Estonian estimates throw light on the real cost of transitioning from Russian to European track gauge, Source: Unsplash

What would it cost Estonia to switch from Russian to European railway gauge?

What would it cost Estonia to switch from Russian to European railway gauge?

With the omnipresent talk about food security and energy independence from Russia, the fact that some EU countries’ railways are still widely using the Soviet standard has been overlooked

Apart from energy supply lines and sprinklings of war monuments, the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) have another very tangible reminder of their Soviet past – their railways. The three countries still widely use the Russian gauge of 1520 millimetres, which indicates the space between the two rail tracks. For comparison, the European gauge is 1435 millimetres.

In essence, this means that in terms of railway infrastructure (projected to be an important engine of sustainable mobility for the future) the Baltics are still more connected to Russia than to the rest of Europe. This could also represent a possible security soft spot, which hasn’t received as much attention as the more prescient issue of energy delivery.

But how much would it cost to restructure the Baltic railway tracks to European standards? Recently, Kaido Zimmermann, Chairman of the Board of Estonian Railways, gave an estimate of 8.7 billion euros for that country alone! It turns out it would be quite pricey plus it would take time, but eventually, it probably has to be achieved.

Obstacles on the (rail)way

According to Statistics Estonia, the total length of public and non-public railways registered in Estonia is 2143 km, plus about 300-400 km of railways that are not entered in the register. That is, the total size of the 1520/1524 mm railway network is 2500 km. Replacing the tracks would also mean replacing the rolling stock (the actual trains), and that has been included in the price estimate.

According to Zimmermann, replacing the railway with a new railway on such a scale means the stoppage of train traffic in Estonia for almost ten years, which, according to him, is contrary to the goals of the transport policy of the Estonian state and the European Union to bring more passengers and goods to the railway during the next decade.

"Therefore, the only way to switch to a European-wide railway is to build another railway system next to the existing one and later liquidate the old railway," he told ERR, the Estonian Broadcasting Service.

This, naturally, would also mean acquiring more land for the new tracks adding to the cost. According to Zimmermann, considering the very high cost of rebuilding the entire railway, Rail Baltica grand project should be completed first. That high-speed line, which will go from Tallinn (Estonia), crossing the other two countries to end in Warsaw (Poland) will be the first infrastructural addition using the European gauge.

It is expected to be completed in 2026, with trains on it running speeds of 250 km/h. Mr Zimmerman is of the opinion that it will serve as the backbone of the new railway network and only after its completion can the gradual replacement of the old gauge begin.

The European Commission’s railway vision

The idea of ​​the European Commission’s TEN-T (Trans-European Transport Network) policy is to better connect EU cities and regions so that the travel time between them is shorter. It is still necessary to update the TEN-T regulation in order to build the missing connections and modernize the infrastructure. The proposal for the TEN-T Regulation was published on 14 December 2021 and is currently under negotiation. In connection with Russia's war in Ukraine, the committee considered it necessary to submit a proposal for correction to the draft regulation.

After the war in Ukraine began, the draft contains a proposal that two years after the entry into force of the regulation, member states with a railway with a gauge other than the standard European one (except Ireland) must submit a preliminary plan to migrate to a width of 1435 mm.

The bill extends EU transport corridors to the territories of Ukraine and Moldova, including, for example, the ports of Mariupol and Odessa. On the other hand, Russia and Belarus will be removed from the TEN-T maps.



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