19 Jun EU’s flagship Rail Baltica infrastructure project is on track for completion in 2026
Agnis Driksna, Chairperson of the Management Board and Acting CEO, RB Rail AS, introduces the Baltics’ project of the century and explains why COVID-19 makes it more important than ever
Rail Baltica is the region’s flagship infrastructure project and platform for development. Worth €5.8 billion and covering 870 kilometers, with seven international passenger stations and three cargo terminals, it will be completed by 2026. For readers who are not yet familiar with this project of the century: could you provide with an introduction to Rail Baltica and its significance as part of the European Union’s (EU’s) North Sea-Baltic TEN-T corridor that bridges the missing link in the European rail network?
Rail Baltica is a unique project. Firstly, it is a greenfield rail transport infrastructure project, which will introduce a standard gauge track to the Baltic states. The goal is to integrate the Baltic states into the European rail network. This is the first time that there has been a joint project between the five EU countries: Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia and, indirectly, Finland. We are connecting the Baltics with the rest of the EU via Poland. This project is a game-changer in many aspects, starting with mobility between the countries. It will enhance mobility of eastern countries. Rail Baltica is a double-track rail, it will be fully electrified and has the design speed of 249 kilometers an hour for passengers and 120 kilometers an hour for cargo freight. This is a mixed benefit for both goods and passengers—we are not only developing channels to help the mobility of people but also new channels to help trade and industry. It will provide a new economic corridor to connect the biggest European regions with the Baltic countries and beyond. It is a game-changer to the region, to Europe, to regional mobility and will provide new channels for transporting goods.
The European Commission has unveiled a €750-billion aid package to help the EU recover from the coronavirus pandemic. The package includes a number of programs that could assist the rail industry as it looks to recover from a drastic downturn in passenger numbers and freight movement. What is the consensus on this plan within the Baltic rail industry?
We have to separate various things. One is the Rail Baltica project that is currently under development. However, if you consider the COVID-19 crisis, the role of Rail Baltica is more significant than ever before. Currently, our working arrangement is that we are continuing to work on the detailed technical design of the main line and stations in the three Baltic countries with the aim of launching the procurement of large-scale construction works by next year. Looking at the situation generated by the pandemic, our objective is to complete the design as soon as possible, which will enable us to start the construction works and contribute to economic recovery.
To do so, we need investment in certain sectors like the transportation industry, providing direct and indirect possibilities for development. For example, the construction of 870 kilometers of track across three Baltic countries, investing €6 billion and automatically creating more than 10,000 jobs for Rail Baltica’s construction period will, at the same time, provide a positive impact on related sectors such as construction materials production, the construction industry, the design and engineering industries and even hospitality services, to name just a few. Rail Baltica’s induced development will provide a significant boost not only to the region but also to Europe as a whole. Especially because Rail Baltica is truly a European project. This means we have open competitive tenders and the participating companies are from across Europe, including ones from Italy, France, Spain, Germany and the U.K., among others.
What opportunities are there for international investors and specialist companies at this phase of the project?
This project is currently in the design phase, with separate construction activities ongoing already in Lithuania and Estonia. At first, we are cooperating and looking for expertise in European gauge technical solutions. Rail Baltica is using international expertise in areas such as technical design, construction logistics and material procurement, energy supply subsystems, and control and command systems. We are looking for participants who can contribute technically, legally and from the procurement side to develop this project as one of the best in using cutting-edge technologies and providing future cooperation with the best possible starting point.
What would you say is the importance of Rail Baltica as a flagship project of the EU’s Green Deal and how does it contribute to meeting global climate change goals?
Rail Baltica is a flagship greenfield project, meaning we are able to use the newest technologies and materials in order to reduce the impact on the climate. Rail Baltica will be fully electrified so that any emissions will be avoided. Additionally, Rail Baltica will pay special attention to the impact of the new infrastructure on the environment by building animal passages and noise protection barriers where necessary. We are checking all the different boxes from different angles.
In order to deploy, implement and maintain Rail Baltica’s common data environment for building information management (BIM) system, RB Rail AS entered into a contract with one of the leading global providers of software solutions, Bentley Systems International. How is Rail Baltica harnessing the power of digital technologies to maximize efficiencies at all stages of the project?
In a sense, we are developing digital Rail Baltica before building the physical railway. This means that our BIM system is of primary importance for us in all stages. First, in the planning, designing and construction phase, and of course later it will be very important in future operations like developing the infrastructure management. From our side, we are doing and using all necessary tools in order to make efficient design infrastructure, and then to ensure easy and efficient infrastructure management and operations. BIM strategy at Rail Baltica employs the life-cycle approach, including the construction and maintenance phases of the project.
What have been the main milestones reached so far in terms of funding, technical designs, implementation, construction and in enhancing cooperation with Poland and Finland?
Currently, detailed technical design works are ongoing on more than 600 kilometers from the total 870 kilometers of track. We are gradually approaching the large-scale construction phase. In terms of financing, we have already secured nearly €1 billion for Rail Baltica from the EU’s Connecting Europe Facility funding program and the national budgets of the Baltic states. We are looking very optimistically to the next round of the EU’s Multiannual Financial Framework to ensure the remaining necessary financing is in place to complete Rail Baltica by 2026.
In addition, common design guidelines of the railway have been approved and common procurement standards are set up to ensure the interoperability of the line. It is important to meet the same standards and approaches especially concerning suppliers, regardless of the country from which the construction and designs are coming from.
Both Finland and Poland are close partners to the project. Finland and Poland are members of the Rail Baltica Task Force that meets on quarterly basis to align all key decisions that have an impact on the project’s delivery. Additionally, cooperation with Poland is ongoing on an every-day level to guarantee that the Rail Baltica link in Poland meets the same design guidelines and technical parameters.
It is important to highlight that, despite COVID-19, we are continuing with the development of this project, and design works are being prepared for the construction works to be completed by 2026. Rail Baltica is a flagship project for this region and for Europe in general, so I encourage everyone to keep an eye on this project and bring their expertise to it in order to contribute to the construction phase and, further forward, for operations.