October 21, 2013
The Rail Baltica Project is one of the core projects of the European Union, being part of the Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T), and aimed to link Finland with the Baltic States (i.e. Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia), Poland and Germany. The project has been prepared and developed since 1994, but still the opportunity to get it on track seems uncertain. What are the reasons for such an enduring standstill?
The Rail Baltica project has been recently re-triggered after the initiative and the strong interest of the European Commissioner for Transport, Siim Kallas, an Estonian himself, counting on the benefits that such a plan could not only bring for the the region, but for the European Union altogether. Eurocrats are reckoning for the economic prospects of the railway that is expected to link Norther, Western, and Eastern Europe through the transport of goods, people, and merchandises, thus facilitating exchanges and transactions in the European single market. In addition, and given that the Baltic states are still mantled commercially on Russia, the railway could liberate additional routes of transport and bring the periphery closer to the center.
What is more, the construction plan is expected to boost growth and create thousand jobs, with a considerable number of them taking a permanent character, whereas it can also establish ties and make profits for the European Union through the transit of freight between the Baltic ports, Russia, Central Asia, and China. Above all, behind the idea of the railway, lies a wider perspective for a closer and more competitive market, aligning with the principle of federalism towards a hyperstate Union and a lesser centralized nation-state mindset.
The answer for such a long-lasting standstill can be explained through various prisms. The most important one is that such a railway would dissociate Russia from the Baltic states, still considered to be commercially and economically dependent to Kremlin. Electricity grids are synchronized with the big neighbor whereas gas supply is unilaterally provided by Gazprom. Furthermore, Russia has already discouraged the recaption prospect of the railway by taking preventive measures, as for instance in Lithuania, which has just had its dairy products banned by Russia. Who wouldn’t wage for Russia’s tenuous policy against its neighbors, especially in a period of deep geostrategic divisions and concerns in its backyard? It is certain that Kremlin will not allow the development of Rail Baltica unless the European Union finds a way to compromise with the cost of such a development and, at least, split benefits in both sides.
Another issue of big concern is the efficiency of such a project, given that the existing railways in all three Baltic states are mainly freight-oriented with little passenger traffic. This argument can hardly justify a railway network with advanced speed lines and trains travelling at more than 240 km per hour, especially when the paying-off standard is currently low. In this respect, and considering that the European Union is proposing to fund up to 85% of the estimated cost of 3.7 billion euro, doubts are additionally growing.
All things considered, it goes without saying that apart from the financial cost, the geostrategic balance with Russia, and the concerns over the paying-off, the European Union and the Commission should think broader. The transport demand inside the European Union borders is getting more and more crumbled, as the flight cost increases significantly. The Rail Baltica, as well as the other nine pan-European corridors that are projected should be further developed, as it is certain that they will give a viable alternative for the citizens of Europe to travel in lower cost, but in relatively higher frequency long-term.Dimitris Rapidis