Rail Baltica


8 August 2017

On 23 August 1989, about two million inhabitants of the Baltic states linked hands in a human chain stretching 600km from Tallinn in Estonia through to Vilnius in Lithuania.

The Baltic Way, as the event later became known, was an extraordinary display of unity by the people of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania against the USSR on the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a settlement in which the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany agreed in secret on Soviet occupation of the Baltic states. Within seven months of this protest, Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union; Latvia and Estonia had declared theirs by the end of 1991. And yet, in spite of 13 years of European Union membership, infrastructure in the Baltic states remains deeply interconnected with Russia. Electricity grids in the three countries are still synched with Russia and the region is largely dependent on Russia for gas. While recent initiatives aim to shift the Baltic energy relationships from Russia to Europe by 2025, such plans are fraught with diplomatic difficulties, not least since the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea in Ukraine.

Following Britain’s vote to leave the EU, the election of Donald Trump in the USA, and the continued increase of nationalist voices in mainstream European politics, questions of national sovereignty and identity loom large in 21st-century global discourse. It is a state of affairs that stands in stark contrast to Europe’s historical attempt to curb the power of nationalist sentiment following the catastrophe of two successive World Wars through the establishment of the Council of Europe in 1949 and, later, the European Union in 1993. If such attempts had at one time been perceived as successful – The Economist ran an article in 1995 with the headline, ‘The nation-state is dead’ – a 2016 speech by UK Prime Minister Theresa May revealed the extent to which nationalist sentiment has resurfaced following the 2008 economic crisis: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” Yet despite the numerous challenges to the EU’s ideals of economic integration and freedom of movement, significant financing is being applied to certain cross-national European projects that are intended to reinforce these ideals, perhaps none more significantly than in the Baltic region.

The Baltics’ relationship with Russia between the beginning of Soviet occupation in 1940 up to independence in 1991 has had a profound impact on the connectedness of the region. As in their northern neighbour, Finland, railways in the Baltic nations run on Russian gauge tracks of 1,520mm, rather than on the European standard gauge tracks of 1,435mm. The implications of this for transport infrastructure and forging European links are twofold. On the one hand, as in the relationship between a suburb and its inner city, rail lines from the Baltic cities all point east towards Moscow. Today, there is not even a direct rail connection between Tallinn and Riga, a city some 300km to the south in Latvia. On the other hand, even if there were a direct connection between the Baltic capitals Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius, that connection would be unable to link directly with a train coming from Poland to the south-west because of the difference between the Russian and European gauges. This is the situation that Rail Baltica, the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken by the EU, aims to address. Rail Baltica is a proposed train network which intends to connect not only the three Baltic countries, but also link the entire region – from Poland and ultimately on to Finland, with the potential for an underwater tunnel to connect Tallinn and Helsinki – and better integrate it into the EU. Although the timeline for the project is long-term, with initial estimates of first tracks being laid in late 2018, the three Baltic countries signed an agreement on 31 January 2017, committing them to the project. Unofficial sources suggest the completion of the proposed “Talsinki” tunnel extension between Estonia and Finland could take place after 2030.

Given the region’s lack of an extensive rail network, one would assume that the project would be universally lauded. A complex political climate, however, coupled with a regional economy making slow but incremental improvements in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, mean that not all have welcomed the new train line. Arguments in favour of Rail Baltica hold that greater integration of the Baltic States into Europe is needed, and focus much of their rhetoric on passenger mobility. Critics, however, argue that the project is more closely concerned with the importance of movement of goods and regional economic competitiveness, privileging global capitalism over human-scale utility. Security concerns with respect to neighbouring Russia play another role, with arguments having been put forward that the new train network will support the rapid deployment of European forces across the continent. In a January 2017 interview with Eesti Päevaleht, an Estonian daily newspaper, Vahur Karuse of the planning division of the Estonian Defence Forces underlined the importance of the new railway for defence strategy, suggesting that the rail connection with Europe would allow troops and equipment to travel faster and more freely between Poland and the Baltic states. “Rail Baltica will enable large-scale forces, equipment and supplies moving from Europe to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland,” he said. “As the railway will be built according to European standards, Poland will gain an advantage against the current time-consuming exchange of the chassis, making the whole transport significantly faster.”

