Sonntag, März 21, 2010

A slow train from Tallinn to Riga

The following article on how privatisation of Estonia’s rail transport system eroded passenger rail traffic in Estonia was published in Helsingin Sanomat.

The trip starts at 6.40 a.m. from the main passenger railway station of Estonia’s capital Tallinn - the Balti jaam or Baltic Station. Be prepared for a long ride that - according to the timetable - takes eight hours and 25 minutes. In the same time, one could travel by bus to Riga and back. Most people do. However, this is not about time, but about principle.

After a lengthy absence, there is now a rail connection, albeit a slow one, between Tallinn and Riga. Not long ago, the only foreign destination to which it was possible to get from the Baltic Station was Moscow. The Riga link is the first part of the European "Rail Baltica" project, which according to the plans of the European Union should in the future carry passengers from Tallinn to Berlin at a speed of 160 kilometres per hour. Then the distance by rail from Tallinn to Riga - as the map shows, the present route is not exactly "as the crow flies" - could be covered in about three hours.

At Balti jaam, there is still today a more than 50-centimetre wide gap between the platform and the train, over which passengers have to leap in order to get on the train. At the same time, they step back in time twenty or so years. The ceiling lamps spread a bleak yellow light over the passenger compartment. The seats are brown, two- or three-seater leather benches. The three-carriage diesel railcar, a veteran of more than 30 years of service, lurches into motion and we are off.

An adult single ticket to Valga, a town on the border with Latvia, costs EUR 9.00 and another ticket from Valga to Riga costs EUR 5.60, but it must be bought on the Latvian train, states ticket-collector Urmas Ruuse. There will be no other incidental expenses, as the train has no restaurant car, nor do any of the stations along the route sell anything.

Conductor Ruuse knows of a few people who have travelled by train from Tallinn to Riga this year, but many of my fellow-passengers consider such an idea outlandish, given that the service is so slow and short on comforts. ”I have never heard of anyone going by train to Riga”, says seamstress Merjo Pukk. That would be taking things a bit far, suggest pensioners Laine Tomberg and Heli Madar. This time, all three are happy with a 15-minute local hop by Rail Baltica, from Lehtse to the next stop, Tapa. Pukk is going to work, while Tomberg and Madar are on their way to the nearest pharmacy.

The train is travelling through a snowy postcard landscape. At some stops, one can see water towers which date back to the age of steam. At many stations, the windows on the station buildings have been boarded up - not exactly a good sign.

The railways hereabouts are suffering from the fact that the state of Estonia is still in its infancy, and teething troubles abound. For a start, the Estonian railways were privatised in 2001. The state was regarded as a poor owner until the profit-maximising private owners failed to live up to people’s expectations. The timetables and the pace of track renovations were dictated by the needs of the cargo traffic from Russia. Some tracks were simply yanked up from the ground.

The rail sections that were not important for goods transport deteriorated, while the highest permissible speed on those sections was in some places only 40 kilometres per hour. The bulk of the railway network was nationalised again in 2006.

”The privatisation of the railways was a silly idea”, says Aun Saale, a carer for the disabled, who is on her way from a course in Tallinn back to Palupera [between Elva and Valga] with her colleague Liivi Freiberga. The trip takes well over four hours, and these two seem to be an exception on here. None of the other passengers intend to stay on the train for so long.

The two ladies are recalling train trips of the past, made from Tallinn to Riga and to Moscow in the Soviet era. There were always a lot of passengers on the trains, and it was possible to buy cheap chocolate from under the counter. ”If there were good connections I would travel to Riga, maybe even go on to Berlin”, Aun Saale says.”By the way, what do you think about the Helsinki-Tallinn rail tunnel?” According to the most lofty plans, such a tunnel could in the future connect Helsinki with Berlin along a high-speed Rail Baltica, but it all seems a long way off right now.

After almost three hours, more passengers climb on the train at Jõgeva. We are roughly halfway to Valga. Many younger passengers say that they have tried to find a train connection from Southern Estonia to Riga and even further. ”In the summer I would have liked to travel by train to the Czech Republic. From Riga I could have got to Moscow”, says IT student Siim, who boarded the train at Jõgeva.

After Tartu, the second largest city in Estonia, there are just four other passengers on the train, all on their way to Valga, a small town of around 14,000 people on the Estonian side of the border with Latvia. Trumpet teacher Tambet Leopard is heading to Valga in order to give music lessons, and Kristi Kuld is travelling with her mother Koidu Kuld and her daughter Hedi Andre. They are on their way to visit some people in the town.

The train to Riga, painted in livery the same colour as the dark red and white Latvian flag, is waiting at the Valga railway station. Einar and Katrin Rebane from Southern Estonia get on the train after a 20-year break from rail travel, as a trip to Latvia by car on snowy roads does not sound very appetising. As they step inside, they can hardly believe their eyes. ”The train looks exactly the same as it was 20 years ago. Nothing whatsoever has changed”, says an astonished Katrin Rebane.

On the Latvian side of the border, the track is in slightly better shape than it was in Estonia. This does not help much, as the old train just does not have enough time to pick up speed before it has to stop again. On the way from the border to Riga, there is a station at intervals of every ten kilometres or so. An express this is not.

However, in a couple of hours the destination begins to take shape. A sign on the wall of the railway station building in Ieriki says encouragingly: "Riga 75 km". At that point the train stops in order to wait for an oncoming train. When our train has been standing in the station for more than an hour, the passengers’ spirits begin to droop. ”I am afraid that at this rate we cannot make it to Europe”, sighs Einar Rebane.

Finally the long-awaited Russian goods train arrives, pulling a long string of tank wagons. The snow is whirling outside the windows and a sliding door rattles persistently when the passenger train is able to continue its journey southwest towards Riga. There is now suddenly a great sense of hurry, and the train accidentally goes past the Vangazi station and has to reverse back towards the platform.

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