of Euros. If at least a part of this money is used for this project, a number of problems might be solved."

Up to now such a genuine interest has not been evident only about railway communications which is an important part of the transport system in every country. The necessity to build a new high-speed railway system with the rail width of the European standard has been discussed for a long time in all the Baltic States but nothing else apart from the discussion has been done. Work has been started only in Lithuania. The major problem is the money necessary for building main roads. Railways in the Baltic States (just like the majority of railways in Finland) were built during the time of tsarist Russia and the rail transport utilizes 1520 mm wide rails while in Europe the rail width is 1435 mm.

Rail Baltica, a part of the superproject Via Baltica, as a unified railway network in Scandinavia, the Baltic States and Europe was included in a common Baltic project in 1997. However, the project roused a genuine interest only some two years ago when Germany expressed the wish to participate in the building of the railway network. Thus, on 7 November 2001 the Ministers of Transport and Communications of the Baltic States signed an agreement in the Estonian town Pärnu. This act provided the political support necessary for the organizations of international railway traffic to carry out research. Latvia acts as the coordinator of the project.

From the fringes of Europe to the center

Oleg Epner, director of the department of railways in Estonia:
"I think Estonia has shown the least involvement in the project. Probably in this country the project does not have sufficient political support. Lithuania is believed to have achieved the most in the implementation of the project, it is followed by Latvia and Estonia. I doubt that this year the project might be discussed on the governmental level since even preliminary expenses have not been calculated by now. For the time being 220-370 million kroons are mentioned, the difference is too large. However, I think that the financing of the project and the choice of the operator should not involve any problem since we are talking about a part of the European railway network. It would be logical to found one legal entity for all the three Baltic States which would function in our section."

Under a directive issued by the Minister of Communications of Latvia Anatolijs Gorbunovs, an advisory committee has been founded which includes Latvian institutions (VARAM, the Ministries of Finance, Communications and Foreign Affairs and representatives of Vidzeme, Zemgale and Riga regions). The committee also includes experts from Lithuania and Estonia. The committee closely cooperates with advisory firms - the representatives of the Ministries of Transport, Construction and National Economy of Germany PLANCO and SCI Verkehr, providing them with all necessary data and facts. The terms of reference are to be formulated by September when the involved institutions are to decide upon further activities. Almost all work is financed by different structural funds of the EU. Latvia's investment in the project is only 6500 lats by now for drafting the application for funding from the EU program PHARE.

Mr Kai-Peter Mattson, advisor to Finland's Ministry of Transport and Communications:
"The Ministry of Transport and Communications of Finland has not reached the final decision with regard to the project Rail Baltica. The German company is soon due to issue "The Technical and Economic Justification" and we are waiting for the results of this research. The project as a whole is interesting and we are carefully following its development. On the other hand, today the material and technical securing of the Finnish export and timber industry mostly depends on transport by sea. In this respect the interests of the Finnish railway (VR-group Ltd) are connected with the interests of the Finnish business sector."

The research of the railway line Tallinn -Warsaw will allow the German consultants to address an essential issue - whether to build a new railway or to reconstruct the old one. It is important to take into consideration the fact that this railway line must have the rail width of the European standard. The line will have to provide both passenger and goods trains with the possibility to develop the speed of up to at least 200 km/h. The railway is to be equipped with electrified traction. The director of the department of railway at the Ministry of Communications of Latvia Janis Veidemanis admits that it is in Latvia's interests to build Rail Baltica, the territory of Latvia will accommodate approximately 1000 km of railway lines. "Preliminary research will allow us to determine what must be done to have convenient and fast communications with the centre while being on the fringes of the EU."

The Latvian railway is seeing an increase of goods handled

Dinaburga railway - Riga-Daugavpils, which is 271 km long, was built in 1861. During the time of tsarist Russia the building of railways was determined by a strategic state interest - trade. Up to the 20th century 4 large railway lines provided transport in Latvia - Riga-Orel, Liepaja-Romni, Moscow-Ventspils, Riga-Pskov. Germans built a 600 mm wide railway line Ventspils-Stende and Viesite network for transport of timber. In Vidzeme the 750 mm wide railway line Plavinas-Gulbene was reconstructed into the line Sita-Gulbene with the rail width of 1524mm. During the Soviet rule, several more railway lines were built. In total the railway network in Latvia is 3,867 km long.

Even today there are two types of rails in Latvia. The older generation remember that 70 years ago the railway line Riga-Berlin used the rail width of the European standard. All other railway lines had the same width as those in Russia. The Latvian railway is declared to be a part of the trans-European railway network. In reality it is just a declaration since either Europeans have to change trains or it is necessary to change carriage or wagon wheels on the border. But that adds additional expenses and reduces safety, particularly when transporting hazardous cargo. Therefore in Latvia prevails the opinion that it is cheaper to build a new railway once than continuously spend money on repair and equipment of railway transport.

The railway in Latvia provides a large part of the GDP, due to the favorable geographical location and reasonable prices the enterprise Latvian Railway transports 52% of all goods in Latvia and 14% of the goods which are transported via Latvia from Russia to the countries of the CIS. On the other hand, in the western direction Latvia transports only several tens of cargo yearly. However, the region of St. Petersburg is located behind us - an important market which is interesting for Europe, which means that the transport of goods in both directions may increase. Therefore, Latvia, just like its neighboring countries, considers the project Rail Baltica also from travelers' viewpoint, who want to use fast and convenient means of transport. The population of Europe is 370 millions, a part of it may become interested also in this region.

Integration and infrastructure

The firm PLANCO Consulting GmbH, which often participates in various projects of the European Commission, has already started preliminary research of the project of the railway line Tallinn-Warsaw. Dr. Holger Platz, who is one of the directors of the firm PLANCO Consulting GmbH, answered some of the question of BC concerning the project Rail Baltica.

Is the interest of Germany caused by the possibility to increase the transport of goods in the direction of St.Petersburg, Finland and the Baltic States?

I do not have information concerning this issue yet. In fact, these are issues that still have to be discussed when working out the new project.

According to statistics, in Europe in general and in Germany in particular, most goods are transported by road, not by rail. Is it worth reducing the amount of transport by road?

Without doubt, it is a very important objective - to reduce the number of heavy vehicles and cars on roads. But just as important is the task to improve conditions in regions in order to create more favorable circumstances for tourism and transport communications with national and international centers.

Probably a long-term strategic objective of the project is to facilitate the increased traffic of goods after the expansion of the EU. Or are you concerned with environmental protection and safety?

The aim is to facilitate traffic in case of increased transport of goods and passengers. Without an appropriate transport infrastructure it is impossible to achieve integration in economic and cultural spheres successfully.

What kind of work will you have to perform within the framework of this project?

At the moment the task of PLANCO concerns the development of the preliminary project before the discussions in Riga in September. By then, all terms of reference and work of planning have to be formulated. Then funding could be discussed - financial means from the EU program PHARE for candidate states (Poland and the Baltic States) and financing through Interreg IIIB for the integration of member states (Germany, Finland). Who will be in charge of working out further terms of reference and facilitating a further development of the project is an issue to be discussed at the general meeting.