Friday, June 19, 2009

Rail Baltica - 1435mm or 1520mm Gauge?

The idea of connecting the Baltic rail system to the rest of Europe is circulating already for a decade. So far the main problem was considered gauge differences between Poland (1435mm) and the Baltic states (1520mm) and - at least politicians – see the idea of building a 1435mm gauge from the border of Poland further to the north reasonable. In European Parliament election 2009 just one political party did put a single phrase about Rail Baltica project in their program: ‘We are supporting this project because it will allow reaching Berlin within 10 hours from Riga by train’. I voted for them although I knew that an aircraft reaches Berlin in 1hour and 35minutes and their statement just proved that Rail Baltic - as presented so far - is not a runner.

Rail Range – 3.5 Hours
Projects in Europe show that most passengers prefer train rather than plane if travel time on train is no longer than 3 – 3.5h. The current record of system-wide average speed 279.4 km/h is set by French TGV. If we suppose that a new system with average speed of 280 km/h is built the maximum travel range of 980km is set. The further city reachable from Tallinn would be Warsaw (air service dropped in 2008); from Riga – Poznan (no direct service); from Kaunas and Vilnius – Berlin (no direct service, just connections at RIX, CPH, WAW). 
Building the Earth's best standard gauge high-speed rail line trough Poland and the Baltic states would result in attracting passengers from Warsaw to Vilnius, Kaunas, Riga and Tallinn  - whith all currently have a poor air service and few daily (2 to 3) coach service. Berlin - one of the busiest air routes out of RIX – would see no impact. More real average speed v=180 km/h would give feasible connections just from Warsaw to Kaunas and Riga. I strongly doubt Baltic States need such multi-billion project to ease connection in very limited city pairs in North – South axis.

Rail Baltica as Baltic Domestic System
Rather than spending billions for building totally new and separate 1435mm tracks I advise building 1520mm high-speed lines for local use. The biggest problem in the Baltic railways is lack of direct lines between capitals. Riga-Tallinn rail route take a long detour trough Tartu (30% longer than the direct highway); Riga-Vilnius take detour trough Šaulai and Kaunas with make the route 20% longer then the direct highways. I propose new Rail Baltica concept in 4 stages.

Stage 1: Jonava to Panavėžys. This line ads the missing connection from Panavėžys to Vilnius, Kaunas and further south – Marijampolė and Alytus. As Panavėžys is the 4th city in Lithuania considerable flows can be attracted to the two biggest cities in Lithuania.  
Stage 2: Panavėžys to Riga. This section includes optional stops at Pasvalys, Bauska and Iecava. As Riga is the biggest city in the region business and tourism traffic will be attracted and induced. If RIX south and/or north rail link is built - this line can beat BT’s feeder routes from VNO and KUN. Nonstop services from Lithuania are possible to Jūrmala, Ventspils, and Tartu. Stage 1 and 2 is to be the most important rail corridor in the Baltic region because it connects the most populous cities.
Stage 3: Tallinn to Pärnu. Existing rail service is extremely poor – serious upgrades and new sections are required. Pärnu can be connected to North-East region.
Stage 4: Riga to Pärnu. New line needed at least between Saulkrasti and Pärnu. This line would attract all Riga- Tallinn passenger traffic and could provide direct service from Tallinn to various cities in Latvia and Lithuania.

Flexible Solutions
Broad gauge Rail Baltica would not require extremely expensive new tracks in mayor cities but uses the existing infrastructure. High speed passenger lines differ from classic lines with bigger radii (~7km) of curves, advanced catenary and signaling systems. If a new line is built it must correspond to highest geometrical and track standards – the rest can be installed later and speed increased gradually. Train sets must go on two voltage standards (3kV DC in Riga and Tallinn; 25kV AC in Vilnius – Kaunas route and new high-speed lines) – alternatively - 3kV DC can be substituted with diesel generators. Furthermore - more expensive dual gauge train sets could still cross the Polish border and reach Warsaw.

Freight trains require smaller slope gradients but this seems not to be a problem in the flat terrain of the Baltic States. Freight must be reloaded regardless on location of reloading terminal – weather in Tallinn, Riga and Kaunas as in 1435mm proposal – or near the Polish border in case of 1520mm gauge tracks.

I hope the policy-makers will leave their ambition of building standard gauge railway across Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia as it would be very unflexible and expensive. Intra-Baltic network can give bigger benefits with lower cost.


  1. I doubt what sort of passengers would use such high-speed trains?! Tourists would be able to afford the higher price, but are seasonal and in small numbers. Shopping tourists would rather prefer cheaper buses which would drop and pick up them right at the Gariunu black market in Vilnius. Migrant workers would rather stay a week, thus 2 or 5 hours on their way just once a week wouldn't matter that much. Businessman tend to use their own cars, especially if they have to carry samples or small quantities of products. Freight transport wouldn't increase the speed to 200km/h due to higher fuel consumption.

    Whereas the number of eventual passengers would be small, whereas the railway tracks are already there in the route Vilnius-Kaunas-Siauliai-Jelgava-Riga-Tartu-Tallinn (or maybe even Narva-St.Petersburg), and whereas these existing tracks permit the velocity of 150km/h (correct me if I am wrong) - there's no need to risk building a new high-speed train or even investing large amount of money just for passengers.

    Latvia could rather use its geographic location for logistics and transit business, by investing in motorways (for the benefit of both freight and passengers) and maybe charge some competitive fee (especially from trucks at the Russian border): ViA Baltica motorway would interconnect the Baltic states, Riga-Koknese-Zilupe would connect Latvia to Russia, whereas Riga-Pleskava and Daugavpils-Zilupe would connect the freights of all Europe to Russia.

  2. You are right Reini! See my report on coach transport in the Baltics:
    Though Riga - Kaunas and Riga - Tallinn sections of Rail Baltica can be used for local services the market must be induced anyway. I think that highways (maybe with separate lanes for coaches and trucks) and aviation could (and already do) replace rail services.
    The fuel prices are an unknown for aviation but some alternatives may come. Also I don't see a possibility to build new railways in Latvia as we even can't get resources for highway maintainance which is a higher priority cos beeing door-to-door.

  3. I don´t support your idea. My main argument is that there is not enough demand to support the system with passenger trains only. Rail Baltica is almost solid project because it involves freight trains. And route is appealing for freight trains because new track with European gauge is much much faster and more direct than current track. But when we exclude freight trains, then of course Rail Baltica becomes instantly a waste of public money. So i think we should find out whether Rail Baltica can face the competition with shipping and auto transport. If yes, then let´s build Rail Baltica. And passengers will benefit as well. But if Rail Balica is unable to compete with ships and truck in freight transport, then Rail Baltica is a beautiful dream. There is not enough passenger demand to justify the project.

  4. Sorry for bit late response, didn't notice your comment.
    I think 1435mm gauge is even less necessary for freight traffic. As we know the freight is coming in transit from CIS on 1520mm tracks, it is not originating in the Baltic states. Consequently no meter how far the 1435mm tracks are built to the Northeast, break of gauge with 1520mm tracks will happen anyway. So why to bring 1435mm tracks to the Baltic states at all? Better build one freight terminal on Polish-Lithuanian border and transfer the freight on the existing border between the two gauge systems.