The largest infrastructure project in the Baltic region for a hundred years is underway.
The 870 km Rail Baltica project will connect the capitals of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia with Warsaw and the rest of Europe, allowing trains from the continent to run without interruption.
However, the project is both symbolic and physical.
For the EU, it is a declaration on the return of the Baltic States to Europe and their decoupling from their Soviet past.
An ambitious project
Discussions on an inter-Baltic railway project have increased since the late 1990s, with the signing of a cooperation agreement by the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian transport ministers in 2001.
However, it was not until 2010 that a memorandum was signed by representatives of the transport ministries of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland.
While it currently takes seven hours to travel from the Lithuanian capital to that of Estonia, the new line will almost halve that time to just three hours and 38 minutes.
The railway will start in Tallinn before going through Pärnu, Rīga, Panevėžys and Kaunas before reaching the Lithuanian-Polish border; there will also be a connection to Vilnius from Kaunas.
Once completed, the trains will be able to travel to the Baltic from Poland, with passenger trains running at a maximum speed of 234 km/h.
Although the project is not cheap with an estimated cost of €5.8 billion, the cost-benefit analysis of the project predicts that the project would yield up to €16.2 billion in quantifiable benefits.
The cost of the project for the Baltic countries is alleviated thanks to EU funding of 85% of the project through its Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) instrument.
So far, the EU’s CEF fund has contributed €824 million to the new line.
The project is so colossal that its construction alone is expected to create 13,000 full-time direct jobs and another 24,000 indirect jobs.
When completed, the line will be the latest addition to the EU’s North Sea-Baltic Corridor, a trans-European route including key cities such as Rotterdam, Berlin and Warsaw.
For passengers, there will be regular connections with at least one international train service every two hours, which will translate to eight pairs of trains per day in each direction.
In addition to speeding up passenger journeys, the project will also reduce freight costs and provide an efficient means of transporting mass cargo.
Perhaps more important to the EU than the economic promise of the project is its political message.
While the Baltic was once connected by European railway standards of 1435 mm gauge, since its Soviet occupation the region’s railway system has adopted the Russian gauge which is 1524 mm.
This difference severely limited the Baltics’ ability to connect to Europe by rail, as passengers or freight had to be reloaded onto a new train at the Polish border before continuing.
Due to its Russian size, the Baltic has generally relied on a west-east axis, with much of its rail trade coming from Russia.
However, since their independence in the 1990s, the Baltic countries have swung towards Brussels and away from Moscow.
The countries joined NATO in March 2004, and EU membership soon followed in May; both moves infuriated Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the face of growing Russian aggression, the three countries were already looking to increase their interoperability with the rest of the EU, but Putin’s invasion of Ukraine added urgency to that.
In August, the project attracted military mobility funds from Latvian funds, demonstrating the civilian and military features of the program.
“Under the current geopolitical conditions, the strategic importance of the Rail Baltica project is increasing,” the Latvian Transport Minister said at the time.
“It is particularly important to ensure reliable connectivity with Western Europe and to make full use of the new rail transport connection with Europe to increase our country’s defense capabilities.”
Decoupling the Baltic state’s rail network from Russia is not the only area where countries are trying to reduce their dependence on Russia.
Another legacy of the Soviet occupation is that the electricity grids of the Baltic countries are synchronized with the centralized network of Russia, which raises fears that Russia could cut off the electricity of the countries.
The Baltic states have agreed to complete the desynchronization of the Russian power grid and synchronize with European grids by 2025.
However, in July, Reuters reported that the European power grid ENTSO-E would connect the networks of the Baltic states within 24 hours if the countries were to be disconnected by Russia.
Like all major projects, Rail Baltica has not been without critics.
Speaking to Emerging Europe last year, Priit Humal, board member of the civil movement Avalikult Rail Balticust (Publicly About Rail Baltica), explained that Rail Baltica is as controversial in the Baltics as HS2 is. United Kingdom.
He went on to say that the main difference was in GDP discrepancies, saying Rail Baltica is three times more expensive for Estonia than HS2 for the UK.
Concerns have also been raised about the security of EU funds.
Any decrease in EU funding would have to be compensated by national governments, which could lead to increased public opposition to the programme.
However, with several parts of the project currently under construction, it seems unlikely that the project will hit the buffers before its scheduled completion in 2026.