IMAGE Maija Savolainen

There are further points of critique. It has been suggested that the train speeds of the proposed network present little improvement over flying times – Rail Baltica estimates a journey time of four hours and fifteen minutes from Tallinn to Warsaw, compared to an hour and a half for flying. Because the area’s low population makes high-speed trains of over 300km/h economically unviable, passenger trains will operate at a maximum speed of 240km/h, with most of the expected income for the project coming from even slower-running freight. Public disagreement has also occurred over the placement of the prospective train routes, as each individual nation is responsible for determining the route through its own territory. Although the global political community tends to view the Baltic states as a grouped entity, the three countries are culturally distinct with separate histories. “The three Baltic countries are more of an artificially-created unit, because, given the political context, it’s easier to speak about them that way,” says Baiba Rubesa, CEO of RB Rail, the joint venture charged with delivering the Rail Baltica project. “They have different histories and different languages.” With this in mind, Rail Baltica has a difficult historical precedent to contend with. Notwithstanding numerous previous proposals, the three countries have never successfully completed an integrated project. Visaginas, a planned joint nuclear power station in Lithuania under discussion since 2005, was officially scrapped in 2016, with sources citing the 2008 financial crisis and weak power market as key reasons. And despite successive political declarations by the Baltic countries that they intend to create an integrated regional gas market, the three countries largely continue to pursue individual gas-related infrastructure projects. “The Balts don’t understand each other the same way that the Scandinavian countries do,” says Rubesa. “They aren’t a natural unit. However, due to the realities of the 20th century, most of the world looks at these three countries as a whole and I think that to a large extent, the three countries have understood that we need to collaborate on the key issues which make us stronger.”

If Rubesa’s observation hints at the problems inherent to the way outsiders tend to merge the three countries into a regional unit, it neglects to speak of more local-level difficulties. Just as a regional unit is not representative of the individual nation-states, neither is a nation-state itself a single, unified entity – consensus over details is often fraught with difficulty, particularly when dealing with a project the scope and scale of Rail Baltica. In Estonia, for example, criticism emerged when a 2012 feasibility study by AECOM engineering consultants indicated that it would not be viable for the existing main rail station in Tallinn to be used as the Rail Baltica terminus. As Tallinn’s existing main station is linked to Russian gauge tracks, the expense resulting from the compulsory purchase of a sizeable amount of privately-owned land in the city centre to construct new EU-gauge tracks alongside the Russian-gauge tracks would be too great. Consequently, the decision was taken to locate Tallinn’s new Rail Baltica station (and the likely terminus for a future Talsinki tunnel connection) in Ülemiste, a subdistrict of Talinn close to the airport to the east of the city, rather than in the city centre itself. “Although there has been criticism from the local architecture community that the heart of the city is spreading out too much, we’re now pursuing an inter-modal terminal with a new bus station and tram line from the city centre to the airport,” says Andres Lindemann, spatial planning specialist for Rail Baltica in the Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications. “It may have been possible to have a smaller, more central terminal, but we have to make the project realistic in terms of timeline and budget. [Additionally], these transport links are important and will have a significant impact on the city.”

At a time when many fear for the future of the EU project, the union continues to push beyond local and even national interests to further integrate its member states on regional and supra-regional scales. Significantly, the EU is the main funder of the Rail Baltica project, to a level of approximately 85 per cent of the estimated total €5bn budget. Naturally, the EU expects the project to comply to its standards and to connect to other EU networks. Consequently, all existing Baltic rail networks are unsuitable, given their use of Russian gauge rather than European gauge. As the Tallinn example shows, criticism of the placement of the new Rail Baltica station and perception of money wasted on the construction of new tracks rather than use of existing tracks speaks to the union’s difficulties in attempting to push beyond the national to implement transnational projects.

