The “railway project of the century” in the Baltics could become a new Northern European growth engine (article by Logistikk Inside)

The Rail Baltica project, referred to as the infrastructure project of the century in the Baltics, is a ground-breaking investment in rail transport infrastructure with the aim of integrating the Baltic states into the Western European rail network.

In Scandinavia, the Fehmern Belt connection has stolen the headlines in recent years, but for Northern Europe as a whole, the Rail Baltica project is no match for the Danish-German road and rail project.

The fact that the societal benefit is mainly linked to the countries in the Baltics, as well as the neighboring countries of Poland and Finland, has meant that the Rail Baltica project has passed most people in Norway by the wayside. But the project is worth keeping an eye on, as it has the potential to provide an economic boost to a region located in our own immediate area.

The Baltics are part of the integrated railway network developed during the Soviet era. Connecting the Baltics more closely to the West European railway network with a track width of 1435 mm has been an essential project in the EU. 

The project will – in an axis from north to south – connect the cities of Helsinki, Tallinn, Pärnu, Riga, Panevežys, Kaunas, Vilnius, and Warsaw .

The railway stretch is only 87 miles, and the ambition is naturally to unleash part of the unrealized economic potential that lies in connecting cities and regions that until now have had limited contact due to poorly developed infrastructure.

According to the plan, the entire railway network will be ready in 2030, while some of the network may be ready for use as early as 2028. The Baltic countries are pouring a lot of money into the project themselves, but also receive significant funding from the EU, where the corridor is part of the TEN- T corridor North Sea-Baltic.

Important logistics investment

Logistics has been a large part of the sales for the project. Rail Baltica represents a great opportunity for business, both in the Baltic states and Northern Europe in general. At a time when nearshoring has become more important for many Norwegian and European companies, the Baltics are one of the regions expected to play an increasingly important role in the coming years. Better infrastructure for the flow of goods both east and west will therefore be a big plus. 

With fast and reliable freight corridors, the Rail Baltica network provides better access to the European market, and companies in the Baltic States become more competitive on a global level.

The new railway will also make it easier for companies to offer services throughout the region and take advantage of new growth opportunities, while increased mobility within the passenger market can help develop competitive clusters that attract workers across national borders. This can lead to increased economic activity and create jobs.

Three intermodal terminals

The Rail Baltica project will include three new large multimodal terminals in the Baltic countries: Muuga in Estonia, Salaspils in Latvia and Kaunas in Lithuania.

  • Muuga,  in Estonia, an important port city in the Baltics and has, among other things, daily RoRo line traffic to Helsinki. The existing freight terminal is today integrated with the broad-gauge Russian railway network. The aim is to develop a larger area and to make the freight terminal ready for 1435 mm railway track with direct lines to Dusiburg, Rotterdam and other important multimodal hubs in Europe.
  • Salaspils is a hub in the interior of Latvia with good road, rail and sea connections along the roughly 100-mile-long Daugava River, which acts as an important river connection to Russia and Belarus. The final design of the terminal, which is planned to extend over an area of ​​seven kilometres, is expected to be published next summer. A completely new terminal area for logistics and intermodal transport will be established here. 
  • Kaunas , is an inland city in Lithuania, approximately 10 miles west of the capital Vilnius. The work to connect Kaunas to the Western European railway network began several years ago and Kaunas Intermodal Terminal is today the terminus for 1435 mm into the Baltic. The terminal opened in 2015 and was linked to the European 1435 mm network in 2021. 

While the railway infrastructure is adapted to high-speed trains with speeds of 249 km/h for the passenger trains, 120 km/h is the maximum speed for the freight trains. 

Is the Baltics a new growth center?

It is not a given that the Baltics will become a new major growth center as a result of new and modern railway infrastructure. Presentations on glossy papers from the EU and the Baltic authorities that finance the project generally invite a skeptical attitude to what the real effects will be. For example, Kaunas Intermodal Terminal has already “jump-started” and created a new freight corridor between Poland and neighboring Lithuania on a 1435 mm track, without the very big effects being felt yet. 

However, it is still a project that has the potential to transform the Baltics into a new growth center in Northern Europe. The new rail link will facilitate increased trade, investment, and economic development. If the Baltic countries play their cards right and the infrastructure delivers, the Baltics can become more attractive to foreign investors. 

Symbolic break with the Soviet era

The Rail Baltica project represents a symbolic return of the Baltic States to Europe. Before World War II, the Baltic states were already connected to Europe with a 1435 mm gauge, but since the mid-20th century, the Baltic countries have mainly been linked to an East-West railway axis using Russian gauges of 1520 mm. This is reflected in today’s rail traffic. Most freight transport by rail in the Baltic states comes from former Soviet republics, not least from Russia. Rail transport services are mainly offered on the East-West axis using the existing gauge system of 1520 mm. This has made it difficult and expensive to connect the Baltic states to the rest of the EU via Poland. Therefore, it has been something of a political prestige project in the EU to eliminate the missing rail link in the EU. 

Important security policy move

The break with Russia is not only symbolic. Geopolitics and hard security political realities have also been an important part of the background. A backdrop that weighs ever more heavily. 

In short, it is about ensuring better mobility across national borders for allied NATO countries. The integration of Rail Baltica with the European gauge system of 1435 mm provides significant advantages in military mobility.

Despite the fact that Norway also shares a border with Russia, it is difficult to grasp just how important this security policy dimension is for the Baltic countries (and Finland and Poland). After the invasion of Ukraine, nerves are on high for fear of what the aggressive neighbor to the east might come up with. All the countries have a historically strained relationship with Russia.

This article is a translation. The original one can be found here in Norwegian.