Since its conception in 1991, the multinational Rail Baltica project has been plagued by fruitless negotiations and construction delays. Costs continue to pile up as the three Baltic states opt for different priorities, and the promised high-speed travelling is yet to be seen.
Baltic railway networks, started under the Russian Empire and expanded under the Soviet Union, use the 1,524 mm gauge, which is wider than the ‘standard gauge’ of 1,435 mm used in most of Europe. This creates interoperability issues – for example, trains going from Lithuania and Poland need to have their wheelsets changed, adding up to the cost and time of the trip. There is currently no passenger train service connecting Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn.
The idea for a European-gauge railway connecting the Baltic states with Western Europe was first pitched in 1991, with the very first conceptions emerging a few years later. However, it wasn’t until 2004 that the European Commission added the project to its priority list.
In 2009, Poland and Latvia postponed the construction of their respective sections due to the economic crisis.
“I have been reassured that Lithuania’s interests and position will be supported, and that this project will be supported in the European Committee,” former Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė said at the time.
Rail Baltica entered the planning phase in 2010, and the section from the Polish border to Kaunas was then expected to be completed within three years. However, it led to debates whether the railway should run through Marijampolė, a town close to the Polish border.
“If we gave in to such pressure, it would mean that the project will take more time and cost more, and I, as the minister, will not give in to such pressure,” former Transport Minister Eligijus Masiulis then said.
The section between Poland and Kaunas was supposed to be completed by 2015, with the cost estimate at 250 million euros. However, the current easternmost line of the European-gauge railway was only opened this year, with the completion of a 9-kilometre segment between Kaunas station and Kaunas Intermodal Terminal.
“I believe that, in the future, we can service eight trains a day at this terminal,” said Mantas Bartuška, CEO of the Lithuanian Railways (LTG).
The track connecting Kaunas station and the Polish border, however, still needs to be straightened out to increase the maximum train speed to 249 km/h, from the current 120 km/h.
Many debates surrounded the section of the line from Kaunas to Tallinn. A particularly thorny issue was weather Rail Baltica should include a branch to connect Vilnius.
Rimantas Sinkevičius, the then transport minister, suggested in 2013 that Latvians were reluctant to have Vilnius connected to the network in order to give a competitive advantage to Riga as a regional transportation hub.
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia also spent a lot of time arguing how to run the joint company in charge of Rail Baltica.
In 2016, the long-serving CEO of Lithuanian Railways Stasys Dailydka left the position over scandals and repeated warnings from the European Commission for stalling the construction of Rail Baltica.
“In large part, the reason is our so-called state within a state, our Lithuanian Railways. It isn’t up to a single company to [...] dictate to the government how it should act, and right now we are seeing that Lithuanian Railways is bossing governments around and sabotaging the speed and implementation of this project,” former Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė said in 2016.
Rail Baltica entered the design phase a few years ago, and construction works were set to begin in 2020.
“It’s going to be a completely new infrastructure, and we’ll be able to travel like in Western Europe – from Vilnius to Riga in two hours, and then from Riga to Tallinn in an hour and a half. Or from Vilnius to Tallinn in 3.5 hours,” RB Rail board member Ignas Degutis said in 2019.
Lithuania's ambition remains to complete the Rail Baltica track to the Estonian border by 2026.
Last month, a special Baltic Express train completed a journey across the capitals of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania for the first time in decades. The Baltic transport ministers were part of the delegation.
“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.
”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.”
After the opening of Kaunas intermodal terminal, freight trains can already reach Lithuania using the European gauge railway line, according to Skuodis.
Regular passenger train services between Vilnius and Riga would give a boost to tourism and help reduce carbon emissions by some 950 tonnes a year. According to the Lithuanian transport minister, the existing train line could be extended to Tallinn.
In 2022, Vilnius and Warsaw will also be connected by a direct train route.