If Rail Baltica has often been principally understood as a traditional, bureaucratic and economic infrastructure project, however, it is also a powerful cultural focal point. It provides a lens through which the differences between the three Baltic countries’ cultures are exposed, but also demonstrates the necessity of taking such differences into account if Rail Baltica and other joint infrastructure projects are to succeed. While the rail network’s economic impact will be measured in cost-benefit ratios, its likely cultural and spatial impact across the region is more complex. At the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, for instance, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania united to present the Baltic Pavilion, the first group exhibition by the Baltic states on an international stage since the 1937 Paris Expo. Much of the Baltic Pavilion’s exhibition explored geological, cultural and infrastructural connections between the region’s countries through the lens of a number of specific large-scale infrastructure projects that included Rail Baltica, but also FSRU Independence, a tanker ship which has been used to store liquefied natural gas in Klaipėda, Lithuania, since late 2014.

While the manifestations of such explorations within the pavilion were occasionally oblique – as with Reinis Pētersons’s and Viesturs Celmiņš’s Rail Baltica Poker, an attempt to make the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment more accessible through the simplified graphics of a deck of cards – such haziness reflects the complexity of the Baltic region’s cultural and political networks. “We thought it would be interesting to examine the region as a stratigraphy to imagine a certain kind of geopolitical, geoindustrial entity, defined not only by its history or its geography, but also by attempts to form the future through the management of certain contemporary interests,” says Jonas Žukauskas, co-curator of the pavilion. By way of example, Johan Tali, another of the Baltic pavilion’s nine co-curators, mentions a 2016 UN update on the classification of countries for statistics, which claimed that all of the Baltic countries are Nordic by geography. “It’s interesting to note that in relation to the Nordic countries, and especially to Finland,” says Tali, “there’s an emphasis at the moment on branding Estonia as a Nordic country, despite the fact that, historically speaking, its infrastructures and industries have a very Soviet past.” Tali also points out that the Rail Baltica project has never been perceived by the general public across the three countries as particularly Baltic. Rather than a means to provide a networked Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, he says, the end goal is more concerned with providing a one-directional link from Europe’s furthest-flung, unconnected nodes to its centre. “Given the recent rise of nationalism, people need to be reminded that the invention of the EU was about common resources and the common interest of the EU, which effectively started as a coal mining union,” adds Žukauskas. “The idea was to make everyone so interrelated through shared systems of taxing resources that war became impossible. The current model isn’t so different, only it seeks to relate everyone with roads and railways.”

IMAGE Maija Savolainen

Citing the impersonal ethics of free trade spaces outlined in the architect Keller Easterling’s 2014 book Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space, Tali and Žukauskas insist that Rail Baltica is not about passenger movement as much as it is about enabling a kind of free-trade corridor. According to Easterling, such free-trade zones create “mongrel forms of exception” within national borders: extralegal spaces not subject to normal laws of nation-states where deregulation privileges corporations over citizens. “Certain actors involved in the project repeat the simple script of a free economic zone which neglects the specifics of the place,” says Žukauskas. “But architecture is a great negotiator which could propose a more complex relationship to the existing urban fabric than that offered by these spatial scripts and could, in turn, enhance what is happening with the Rail Baltica project.” Despite a seemingly overwhelming number of extrastatecraft actors, those operating both outside and in addition to the state, the anthropologist and Baltic pavilion contributor Viesturs Celmiņš points out there is much work which could and should be carried out by local architects, planners and geographers, but that a culture of seeking involvement in projects of this scope does not exist in the Baltics. “No one in 2030 is going to take a train from Riga to Berlin at 160km/h [the expected freight speed] with automated cars around,” he says. “So given that the project is about the movement of goods, we have to ask important questions about how we organise transit on the outside of cities and movement of people on the inside. The project can continue in this opaque, extrastatecraft manner, but I don’t think it should. Now, the biggest questions to be determined are, what are the tools, values and regulations which would allow us to create a culture for public involvement and quality control?”

