Friday, January 7, 2011

High-speed rail Riga-Jēkabplis

In December 2010 Latvian Transport Minister Uldis Augulis came with a sensational proposal about High-speed rail (HSR) connecting Riga and Moscow. Instead of listing all reasons why Riga-Moscow HSR in unreasonable, I developed a new proposal – Latgale HSR stretching from Riga to Jēkabpils. French LGV Est has demonstrated that HSR can work not only with multi-million cities at booth ends but also as a trunk line with several branches to smaller cities all around the region - similar to the situation in Latgale. The primary use of Latgale HSR would be providing passenger transport from Riga to Jēkabpils and further east on three branches – to Daugavpils Rēzekne and Madona. And the secondary use – an additional freight capacity to Riga port. Though ‘classic’ HSR are passenger-only, several HSR in Germany and at least one in France have/will have mix of freight and passenger trains.
Where is the problem?
The existing railway between Riga and Jēkabpils was finished in 1861, since then dozen of towns and villages have emerged near the stops. It is the busiest railway in Latvia carrying big number of freight, suburban and bit smaller number of regional and intercity trains. If traffic will continue to grow, it will become very difficult to sustain so big variety of services on one railway so a need for alternative tracks may emerge. Furthermore – in favor to road transport, the construction of highway replacing the old and inconvenient road trough the towns and villages has already started. If no significant improvement is done to increase the intercity services on the railway, road traffic may steel significant part of passengers.

How this HSR to improve situation?
If a new rail line is considered, it must be build according to modern standards – e.g. the high speed no less then 300km/h. This would allow removing the slot-hungry intercity express service from the old railway. As passenger transport alone could not justify construction of new railway, it must be used also for freight traffic – especially the one heading to docks on the left bank of Daugava in Riga (supposed to be built soon) thus avoiding crossing of the busy Railway Bridge in Riga. The HSR should be routed south of river Daugava because the area is sparsely populated, flat and have vast state forest properties. The whole length of the new railway is approximately 130km; on average speed of 230km/h travel time would drop to 40minutes from Riga Central to Jēkabpils South so cutting the travel time to Daugavpils, Jēkabpils and Rēzekne by more then 1 hour.

A capacity increase by doubling the last single track sections is underway on the old railway so the slot problem will be solved at least for 20 years. But if politicians truly want to make passenger trains the mayor transportation mode in the state, the frequencies and operational speeds for intercity trains should be increased and that also leads to considerably smaller overall capacity of the railway. Latgale HSR is not a project desperately needed right now, but it should be carefully considered by planners. Riga to Daugavpils and Riga to Rēzekne are two of most developed intercity train routes in Latvia and market for passenger transport is bigger than for Rail Baltica or Riga-Moscow HSR project, meanwhile the 130km stretch require far less investments then the other two proposals.


  1. On the left bank of Daugava there are some small cities like Baloži, Baldone, Ķekava and a lot of "meadow villages" which are totally car dependant. Do you think HSR Rīga-Jēkabpils might help to solve transport problems in Riga ragion?

  2. More no then yes, because:
    1. There is now way how to build stations in the town centres of Ķekava and Baldone due to lack of space and noise issues. This means much less riders then from towns of similar size with centrally-located train stop;
    2. The interurban trains could make a stop but most probably only one. As the suburban market is Riga-tended and for instance Baldone-Riga market is thousand times bigger than Baldone-Latgale, it will make train loads small on the longest and most expensive section (Baldone-Jēkabplis). Usually this is solved by creating separate suburban service but Ķekava and Baldone are the only towns on the nearby region so I doubt they could justify one.
    3. As the access to stations would be dominated by cars, it would not reduce the car independence (trips involving car), but maybe would reduce car-kilometers, travel time, congestion and fuel burn. And as any suburban P&R facilities, they actually support sprawl and do not solve other sprawl problems - kid mobility, lack of communal services, land transformation, environment fragmentation and others.

  3. Yes sprawl is complicated!
    If we look back in history we see that sprawl is typical phase of urbanisation. Most of the Riga neigborhoods were suburbs at some point. It is almost impossible to fight against sprawl itself, that's why most critiques of sprawl including New urbanism are adopting so called organised sprawl. Making the suburbs denser, mixed use, less dependant to city. The problem with sprawl all around the world is that people from suburbs work in city. Only 20-30% of people from Riga region municipalities (Garkalne, Mārupe, Babīte, Ķekava, Carnikava) work in their municipalities. 2/3 of them work in Riga. And most of them go to Riga by car because it is the most convenient way of transportation. And it means thousands of cars and it is one of the main reasons for traffic congestions in Riga.
    I have heard proposal to build streetcars to Jūrmala, Mārupe (including Riga airport, Ķekava even Ogre etc. Do you think it is possible? Do you have other ideas for Riga region?

