TALLINN: A railroad traversed by Graham Greene as he conceived one of his best-selling novels is edging closer to a 5 billion-euro (US$5.4bil) revival, decades after war and Soviet central planners crippled it.
The prime ministers of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are set to sign an agreement to build Rail Baltica, a high-speed connection between the three countries and Poland.
Donald Tusk, president of the European Union, which is supplying as much as 85% of the financing, will join them in Tallinn.
The Estonian capital helped inspire Greene to write “Our Man in Havana” as he hopped on a train to Berlin in 1934.
The project would be the biggest Baltic infrastructure investment since the region broke free from communist rule a quarter-century ago. It would also further cement the European status of the three countries, which are already EU, Nato and eurozone members.
First proposed in the mid-1990s, the plan has been held up by deep recessions and squabbling over the route. Pitfalls remain, particularly over the EU’s budget once the UK leaves.
“The Baltics was originally the window on the West for Russia, but it’s increasingly becoming a connection for all of Eurasia,” said James Oates, chief executive officer of Tallinn-based investment adviser Cicero Capital.
“The biggest issue at the moment really is the political will to actually make it happen.”
The project envisages 700 km of tracks stitching together the three nations’ capitals and the Lithuanian city of Kaunas before heading on to the Polish border.
The rail network will revert to European gauge from the Russian standard used at present in the Baltic region. The Soviets had previously geared the railroad toward connections with Moscow rather than central Europe.
Trains travelling as fast as 240 km an hour should slash the journey time from Tallinn to Berlin to 10-12 hours from 60 hours at present and 27 hours before World War II.
Lines should start work by 2026, reaching Warsaw by 2030, and eventually carrying 2 million passengers and 12.9 million tonnes of cargo a year, including electronics and clothes.
Freight traffic on the line would benefit Baltic nations’ ports and potentially become part of Europe’s trade with Asia, according to the project’s website.
That would provide an economic boost after trade suffered from Russia’s ban on EU food imports and other geopolitical tensions.
But the signing won’t guarantee Rail Baltica’s completion. Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas last week left a back door open to quit the agreement, saying his cabinet must review a final feasibility study in April before sending the deal to parliament for ratification.
Lawmakers in Lithuania and Latvia must also give final approval. EU funding levels are also in question. — Bloomberg