When Rail Baltica will be completed it will show where we chose to be

Henrik Hololei
Director-General for Mobility and Transport
European Commission

Since 24 February we live in a completely new reality following Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified military aggression against Ukraine. The EU has shown immense solidarity with Ukraine from day one: politically, financially, militarily and with massive restrictive measures against Russia to reduce its capacity to wage this war. Within days of Russia launching its military aggression against Ukraine, we had imposed the largest sanctions packages of our Union’s history. The extent and weight of these sanctions are unparalleled. These measures increase the cost for Russia to carry out its inhumane military intervention and place a considerable constraint on its military capabilities. Our aim is to cut off the Kremlin’s capacity to wage war on its neighbours.

However, very quickly it became clear that connectivity would be key to support Ukraine’s courageous and determined fight against the Russian aggressor. As a consequence of Russia’s invasion and in particular the blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, Ukraine as a major grain producer, was simply unable to export its agricultural goods in the necessary quantities. The disruption to transport links and export routes meant that grain produced in Ukraine could not reach traditional destination markets, and Ukraine’s silos would not be empty in time for the next harvest unless alternative routes were found.

Transport stakeholders quickly reacted to Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and, with the support of the Commission, frontline Member States, Ukrainian and Moldovan authorities, established new, alternative routes via road, rail and inland waterways between Ukraine, the EU and the rest of the world basically overnight – the so-called “Solidarity Lanes”.

The Solidarity Lanes have become a precious and indispensable lifeline for Ukraine and also a safeguard against a global food crisis. Since May, they have enabled Ukraine to export more than 34 million tonnes of goods, including more than 17 million tonnes of Ukrainian grain, oilseeds and related products. They have generated over EUR 19 billion for Ukrainian farmers and businesses. And they have also allowed war-torn Ukraine to import more than 11 million tonnes of goods it needs, such as food, fuel and much-needed humanitarian aid. The Solidarity Lanes are here to stay. They will be turned into permanent transport and trade corridors between Ukraine and the EU, helping Ukraine move closer to our Single Market.

Rail has been essential to the export of Ukrainian grain, accounting for more than 1/3 of Ukrainian agricultural exports between May and July. However, the different rail gauges have undermined rail’s potential. This has been particularly the case for the three Baltic countries. While they wanted to help Ukraine to maintain access to its export markets via their ports and also send back vital goods, the fact that trains need to change the gauge twice on the way from Ukraine to the Baltic ports makes this export route quite challenging and expensive. Nonetheless, Baltic countries have gone above and beyond to support Ukraine; the regular rail services between Ukraine and the port of Kláipeda in Lithuanian are an excellent example of European solidarity.

Geopolitically, the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine underlines how important it is that troops and military equipment can travel through the EU swiftly to ensure the defence of the European Union and NATO territory. This point becomes even more relevant for the region as Finland and Sweden are joining NATO. Rail Baltica is being built to specifications that make it usable for both civilian and military purposes. Rail Baltica will also open up new routes to the Arctic, a region whose geopolitical importance is set to grow.

This just further highlights the importance of having a well-functioning and modern single transport area in the EU. Unfortunately that is still not the case, and connectivity is still an issue within the EU and we face many gaps and bottlenecks across the European transport network. The plane is the only realistic option for most people wanting to go to Finland or the Baltics from the rest of the European Union. If you do not mind driving hundreds of kilometres along country roads and if you are not in a rush, you might also consider the car. But this is clearly not a sustainable option. In other EU countries high speed rail brings cities closer together, allowing people to travel 310 kilometres from Brussels to Paris in one hour and twenty minutes or 620 kilometres from Barcelona to Madrid in two hours and thirty minutes. Rail can also carry large amounts of cargo to the ports.

In the Baltic States this type of connection is absent, leaving a major missing link in the trans-European transport network and the North Sea – Baltic corridor which should connect the north-western and the north-eastern regions of the European Union by 2030. Yet, better rail connectivity within the region and to the rest of the EU could also bring benefits for the Baltic States and for Finland, environmentally, economically and geopolitically. With this and the experience of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine in mind, the Commission proposed new legislation in July 2022 to gradually unify the European railway gauge. As the first line in European gauge through the three countries, Rail Baltica will be one of the most important lines in this regard.

The environmental and economic benefits are clear: they include shifting transport from road to rail to meet the objectives of the European Green Deal and the Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy reducing CO2 emissions from the transport sector and the dependence on imported fossil fuels. During the construction, the work is being done in accordance with European environmental legislation, making it one of the most environmentally friendly railway line.

Good connectivity remains the basis for economic success and a precondition for a functioning, integrated internal market. It would enable the logistics sector in the Baltics and Finland to develop new markets. Rail Baltica also leads to huge European investments in the region. The European Commission has already allocated more than €1.2 billion to the project and much more is expected in the next rounds of support under the Connecting Europe Facility.

Through this programme, the European Union can pay for 85% of the costs for multi-billion euro railway infrastructure because it is a cross-border project and a major missing link of the trans-European transport network. Getting this co-financing requires that the Baltic states will manage to meet the conditions that are attached to European funding, such as a timely delivery, quality thresholds, and construction and spending deadlines.

Although cross-border projects are never easy to implement, construction has started in all Baltic states. It is most obvious in the centre of Riga, where a new railway station is being built. Lithuanians too will have seen that access roads for the construction of the new railway line are being built and in Estonia people travelling from Tallinn in the direction of Pärnu see the new overpasses under construction along the way.

When it is completed Rail Baltica will also be a symbol. It shows how far the Baltic States have come over the last thirty years. In 2004, the Baltic States joined European Union and this enabled us to flourish and take a path of unprecedented social and economic development. When Rail Baltica will be completed, nearly 40 years after our regained independence, it will show where we chose to be when we left the Soviet Union behind to join the EU as free countries. We will have a real high speed and high capacity rail connection to the heart of the Union.

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