  4. Well, answer to your question is worth hundreds of pages :)
    As for trams to Ogre ad Jurmala - no, there are suburban railway, trams don't go dozens of kilometers. Mārupe and Ķekava maybe could have some sort of LRT, but it must be implemented starting from usual buss service, then to BRT and converted to railway only after significant demand is reached.
    Some of the suburbs are around older villages (Mārupe, Jaunmārupe, Ķekava)and potentially could be developed as independent areas using transport and zoning measures. But for "meadow villages" this will not work. Anyway it is too early to think about re-developing the existing sprawled communities before controlling further sprawl. Long way to go knowing that the problem is not even recognized by most of public and politicians.
    Many Riga neighborhoods (Iļģuciems, Čiekurkalns, Jugla) are not sprawl in modern sense. They emerged because of factories near railways and docks; labor lived in a walking distance without commute to the CBD. Modern Riga sprawl also include industrial objects but nowadays labor have cars and don't have to live next to the job.

  5. Just for a record: there must be "3. As the access to stations would be dominated by cars, it would not reduce the car dependence (trips involving car)", not 'independance'.

  6. Regarding to sprawl as I said: You can't win this fight. We can not stop the sprawl totally. (I believe I will finish a more detailed post in 2 weeks about sprawl which I am writing for 2 months)
    A succession of transportation and communication technologies: first, the railroad and the streetcar; later, the automobile ; lastly, the telephone, television, and the Internet. In addition, regional shopping malls, e-shops, e-bay, etc. have helped people to spread out. Even environmental technologies—small sewage treatment facilities and micro power plants—have allowed people to live in more dispersed communities than in the past. Cities will never be as dense as it was 100, 200, 500 or 2000 years ago.
    What we can do is to change the form of sprawl because the present spatial structure doesn't work. That's why reduced car-kilometres would be also a success.
    It would be some kind of park-ride system if people from "meadow villages" went to station and left their cars there.

  7. I'm not so sure about what you say. Yes, we have technologies that allows living in sparse patterns, but it don't mean that it is as cheap as living in dense districts. For instance winter maintenance of roads is expensive and the costs depends only on the total road length not on the number of users, so making the per-user cost much higher in suburbs then in city. It's covered by hard cash that seriously influence the state economy. If now housing and transport spendings may be considered secondary to the surrounding environment and personal desires, it may sharply change in following decades. States and households had run into debts, fuel price is unpredictable, the competition between cities may become intense and the labor costs start to really mater. Politics is not only about spending, it is also about earning; while giving more expanses, suburbs give next to nothing in "income" field compared to denser neighborhood, so is it really necessary. What would be very effective tool against sprawl is a la carte idea - you pay for what you use depending on the actual cost of particular infrastructure and number of users. That would be tricky to implement, but push people to live in more sustainable patterns.

  8. Yes! Living in dense neighborhoods is cheaper. What I am trying to say that cities won't be as dense as before. In Rome 2000 years ago there were 1 mlj inhabitants in 10km2. In London and New York there were times when density was 100 000-300 000 people per km2. Cities won't be as dense anymore. Also the way the suburbs are built nowadays in inefficient. Suburbs must change but we cannot force people stay within 10, 50 100 km2. It would be more efficient but it won't work.
    One example by Bruegmann: In the 19th century, London exploded outward as developers threw up mile upon mile 2 storey brick terrace houses. The resulting cityscape horrified highbrow British critiques of the time, who considered the new districts to be vulgar, cheap and monotonous. Nevertheless, the houses continued to be built because so many middle-class inhabitants of central London saw them as a vast step upward for their families. In the second half of the 20th century, highbrow opinion came around and today they are widely considered to be the very model of compact urban life. Ironically enough, they are today often considered the antithesis of sprawl.
    I am trying to say that sprawl will happen because mobility and technologies allows it but we must change the way the suburbs are made. Make them more efficient and less dependant to inner city.

  9. Hard task, so far exactly the opposite has happened - self-sufficient towns and villages became suburbanized.
    But about new business districts in suburbia - there are risk of crating an edge city - a car-based business district that serves lots of suburbs and brings almost no benefits to those living right next to it.
    Even now primary jobs move to suburbs just to avoid the city and allow easy access for suburban people from all around the metropolitan area, and do not concentrate on suburb they're located in. If you make a new business district in suburbs, it will tend to be more like the little brother of the CBD (just without the congestions, annoying cyclists, trolleybuses and other environmental bullshit), not like a classic town centre somewhere in the countryside serving one particular area. I hope you get my point. Maybe there still is a way to create something truly independent in the suburbs - like university or big corporation campus. Need to think about this.

  10. It is hard task! Noone has solved it yet!
    I don't think that it is possible to make suburbs truly independent because they cannot compete with the opportunities which offer the city. And the city is so near. But if they could offer majority of them it would be the key of success.