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Despite ballooning cost, Lithuania hopes that Rail Baltica will be completed on schedule by 2026
A special express train embarked on a journey from Tallinn to Vilnius on Tuesday, connecting the capitals of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania for the first time since the Baltic states regained their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, LRT reports. The connecting train is part of the initiative to mark the European Year of Rail, and is also used as a tool to promote the strategic Rail Baltica project.
On Wednesday, the train continues on its way from Vilnius to Kaunas where it will be joined by the trans-European train, Connecting Europe Express, coming from Lisbon. The official delegation includes the Baltic transport ministers, officials from the European Commission and the Finnish government, and representatives of Baltic railway companies.
Regular passenger train routes ahead of Rail Baltica
The Rail Baltica project will undoubtedly change the transport systems of the Baltic states, Lithuanian Transport Minister Marius Skuodis said in a press release.
The EU-funded, European standard-gauge fast-speed train will link Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania with Poland and the rest of Europe, and is expected to become operational in 2026. Until then, “it is necessary to exploit the potential of the existing infrastructure network by ensuring regular passenger train routes between the capitals of the Baltic states”, added Skuodis. He suggested that regular train services between Vilnius and Riga, for example, would give a boost to tourism.
Most of the Baltic rail infrastructure is still centered on the wider, Soviet-era rail gauge. After the opening of Kaunas intermodal terminal, however, freight trains can already reach Lithuania using the European gauge railway line. This will allow Vilnius and Warsaw to be connected next year by a direct train route, Skuodis said.
The Lithuanian transport minister said he hoped to reach a deal with the European Union on Rail Baltica's funding and expects the works to proceed on schedule. The official cost estimate of the project stands at EUR 5.8 billion.
However, a June 2020 report by the European Court of Auditors (ECA) concluded that Rail Baltica's costs had risen by almost 2.4 billion euros to 7 billion with a further increase possible in the future. The auditors also questioned the project's economic sustainability and had doubts about its timely completion by 2026.
In a letter leaked to Politico in January 2021, the leaders of the Baltic countries called on then EU council president Portugal to ensure the guarantee funding for the Rail Baltica project, hinting that otherwise they might block the approval of EU’s recovery fund.
Fast-train concept revealed
The concept of the fast-speed train that will link Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania with the rest of Europe was unveiled earlier this year. RB Rail AS, the joint company of the three Baltic states, said that the Baltic Sea, the unifying element of the three countries, has served as an inspiration for the design of the upcoming train model.
The train will consist of eight cars, each with about 70 seats. The state-of-the-art interior will include a conference room, a cafe, toilets, bicycle stands and dedicated spaces for pet-carrying passengers. An option would allow smooth transport of luggage during transfers between the Baltic airports.
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