Notably, the critiques offered by the curators of the Baltic pavilion echo broader public perception in the Baltic countries as to a lack of clear information about the Rail Baltica project. In a 2016 survey initiated by Indrek Tarand, an Estonian Member of the European Parliament, 50 per cent of respondents indicated that they were in favour of Rail Baltica, but only 32 per cent considered themselves well-informed about the project itself. In part, this is due to the fact that the project remains in its early stages, despite having drawn considerable media attention: many details have yet to be worked out. “I think we still have a long journey to take,” says Baiba Rubesa. “Not least of which to work out whether or not the three countries understand things in the same way. Right now we’re asking ourselves whether we put technical and engineering concerns at the forefront, or customer expectations? We are only at the beginning of this journey and much will take place this year. By the end of 2018, we’ll have a much clearer picture.”

An important, but as yet unofficially connected, part of the Rail Baltica plan will see the line extended from Tallinn to Helsinki through the creation of an underground tunnel beneath the Gulf of Finland. The existing transport infrastructure between the two cities consists solely of ferries, which in 2016 experienced their busiest year ever with more than 10 million passenger crossings. Back in 1997, when a utopian tunnel crossing was first proposed by a group of Finnish geotechnology engineers, it was quickly discredited. In part, this rejection was owed to the severe economic recession in Finland at the time, but the proposal also faced serious protectionism from the ferry industry. But the election of Jussi Pajunen as mayor of Helsinki in 2005, an enthusiastic proponent of the tunnel, coupled with persistent economic woes, has helped not only to revive the idea of the once-utopian tunnel, but also put steps for its implementation into practice. “When the initial discussion began,” says Pajunen, “it wasn’t a realistic project. It was more a vision, about the first rail connection to central Europe, but also about a very close connection between the two cities of Tallinn and Helsinki.” Twenty years later, it seems that the time for realism has come. In part, the discussions of the Talsinki tunnel have taken on a new seriousness because of Rail Baltica. After 10 years of discussion, Pajunen says, what was once seen as a fantastical connection between two cities on either side of the Gulf of Finland is now seen as the final link in a rail network connecting central Europe to the furthest flung corners of its north-eastern territory.

A major factor contributing to the growing momentum behind the tunnel is the increasing amount of passenger volume on the ferries. According to Pajunen, Helsinki is the busiest passenger port in the entire EU, with the majority of traffic coming from the connection between Helsinki and Tallinn. Since a closer relationship has developed between the two cities following Estonia’s independence in 1991 and entry into the EU in 2004, the patterns of travel have remained largely entrenched: Estonians travel to Finland to work; Finns to Estonia to holiday and shop. “We have 50,000-60,000 people from the southern side of the gulf working in the Helsinki region,” says Pajunen, a significant figure when compared to the peak 2008 figures of 20,000 cross-border commuters across the Öresund bridge between Copenhagen and Malmö, the nearest economically-twinned, trans-national parallel to Talsinki. “Given these figures, one could talk about Helsinki and Tallinn as twin cities,” Pajunen says. “The tunnel is one answer to the question of what is the best way of connecting them? And when I talk about the tunnel, I still feel that it is important to talk about it in a visionary way. It will be realised, but almost certainly not in my lifetime.” The results of an EU-funded feasibility study are expected to be released by the end of 2017, at which point a clearer idea of the project’s likelihood and timeline will emerge.

IMAGE Maija Savolainen

As with Rail Baltica and the competing interests between national interest and regional success, movement of people and movement of goods, the tunnel project is conceived as a way to buy more purchasing power on a global stage given the small populations and relative remoteness of the two cities. The combined population of the Helsinki-Tallinn twin-city area would increase to the size of a medium European city (c. 2-2.5 million, according to Pajunen), in turn increasing its ability to leverage more significant foreign investment – much extant Talsinki promotional marketing material is directed towards China, India and Brazil, and publications jointly produced by the governments of Helsinki and Tallinn already emphasise the ease of doing business across the two cities, often without even mentioning the proposed tunnel. Peter Vesterbacka, the game developer behind Angry Birds, has emerged as one of Talsinki’s most ardent ambassadors and presented at Helsinki’s FinEst Link seminar in November 2016, pitching Eastern investment as ideal given the Helsinki-Tallinn region is a “natural part of the Silk Road”. Irrespective of marketing, other contingent factors could also considerably heighten the appeal of a tunnel between the two cities, most notably potential shipping links from China to Finland emerging from 2040 onwards, when climate change is expected to result in ice-free Arctic Sea routes.

