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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Baltics Ponder Rail Link to Europe

TALLINN, Estonia -- The Baltic states may be on the fast track to the European Union -- but officials complain that rail links to Europe are going nowhere.

Now the three former Soviet republics are pitching a plan to build a modern railway that would link the new Baltics with the new Europe.

Government spokesmen said that plan would mean replacing some the of Soviet-era tracks with railroads that are compatible with Western Europe. The next step is the introduction of modern electric trains that can travel as fast as 200 kilometers per hour from Tallinn, Estonia's capital, to Berlin in just seven hours.

The Baltics won coveted invitations to join the European Union last month -- culminating a decadelong drive that began after breaking from Moscow during the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. They're expected to become full-fledged members in 2004.

However, traveling from what will become the northeastern edge of the EU to the center of the continent's business and cultural hubs is time consuming and costly. The distance -- Berlin, for example is 1,050 kilometers from Tallinn, the northernmost Baltic capital, while Paris is 1,700 kilometers from Riga, Latvia -- leaves many Balts feeling isolated.

Daniel Vaarik, an Estonian government spokesman, said the new rail service could foster EU goals of bringing Europe together -- economically and culturally.

"Our geographical distance to many European cities is not that great, but it is in the time it takes," he said Tuesday.

As it stands, there is no regular passenger or freight rail traffic from the Baltic states to Western Europe. Traveling by car from Tallinn to Berlin means driving the mostly single-lane, poorly lit Baltic highways for at least 20 hours.

And most airfare is prohibitively expensive. A one-way ticket between Tallinn and Berlin can cost more than 500 euros ($534), more than Estonia's average monthly wage of about 5,000 kroons ($300). Tickets for the proposed rail line would cost just half that, still expensive, but more manageable.

The line, dubbed Rail Baltica, would run some 1,500 kilometers from Tallinn -- through Riga, Latvia's capital, and Vilnius, Lithuania's capital -- to Berlin, according to the head of Estonia's Railway Department, Oleg Epner. He said the project, which is five years in the planning, has been pitched to the EU as well as Poland, which would have part of the railroad running through it.

The rail line was also discussed during a Baltic state summit last week, said Solveiga Silkalne, an adviser to Latvian Prime Minister Einars Repse. She said the nations' leaders "lent their support to the long-term goals of the project."

However, Estonian and Lithuanian government spokesmen said a final decision about pushing the project forward will not come for months, if not years.

Epner said it would take a decade to lay the EU standard, 1,435-millimeter-wide track -- which would replace the wider, 1,520-millimeter track favored by Soviet engineers. "By 2015, I want to be able to climb on a train with my laptop and a cup of coffee in Tallinn and be in Berlin in seven hours," Epner said.

"This will help increase everything from cargo [traffic] to tourism," Silkalne said in Riga, where officials for years have complained that there are no cost-effective ways to bring tourists to Latvia.

Most Baltic trade with Western Europe -- including Russian oil shipped through the Baltics to Western markets -- is done through seaports. A railroad could improve shipping time and lessen the risk of a disaster at sea.

Estonian Prime Minister Siim Kallas, a fiscal conservative who has cast a skeptical eye on major infrastructure projects in the past, has come around with Rail Baltica, giving it serious consideration.

Figuring out the cost is difficult, but Epner said similar rail projects have cost around 1 million euros per kilometer of track. By that measure, the Tallinn-Berlin line would cost at least 1 billion euros. He said it was a hefty price, but hoped the EU would help foot the bill.