On Tuesday, a special Baltic states express train started its journey from Tallinn to Vilnius, connecting the capitals of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania for the first time in decades.
“The strategic Rail Baltica project uniting the Baltic states and the neighbouring countries [...] is undoubtedly about to change transport systems of [the three countries],” Lithuanian Transport Minister Marius Skuodis said in a press release.
The EU-funded, European-gauge train line is expected to become operational in 2026. According to the mayor of Vilnius, Remigijus Šimašius, it was the first train to connect the Baltic capitals during the “independence period”.
Until then, “it is necessary to exploit the potential of the existing infrastructure network by ensuring regular passenger train routes between the capitals of the Baltic states”, said Skuodis.
After the opening of Kaunas intermodal terminal, freight trains can already reach Lithuania using the European gauge railway line, according to Skuodis. In 2022, Vilnius and Warsaw will also be connected by a direct train route.
Most of the Baltic rail infrastructure currently uses the wider, Soviet-era rail gauge.
Meanwhile, regular passenger train services between Vilnius and Riga would give a boost to tourism. According to Lithuanian transport minister, the existing train line could be extended to Tallinn.
On Wednesday, the connecting train, which is part of the initiative to mark the European Year of Rail, will head from Vilnius to Kaunas where it will be joined by the trans-European train, Connecting Europe Express, coming from Lisbon.
The Baltic transport ministers and officials from the Finnish government, Baltic railway companies and the European Commission are part of the delegation.
Lithuania expects EU to agree on additional Rail Baltica funding
Skuodis said he hoped to reach a deal with the European Union on Rail Baltica's funding and expects the project to be implemented on schedule.
"As we have guests from the European Commission, thanks to whom this route has taken place, I hope that we will reach an agreement on the financial nuances of the project," he added.
In June 2020, the European Court of Auditors (ECA) said that Rail Baltica's costs had risen by almost 2.4 billion euros to 7 billion and might increase further in the future.
The auditors also had doubts about the project's economic sustainability and whether it would be completed by 2026 as planned.
Lithuanian government officials also hinted a couple of years ago that Rail Baltica might run short of funding as its cost had soared to an estimated 7.8 billion euros and that the EU was unlikely to provide another 2 billion euros for the project.
The official cost estimate is still at 5.8 billion euros.