Regardless of how fanciful an undersea tunnel between the two cities might seem, the idea of a twin-city connection is less far-fetched. According to the FinEst Link research project, Helsinki and Tallinn already constitute one labour market area. The most recent figures from 2015 show that 40,000 Estonians work in Finland and 16,000 Finns work in Estonia. Whether the Talsinki tunnel moves forward or not, the two cities seem determined to further strengthen their connection. In January 2016, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the countries to develop further integration with a series of concrete measures in areas such as healthcare, IT and public transportation. On a national level, whether or not concrete policy proposals are ultimately implemented, the dedication to closer links between the twin cities has been repeated in official rhetoric. When the Finnish prime minister, Juha Sipilä, and then Estonian prime minister, Taavi Rõivas, met in November 2016, a spokesperson for the Estonian government quoted Rõivas as saying: “Our two countries’ ever-closer cooperation in developing energy and transport connections and digital services means that the people and economies of Estonia and Finland are more interconnected and the two countries more important to one another than ever before. When one of us is doing well, the other will also do well.”

“For public officials, it’s always an issue of economic competition,” says Hilla Rudanko, an architect who co-founded the Uusi Kaupunki collective in 2013, a group of Finnish architecture firms who examine the role of their discipline as a problem-solving tool. “They want to have the physical, actual connection between the two cities, such as a tunnel. But for architects, the physical connection isn’t so much an issue. It’s the question of the liveability of the city, twinned or otherwise. What brings value to the citizen? That’s the important question.” In 2015, Rudanko organised a workshop between Estonian and Finnish architects to imagine various spatial strategies for the future twinned cities of Helsinki and Tallinn. The presentations ranged from spatial impacts on the cities as a result of the proposed Talsinki tunnel to various methods for considering effects on cross-border living and working. One study on facilitating easier life-work movement between the twin cities by Estonian politician and architect Yoko Alender, City Form Lab architect Raul Kalvo, and Finnish practice Studio Puisto proposed a series of new, shared-living residential typologies for business professionals, seniors and students. Another of the workshop’s outcomes, proposed by the Finnish practice LUO Architects and engineering consultants Sweco, explored practical solutions for improving the proposed Rail Baltica and assumed Talsinki terminus at Ülemiste, including the addition of green spaces and cycle links to the city centre. Although the first workshop served to stimulate discussion and ideas between architecture professionals in the two cities, Rudanko says that should there be a future decision about the status of the tunnel project and additional workshops would seek to more closely involve the public. “There are questions to be discussed in terms of culture and social environment,” says Rudanko. “How will our lives change if we have our daily environments overlapping with another culture? There are also the impacts on the built environment – where will tunnel exits be located, for example – which will need to be addressed as we come closer to the probability of building the tunnel. And even if we don’t build the tunnel, it’s still interesting to see whether and how the concept of the city is changing and expanding. Can we still form a twin city across countries without a physical connection?”

IMAGE Maija Savolainen

These and other related questions raised by Uusi Kaupunki’s 2015 workshop build on a considerable amount of research done by regional organisations in recent years. For example, a 2012 ‘Report for Twin City in the Making’, published by the City of Tallinn outlines four future models for the possible integration of the two cities. The four models, which range across cargo transportation, economic collaboration and shared social services, consider the effects of integration in a variety of scenarios. These range from the purely economic, in which, for example, the two cities unite to form a joint transport junction and cargo-handling logistics area without becoming a real twin-city, to other scenarios which imagine a closely integrated joint labour market in which differences in the quality of social services between Helsinki and Tallinn have largely been erased. This twin city model envisions Talsinki emerging as an economic competitor of Stockholm and Copenhagen, and even offers up the possibility of Talsinki as a future candidate to host the Olympic Games. The fourth and final scenario plays out a failed attempt at assimilation, where lack of close cooperation between Helsinki and Tallinn hampers both regional integration and broader EU integration and sees a continuation – even expansion – of economic dependence on Russia in which both cities run the risk of becoming “suburbs” of St Petersburg.

