THERE can be little doubt that Rail Baltica is an ambitious project in every regard, from the sheer scale of building 870km of new electrified double-track railway to connect the capitals of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, through to its broader socio-economic and even geopolitical goals.

By connecting the Baltic States with each other and to Europe’s 1435mm-gauge network with a north-south axis designed for use by both high-speed passenger trains and freight, the project aims to make a clean break with the predominantly east-west pattern of the existing 1520mm-gauge network and the historical circumstances of its development within the Russian sphere of influence.

“Rail Baltica is not just a mega project in the field of railways or construction,” says Mr Ignas Degutis, chief financial officer of the RB Rail joint venture that is charged with making the Rail Baltica vision a reality. “It is first and foremost a social and economic project, which must serve the people and is also of great importance for the security of the Baltic States.”

Speaking during a panel discussion on the European Union’s Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) held during the 32nd Economic Forum in Karpacz, Poland, last month, Degutis was clear on the project’s strategic value. “Rail Baltica will make the Baltic countries an integral part of Western Europe and ensure their independence from the east,” he said.

Security considerations apart, what Rail Baltica itself describes as the largest railway infrastructure project in the history of the Baltic States is expected to deliver socio-economic and other benefits of over €18.2bn for total capital expenditure estimated at €5.8bn in 2017 prices. Designed for passenger trains to operate at up to 249km/h (although the maximum operating speed will be 234km/h) and freight trains operating at up to 120km/h, the new railway will be able to accommodate axleloads of up to 25 tonnes and freight trains up to 1050m in length. It will be electrified at 25kV ac and equipped with ERTMS Level 2. Of Rail Baltica’s total length of 870km, 392km will be in Lithuania, 265km in Latvia and 213km in Estonia. Construction is expected to take around 10 years to complete.

As a joint venture of the three Baltic states, RB Rail is acting as the central coordinator for the Rail Baltica project, responsible for design and construction and submitting bids for EU funding. It also acts as the central procurement body for studies, design work, raw materials, key components and railway subsystems such as signalling and electrification, as well as for the contracts to build the cross-border sections of Rail Baltica. RB Rail says that the advantages of this centralised project management structure include cost savings generated by economies of scale, as well as the ability to ensure the complete interoperability of the finished network and provide equal access to the new infrastructure for operators.

Beneath the over-arching RB Rail structure, three national bodies are responsible for project implementation in their respective countries, including the award of civil works contracts. The national implementing bodies are Rail Baltic Estonia, EDSL in Latvia and LTG Infra of Lithuania, the infrastructure manager of the national network and part of the Lithuanian Railways (LTG) group.

Work in progress

Work currently underway in Latvia on the Rail Baltica project includes the construction of the one of the project’s seven international passenger stations, the Riga Central Hub. Last month EDSL announced that construction work here had reached its latest milestone, with contractor Bererix starting work to build the station’s overall roof, which will be 30m above ground at its highest point. Roof arches weighing between 38 and 41 tonnes are being assembled on site due to their large size, and will be lifted into position using what RB Rail says is the largest crawler crane currently at work in the Baltic region.

Over the coming months, work will continue to build the concrete trackbed and station platforms at Riga Central, which itself will become the largest passenger service facility in the Baltic States. There will be 14 tracks serving eight high platforms for level boarding, connected to the upper-level concourse by 23 escalators, 16 lifts and 25 new staircases. The concourse itself will cover 6500m2 and will be fitted out with ticket offices, waiting areas, passenger information displays and other passenger amenities.

Ongoing construction work at Riga Central and Riga International Airport, Rail Baltica’s other international station in Latvia, will be supported with the latest tranche of EU Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) funding to be awarded to the project, a total of €928m announced in June. Combined with the €1.6bn already provided by the CEF and the Baltic States, this brings the total funding secured for Rail Baltica to €2.7bn. At Riga Central, the new money will fund the construction of viaducts over Maskavas and Krasta streets, as well as the relocation of existing 1520mm-gauge tracks to the south side of the new station. Viaduct and platform work will also be funded at Riga International Airport.

“Rail Baltica is not just a mega project in the field of railways or construction, it is first and foremost a social and economic project, which must serve the people and is also of great importance for the security of the Baltic States.”

Mr Ignas Degutis, chief financial officer of the RB Rail joint venture

Elsewhere in Latvia, the CEF funding has been allocated to key activities that include property acquisition, setting up a Rail Baltica construction base at Iecava that will become an infrastructure maintenance facility once the project is completed, and construction and supervision work on the Rail Baltica main line outside Riga. In Lithuania, the latest CEF allocation will go towards construction of the priority section of the main line between Kaunas and the Latvian border, as well as land acquisition.

