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What is the Rail Baltica high-speed train project?

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Warsaw, Poland – Touted as the largest infrastructure project in the Baltics in over 100 years, the Rail Baltica high-speed railway is now under construction.

Designed to connect the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to Poland and the rest of Europe, Rail Baltica will run – once completed – along 870 kilometers from Tallinn to Warsaw.

Baltics move closer to Europe with ambitious high-speed railway project

With a top speed of 234 km/h (120 km/h for freight), trains will travel through Pärnu, Rīga, Panevėžys, and Kaunas before reaching the Lithuanian-Polish border, with an additional connection from Kaunas to Vilnius.

Upon completion, the three Baltic nations will be fully integrated with other European rail networks like the EU’s North Sea-Baltic corridor, and connections will be made much easier with cities like Warsaw and Berlin, as well as with Finland in the north.

The project should also significantly lower freight costs and increase transport of goods with the rest of the EU, while its construction alone could create more than 20,000 jobs, according to estimates.

With train tracks dating from the Soviet era and build with Russian-width gauge (1524 mm), the Baltic nations have not reconfigured their rail transport to be compatible with European standards (1435 mm), and have thus long struggled to increase their rail connectivity – both for passenger transport and trade – with the rest of Europe.

Huge costs

The idea for an inter-Baltic railway has been under discussion since the 1990’s, but progress has been slow. A cooperation agreement was signed in 2001, but it wasn’t until 2010 that a memorandum was agreed on by the three Baltic nations, Poland, and Finland – now all EU member states.

Rail Baltica has been billed as an unprecedented mega-infrastructure project designed to move away from the region’s Soviet legacy and strengthen its integration with Central and Western Europe. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine likely lent some urgency to the initiative.

“It is particularly important to ensure reliable connectivity with Western Europe and to fully use the new rail transport connection with Europe to increase our country’s defence capabilities,” Latvia’s Transport Minister Tālis Linkaits said in August, making clear the far-reaching political and geopolitical implications.

With an estimated cost of €5.8 billion, Rail Baltica is set to be funded by up to 85% by the EU’s Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) instrument. Completion is scheduled for 2026.

The project has nevertheless attracted its fair share of criticism, Euronews reports, with some voices worried about the huge financial burden (the cost of the entire railway amounts to about 20% of the GDP of Estonia or Latvia) and doubting the certainty of EU funding.