The lack of transparency about the supposedly high-speed railway project connecting the Baltic states with Poland and perhaps even Germany threatens to throw public trust off the rails.
Anyone who has travelled in Western Europe by train knows that using this mode of transport is convenient – it’s comfortable, spacious, quiet, fast and yet relatively safe. With wireless internet increasingly standard everywhere, the train can also double as a mobile workstation, something that coaches and planes are struggling to provide. Along with ships, rail travel is also the most environmentally friendly mode of transportation.
In Estonia, rail travel, which dominated land transport in the pre-war period (until 1939), has been relatively unpopular for the most part of the last 80 years. The unpopularity was caused by the uncomfortable and slow Soviet trains and an inadequate railway network; hence, passengers preferred coaches or, individualistic as Estonians are, private cars. For example, to travel from the Estonian capital, Tallinn, to the country’s “summer capital”, Pärnu, took about two hours by a coach but twice as long by train – not to mention that the seats in the Soviet-made rolling stock were as hard as a rock.
However, since Elron, a government-owned passenger train operator, took over the domestic passenger train services in 2014, rail travel has become more popular in Estonia. With brand-new Swiss-made electric and diesel trains came the comfort and convenience that passengers were accustomed to in Western European rail travel.
Dishonesty and the lack of transparency
So when the decades-old idea of building Rail Baltica – a rail line linking Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland with the rest of the Europe – re-emerged from the dusty shelves in 2015, with a funding approved by the European Commission, most Estonians first expressed enthusiasm for the project. According to a survey conducted in October 2015, 69% of people aware of the Rail Baltica project supported it. But public opinion has dwindled since. The latest survey, published in March 2018, showed that now just 52% of people – a very narrow majority – support the project.
What split public opinion between 2015 and 2018? The simple answer is dishonesty and the lack of transparency on behalf of those responsible developing and implementing the Rail Baltica project.
First, there is the cost. In autumn 2015, the budget was estimated at €4 billion. Two years later, the estimated cost had increased to almost €6 billion. And while the European Commission has agreed to co-fund 85% of the costs involved to build the Rail Baltica, it is still unclear how much money will the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian governments have to pour into it to maintain the huge infrastructure project afterwards. Remember, when we’re talking about the government’s money, we’re effectively talking about our – i.e. the taxpayers’ – money.
In 2017, Ernst & Young Baltic – the Baltic branch of the London-based global accounting firm – prepared a cost-benefit analysis on the Rail Baltica, at the request of the Riga-based Rail Baltica coordinator company, Rail Baltic AS. In the analysis, EY said the project’s long-term profitability lies in its wider socio-economic benefits, such as cleaner air and fewer road deaths due to less car traffic on the Tallinn–Riga–Kaunas route.
But in January 2018, the Estonian pro-transparency NGO, Avalikult Rail Balticust (Openly About Rail Baltica), published a 82-page study which proved the EY analysis contained unjustified benefits valued at least €4.1 billion and would not generate enough benefits for society. For example, EY stated the biggest benefit of Rail Baltica will arise from the liquidation of air pollution. But the NGO’s study proved trucks do not generate the claimed volumes of air pollution in the Baltic states. Manipulation of the emission standards and fuel consumption of trucks had artificially increased the socio-economic benefits claimed in the EY analysis, the NGO said.
A few months prior to the publication of the study by the NGO Avalikult Rail Balticust, their activists were supposed to meet up with the representatives of the Rail Baltica coordinator company in Riga, but the meeting was cancelled as the latter did not want the meeting to be recorded – a prime example of their lack of transparency. The NGO then asked Rail Baltic AS to comment on the faulty EY analysis but received allegedly unprofessionally written answers only four months later.
Hence, the claims about the Rail Baltica’s wider socio-economic benefits were thrown wide open by the NGO Avalikult Rail Balticust study. Serious questions remain about the long-term viability and the project’s cost, which might exceed the socio-economic benefits and therefore become detrimental for society.
Good old sleeper train to Poland
Then there is the issue of speed. Remember, we are talking about a high-speed railway. On the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway, trains travel at 350 km/h, taking about four hours and 30 minutes to complete the 1,318-kilometre (819-mile) journey. The Shinkansen bullet trains in Japan are a bit slower, with maximum speeds of 240–320 km/h. Closer in Europe, the Talgo 350 trains on the Madrid–Barcelona line travel 621 kilometres at 300 km/h. These examples are today’s reality around the world and do not consider what may happen in railway technology 20–50 years down the line.
With Rail Baltica, one of the early selling arguments was that the trains will travel at “up to 240 km/h”. Unfortunately, the reality is that the trains will be running at an average speed of 160 km/h. Now, it may be fine to travel from Tallinn to Pärnu at 160 km/h – that is faster than by a car – but it’s not fine to travel almost one thousand kilometres from the Estonian capital to Warsaw, the Polish capital, at that speed. Effectively, the Baltic taxpayers are being asked to pay for 20th century-style infrastructure that utilises 20th century speed.
The Aarhus Convention thrown in the bin in Estonia
Last but not least, there is also an issue with the environment. In 2001, Estonia signed the Aarhus Convention, an international rights-based agreement that says the public – both in the present and in future generations – have the right to know and to live in a healthy environment. Yet the environmental impact of building a brand-new railway line through the Estonian forests and bogs remains unassessed and many pieces of relevant information have not been made public – contrary to the Aarhus Convention. Many distinguished Estonian scientists, including the former prime minister, Andres Tarand, have made arguments against the Rail Baltica project, but these have fallen on deaf ears.
The Estonian government and parliament ought to listen the legitimate concerns of the nation. To ensure an open and democratic public discussion in a tiny country of just 1.3 million people that prides itself for digital proficiency cannot be that difficult. Ignoring public opinion would backfire sooner or later. As we’ve seen in many countries in Europe, it may happen sooner rather than later by populist electoral victories.
The Rail Baltica project should be suspended in its current form until all the concerns have been addressed.
The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: An artist’s image of the Rail Baltica passenger train.