The new railways of the east

The thorny politics of Baltic train travel

Indispensable. That’s no doubt how most heads of state would describe the railways these days. Once train networks become established in a territory, trains go beyond being merely useful – they become ingrained in the land. Citizens can’t get around without them. Freight trains ply those routes. So would bring their existence into question, or worse: consider destroying them?

Since trains took off at the start of the nineteenth century, presidents, kings and dictators have looked at the railways and see an opportunity to expand their influence and even the territory they hold sway over.

In the past, Russia, France and Belgium have all proved cases in point. Today, trains have been reborn thanks to the climate crisis, and leaders haven’t overlooked the opportunity presented by this revival.

Let’s take the Rail Baltica project. It all started back in the 1990s, when the Cold War tensions were beginning to thaw (if not dissipate completely). The USSR was declining slowly and three countries in particular were keen to rid themselves of Soviet control: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The three Baltic countries were soon to gain independence, and in fact intended to do without the backing of their Russian neighbour entirely. How would they do it? You guessed it: the railways would come in very handy.

The young nations hadn’t yet joined the European Union, but wanted to establish railway connections from the get go. That wasn’t necessarily an easy feat. Their train networks were based on the Russian model, with a gauge of 1,520mm, while almost everywhere else in Europe was 1,435mm instead. Those few millimetres were to stymie the momentum of the new Baltic democracies: all connections with Poland – and therefore the rest of western Europe – would require a long and tedious overhaul of the entire network.

And yet. In 1994, Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians turned to their new western allies and said: if we were to team up and collaborate on a railway network, would that not signal that the Russians had been defeated? They would have to wait until 2010 for the project to really get under way. But by this point, the European Union had promised to finance 85 percent of the Є5.8 billion costs, with 15 percent being split between the Baltic states themselves.

So what exactly is Rail Baltica? It will transport both passenger and freight over 850km, from Poland right up to Finland. On paper, it seems the Baltic countries have ensured each will get their fair share of tracks: 229km for Estonia, 235km for Latvia and 264km for LIthuania.

But what else? The Estonians have hit the jackpot. Once in Tallinn, by the Baltic Sea, the new line will continue beneath the water. A tunnel of 85km, the longest in the world, will link the Estonian capital with Helsinki in just 20 minutes, compared with two hours 30 minutes if you were to take the boat right now. The Lithuanians are least well-off: having Vilnius on the line would have required a 150km detour, so instead it will link up with second city Kaunas.

The idea of Rail Baltica first came about in 1994. However, it will only be finished sometime between 2026 and 2030, at least at the time of writing. Because even if world leaders have spent some time trying to agree on the plan, environmental NGOs don’t necessarily view the outcome in a positive light. In Estonia, notably, the railways infringe on zones classed as ‘Natura 2000’, which are wildlife areas protected by… the European Union. And their mobilisation has paid off, as one chunk of the line will have to skirt around them, in the region of Pärnu, not far from the Latvian border.

Add to that a constant when it comes to these kinds of mammoth projects: the costs really add up and might even reach seven billion euros between now and the end of the works. And then there’s the task of coordinating arrangements between the Baltic leaders who, a bit like the French and English attempting to start construction of the English channel, start out each with their own agendas and strategies, and proceed at very different rhythms.

In ten years, Rail Baltica will totally change the way Baltic citizens get around. And the Russians have already started decrying the nature of the project. The sluggishness of the construction process has proved a field day for the press, with the state-backed Vzgliad adding: ‘The European railway running from Warsaw to Tallinn will only be useful for the rapid transfer of heavy military gear and NATO troops along the Russian border.’ If you were to believe them, the Cold War is very much in full swing.

Those interested in the intersection of rail travel and international politics should check out the book Géopolitique du Rail by Antoine Pecqueur, who dissects with brio the way the train has influenced borders and zones of influence around the world.

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