Staunton, July 25 –Lithuanian railways this week signed contracts to replace Russian standard width tracks (1520 mm) with European width tracks (1435 mm) between Sestokai and Marijampole, a project that represents the latest step toward railroad independence for the Baltic countries.
Until now, most but not all of the tracks in the Baltic countries have been Russian width, something that eases transportation between them and the east but means that trains have to shift wheels in order to move westward. But by 2020, if current EU plans are realized, the main north-south line in the Baltics will be European, not Russian width.
That will mean that the Baltic countries will be more integrated into the European system and more independent from the Russian one, although there remain two important reasons to think that even after that change is made, it will not be as complete as some reports this week have suggested.
On the one hand, this shift in gauge involves the north-south route and not the east-west one because the three Baltic countries and the EU are likely to continue to use the broad gauge track in that region for trade between the Russian Federation and Asia and the countries of the European Union.
And on the other, the Russian government is pushing hard for the expansion of broad gauge tracks to Riga and into Slovakia and Austria, something that could reduce traffic and traffic revenues elsewhere and cause one or more of them to drag out the EU-backed program – which is certainly something Moscow would like to see happen.
But whatever happens, Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian officials are likely to continue to take part the Council for Rail Transport of CIS States, a body that organizes cooperation across the region and the only major CIS initiative the Baltic states have participated in since recovering their independence in 1991.
Yesterday, the “Railway Gazette” reported that Lithuania’s LG rail company had signed contracts to extend the European standard gauge tracks from the Polish border to Marijampole (railwaygazette.com/news/infrastructure/single-view/view/standard-gauge-to-reach-marijampole.html?mobile=0&cHash=87a4750d9ee8e1f5b43039f597866d59).
The latest part of the EU’s Rail Baltica project to create a European standard gauge line through the Baltic countries, the Lithuanian effort to build 27.5 km of new tracks an replace 28 km of Russian standard line is expected to take about two years to complete, the railway newspaper said.
The Rail Baltica project calls for the creation of a seamless European standard roadbed from Tallinn in Estonia through Latvia and Lithuania, bypassing the Russian Federation’s Kaliningrad Oblast, to Warsaw, Poland. It is expected to cost about two billion US dollars and will be financed through the EU Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T) program.
(The first segment of this project was in Estonia and involved a shift to the European standard width on the 66 km of track between Tartu and Valga on the Latvian border. Lithuania’s segment is scheduled to be finished in 2015, and Latvia’s upgrades completed in the same year.)
Oddgeir Danielsen, Director of the Nordic Dimension Partnership on Transport and Logistics points out that “railway infrastructure planners need to stop [fixating] on national borders, and start to see the big picture” and argues that if they do, they will recognize the complexities of what is at bottom a political project (nib.int/news_publications/interviews_and_opinions/1134/taking_the_northbound_train_on_nordic-baltic_railway_infrastructure).
The Baltic countries, he says, use the Russian tracks to handle cargo to and from Russia and Asia, and “this is a great market benefit for them since in the railway business the money comes from cargo, not passenger traffic.” But the Rail Baltica project at least so far appears to be more about less profitable passenger links.
That being the case, he and other experts suggest, the three Baltic countries are likely to want to retain their Russian gauge tracks on east-west routes and possibly even welcome after the Rail Baltica project is finished, the construction of a new high-speed Russian gauge track from the Russian Federation to Riga.
They will have all the more reason to do so if Moscow is successful in building a broad gauge track as far west as Vienna, a project that would dramatically shorten transit times to and from Asia and for which Russia, Ukraine, Slovakia and Austria agreed in April 2010 to conduct a feasibility study (eng.rzd.ru/statice/public/en?STRUCTURE_ID=74).