In Estonia, the latest CEF allocation will go towards civil works on the formation and structures, as well as road overbridges and access roads on several sections including Loone - Alu, Harju/Rapla county border - Loone, and Ülemiste - Soodevahe. The CEF grant will also fund the provision of construction supervision services, as well as land acquisition and related procedures. National implementation body Rail Baltic Estonia has called tenders for the construction of the 9.4km section from the Harju/Rapla border to Sihi Road, a 4.8km section from Ülemiste station to the intersection with Lagedth Road, and the 7.1km section from Loone to Hagudi where it was hoped to award the contract before the end of this year in order for construction to start in early 2024.

Other aspects of the Rail Baltica project in Estonia have also made progress this year, with a design contract signed for the local stations in Harju and Pärnumaa, and the conclusion of a construction contract for the first stage of the international station at Ülemiste. A tender has been called for the junction at Kangru, while planning permission has been granted for the passenger station at Pärnu, and environmental impact assessments (EIA) have been completed for the Kangru - Harju/Rapla county border and Hagudi - Rapla/Pärnu county border sections of Rail Baltica.

Delivery programme

“This year, our focus is on commencing mainline construction in all Baltic States, which includes the construction of related infrastructure facilities and access roads, as well as implementing key services to enhance interoperability and the cross-border dimension of the project,” says Mr Marko Kivila, interim chairman of the management board and CEO at RB Rail. “We are actively aligning our global project delivery programme to effectively track progress and facilitate timely decision-making.”

Work had also begun on a cost:benefit analysis and long-term business plan for Rail Baltica, which is due to be completed by autumn 2024. “This exercise is crucial for assessing the project’s economic viability, securing funding, and optimising project delivery,” Kivila says.

Meanwhile, RB Rail is pressing ahead with tendering for two major subsystems contacts. Planning to sign a contract by the end of 2024, RB Rail has announced that all five bidders will proceed to the second stage of tendering for the control-command and signalling (CCS) contract, which will include design, installation and commissioning.

“The Rail Baltica project has attracted interest from top international companies and consortia,” says Ms Aiga Benfelde, deputy head of procurement at RB Rail and chair of the procurement commission. Those bidding for the CCS contract include GTS Deutschland, Hitachi Rail, and a joint venture of Indra Sistemas and AŽD Praha. They are in competition with the SKGN Baltics consortium of Siemens Mobility Latvia, Siemens Mobility, GRK Suomi, NRC Group Finland and Kontron Transportation, and a partnership of Alstom Transport, Alstom Baltics, Cobra and KZA Krakow.

The CCS contract will include the installation of ETCS, the Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS) that will replace GSM-R, interlockings, and a traffic management system. The preferred bidder will also supply information and communication technology (ICT) systems including a data transmission network and cybersecurity protection, voice communications, ancillary systems, monitoring applications and a supervisory control and data acquisition (Scada) system.

“The implementation of this state-of-the-art system involves advanced technologies and modern signalling solutions, designed to meet the demands of high-speed train operations,” says Mr Andrejs Mislēvičs, deputy head of the systems and operation department, and signalling and communications team leader, at RB Rail.

Europe’s major suppliers are also lining up to undertake what RB Rail says will be the largest single electrification project in Europe, under a contract which it also hopes to award next year. This will involve the installation of up to 2400 single track-km of catenary, requiring 4350 tonnes of copper wire supported by 50,000 masts. At least 10 substations will be required to supply traction current, which wherever possible will be sourced from renewable suppliers.

Under a two-stage procurement process, four groups of companies first expressed interest in 2022, and three prequalified consortia have now been invited to bid for the electrification contract. They are: Cobelec Rail Baltica, comprising Cobra and Elecnor; the Alstom-BMGS-GE-Torpol consortium of BMGS, Bombardier Transportation Baltics, Alstom Transport, GE Energy Power Conversion France and Torpol; and STC Baltic Electrification comprising Colas Rail, Siemens Mobility, Siemens Mobility Latvia and TSO. RB Rail appointed a consortium of DB Engineering & Consulting, Idom and Italferr as lead engineering service provider for the energy supply element of the project in 2021.

“We need a high-quality and safe railway system,” Degutis says, who points to both the economic and environmental benefits of investing in new, sustainable rail infrastructure that will connect the Baltic States with each other and with Europe. “The integration of our rail infrastructure is symbolic. It shows where the Baltic countries want to belong. It is like a European integration train.”