Whereas these studies explore various twin-city models from the perspectives of improved transport links, better economic purchasing power, or even merging healthcare services, one topical component seems missing throughout: security and border concerns. As previously mentioned by Pajunen, the most relevant precedent for a European twinned-city model comes from the Malmö/Copenhagen region, connected by the Öresund bridge. While numerous people interviewed for this article portray both the Öresund bridge and Talsinki tunnel as examples of infrastructure spanning national borders for the economic and mobility good of a supra-national region, not one mentioned the January 2016 re-instatement of border controls between Denmark and Sweden following the refugee crisis last year, marking the first time since the 1950s that ID checks have been necessary when travelling between the two countries. Six months after re-instatement of controls, Swedish foreign minister Anders Ygeman said that the problem was one of public order and internal security at a time when Europe was failing in its duty to control external borders. “Sweden belongs to Schengen, and Schengen’s main point is freedom of movement,” Ygeman said, as reported in The Copenhagen Post. “Once the EU has secured its external borders and a functioning redistribution plan [for refugees] is in place, we can then normalise the situation, step by step.” Given the unfortunate reality of the current political climate, transnational infrastructure projects which don’t address or question matters of border controls and passport checks seem wilfully naïve.

Reflecting on these questions from the perspective of the Rail Baltica project, Baiba Rubesa is adamant that European interconnectedness remains a priority. “I firmly believe in open borders, but we need to have the right security environment to deal with the coming challenges. No doubt the wars will continue and climate refugees will continue to be displaced. These are certainly issues, security issues, which must be addressed, and which weren’t even questions 20 years ago when the project was first conceived.” Finland celebrates its 100-year anniversary of independence this year, and questions of national sovereignty and border control will no doubt continue to play a part in national debate, as elsewhere in Europe. Yet it is interesting to recall that, in 2014, at the centenary programme launch, then prime minister Alexander Stubb emphasised that the theme of Finland’s centenary could be encapsulated by a single word: “together”. This theme was repeated by Mayor Pajunen when speaking about Talsinki and linking the Baltics to central Europe: “I feel that the discussion about Rail Baltica connecting together nations within the EU is something which must be part of the thinking about Finland’s future. I believe in the ideas of the EU. We respect our differences, but work together to make a joint European effort. In this respect, Rail Baltica and the tunnel are a good fit. Finnish people and Estonian people share a similar character. There is only 70km of sea between us. To grow together, on both economic and cultural terms, is something I firmly believe is important to our future successes.”

In addition to the European political ramifications of Brexit and President Trump, an upcoming spate of European leadership elections throughout 2017 will determine the extent of support for nationalist politics across the continent, with strong results predicted for far-right candidates in the Netherlands and France, and even a potential challenge to Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel’s bid for a fourth-term in Germany from the right-wing AfD party. Given popular support for stronger immigration restrictions, questions over the limits of national sovereignty and border control will likely persist in coming months. As a heavily-EU funded project, Rail Baltica, by contrast, espouses the virtue of freedom of movement for European citizens. But, as recent decisions taken with respect to the Öresund bridge and cross-border travel demonstrate, in times of crisis, such freedoms can be restricted, impacting not only the lives of those seeking refuge but also the lives of those who are supposedly the intended beneficiaries of trans-national regional integration. Reports following the reinstatement of passport checks at Öresund indicated that some cross-border commuters were forced to quit their jobs due to long delays and emotional stress. These and related questions must be addressed as part of the debate surrounding Rail Baltica, Talsinki and even the broader European project itself.