Brussels Asks Baltic States to Move Ahead on Rail Plan

(By AFP January 14, 2012)

European Union transport commissioner Siim Kallas yesterday urged the Baltic states to press ahead with a planned high-speed railway that will boost their links with the rest of the 27-nation bloc. “This is a historic moment to progress with this project,” Kallas said in Latvia’s capital Riga. “This is the first project which creates the Baltic as a region,” added the EU official, who hails from Estonia.

The aim is to connect Estonia to Latvia and fellow Baltic state Lithuania, and allow onward links to Poland and Germany. A feasibility study released in 2007 said trains would be running at target speeds of 120 kilometers per hour by 2013, but delays in the decision-making process have made that target unrealistic. Kallas said the European Commission — the EU’s executive body — was prepared to organize and fund a new study provided the Baltic trio asked for it.

The commission estimates that the total cost of the rail project will be 3.7 billion euros ($4.7 billion). Kallas signaled that Brussels might be prepared to cover up to 85 per cent of the cost, taking the money from a 10-billion-euro fund earmarked for large infrastructure projects involving at least three countries. “Certainly there will be a fight about this 10 billion,” he warned. “If this fails, we in the Baltic countries will never have enough money to finance such a big project.”

Though cheap by European standards, rail travel remains relatively unpopular in the Baltic states, which joined the EU in 2004, 13 years after regaining independence from the crumbling Soviet Union.

Years of under-investment is one factor, but the Soviet-size rail gauge which remains prevalent also prevents easy integration with Western Europe.

As a result the fastest available rail link between Riga and the Estonian capital Tallinn — a distance of just 300 kilometers — is more than double the four-hour road journey.