Latvia cautious on new international train links

While enthusiastic noises have been heard in recent weeks from Estonia and Lithuania about potential new international rail links to Latvia, the reaction from Latvia itself appears to be cooler, according to a Latvian Radio report November 6.

The Ministry of Transport of Latvia (SM) stated that while potential links north and south initiatives for passenger train traffic from Vilnius and Tartu to Riga are supportable, questions remain about whether the costs justify the renewed links.

The Lithuanian railway passenger transport company "LTG Link" has announced its desire to start passenger transport from Vilnius to Riga. The Estonian state passenger train operator, which works under the "Elron" brand, has also announced that it wants to start passenger transportation on the Tartu-Riga route next year, and the Estonian government has set aside 300,000 euros for the purpose.

However, a representative of the Latvian Transport Ministry was cautious about fully backing the chance to catch a train beyond Latvia's borders.

"It is good that even before 'Rail Baltica' we have this connectivity between all three Baltic capitals. There have been talks about this before, and in any case we are open to such an idea. From the ministry's side, of course, we fully support the open market and competition in railway transportation in Europe... We support such initiatives, and of course the question is about the costs, about all the other details, and I hope that in the end we will also be able to reach an agreement," said Edgars Klētnieks, representative of the Ministry of Transport.

Although the representatives of Lithuania and Estonia announced last week the plan to start passenger transport to Latvia already next summer, the director of the State Railway Administration Andulis Židkovs said that no official applications have been received from the representatives of the Lithuanian and Estonian railways. Before international routes can be opened they must receive the European Railway Agency's unified safety certificate, while the Latvian State Railway Administration will evaluate how the new routes will affect the existing transportation system in Latvia.

"There are the most profitable departures, which are mostly in the morning and evening, when people go to work and back... on the other hand, the majority of services are those where the state has to cover losses, but the state provides this passenger traffic. For example, I don't think that a trip from Valka to Riga can be profitable if, for example, only 10 passengers get on.

"Logically, those flights are unprofitable, but even if there is public transport, the state will cover the losses accordingly , which arises for the carrier. In turn, the carrier then partially redistributes this funding internally from those profitable flights to unprofitable flights. We look at the whole, let's say, system together, and people must understand that in order for the whole system to be less demanding of state funding , it is necessary to limit the possibility of operating in that profitable part, because otherwise the state will have to pay more," said Židkovs.

In fact one 'international' route between Latvia and Estonia already operates several times per day – the route he refers to, from the Estonian town of Valga (which is joined to the Latvian town of Valka) to Rīga. But the Latvian train that operates the route only makes it a few hundred meters into Estonia as that is where the two  towns' rail station is. 

Former Minister of Transport Tālis Linkaits from the New Conservative Party said that it is worth considering the wider benefits of an expanded range of international rail connections.

"I think that the people of Latvia will definitely benefit if the trains of our neighboring countries' carriers start running to Latvia, and I think that both Estonian and Lithuanian routes will be in demand. Many Latvians will use the opportunity to go to Tartu as the capital of culture next year, also trips to the Lithuanian cities of Šiauliai and Vilnius are popular and, I think, more and more varied opportunities will also give us more tourists entering Latvia," Linkaits reasoned.

On November 2, LSM asked the Ministry of Transport to provide an update on the current situation regarding the proposed Tartu-Rīga rail link and whether any resources had been set aside for it. We were told a reply would be forthcoming and as soon as we receive one, we will add it to this story.


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