Three potential solutions to boost rail freight connectivity between Baltic states

2022/08/11 at 5:39 PM

Amber Train is the unique rail freight service since it is the only one that connects all three Baltic states. It moves freight for a distance of 650 kilometres in less than a day. Currently, this connection is not as popular among the shippers, as someone could expect. How the national railway undertakings of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania can change the situation for the better?

“Amber Train is a great example of cooperation between the Baltic States,” Egidijus Lazauskas, director for freight transport at the Lithuanian Railways, said in May 2018 when the first run on the Šeštokai-Riga-Tallinn route was performed and the following agreement was concluded between the three countries. At that time, the project participants had high hopes for this train connection.

Amber Train links three Baltic states, source: LTG Cargo

Historically, the railways of the Baltic states were dependent on the freight traffic from Russia and Belarus. After joining the EU and NATO, Russia began to redirect its freight volumes to its own harbours. In this regard, the new rail freight connection was developed as a new option to attract more freight, primarily boxes, from Western Europe to the region. Meanwhile, the general situation was difficult and the railway undertakings of the three countries were continuing to lose (and still lose) freight volumes.

This year, with the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the state of affairs has become even worse due to the EU sanctions imposed on Russia and Belarus. At the same time, such a difficult situation has proved once more that the region really needs the Amber Train but it must be upgraded. In which way? There could be several solutions.

Rail Baltica

The first idea that comes to mind is the construction of the Rail Baltica mainline. It is an ongoing project, which is expected to be completed no earlier than 2026 if there are no delays in the construction works and their funding. Currently, the Baltic states, in contrast to most European continental countries, have a different gauge, 1,520 vs 1,435 millimetres. This difference of 85 millimetres creates many obstacles to the development of the railway sector in the region. And the mentioned project will eliminate this. However, only in 2026 when the new mainline will be built.

Scheme of the Rail Baltica mainline, source: RB Rail AS

Besides the standard gauge, the railway has another advantage: it will accelerate freight trains as they will be to run at a speed of 120 kilometres per hour. Having a similar width of the track, the Baltic railway undertakings can arrange new intermodal connections to the mainland EU destinations without any transhipments on the border between Poland and Lithuania. For instance, the direct container from Riga to Rotterdam will become as real as the Kaunas-Duisburg connection today. But do the Baltic states have time to wait till the mentioned deadline?

Focus on multimodality

The two other solutions are more realistic and do not require waiting several years. The first of them is the focus on multimodality. This means a combination of various types of transport, primarily trains and ferries. Most of the seaports in the Baltic states have well-developed shortsea connections with Scandinavia. Usually, the ferries and trains are separately used for moving freight to and across the region.

Green Switch piggyback service in Latvia, source: Latvijas dzelzceļš (LDz)

Talking about the rolling highways and their combination with other modes of transport, such a solution is not common for the Baltic states with some exceptions. In June 2021 Latvian Railway (LDz) launched the country’s first piggyback service for moving semi-trailers by rail. The connection from Riga to Ventspils and Liepaja was arranged in a partnership with Stena Line, the Swedish ferry operator. As the result, the semi-trailers can be moved from Latvia to Sweden and Germany not only by road but also by using the multimodal (sea-rail) service. If every country in the region has similar multimodal connections, the Amber Train will be more popular among the shippers and customers.

Combination of existing connections

Another solution is to combine the existing rail freight connections. This is especially important in the case of Lithuania. LTG Cargo, the country’s national rail freight operator, is running several connections within and from Lithuania, including the Vilnius Shuttle on the Klaipeda-Kaunas-Vilnius route. Moreover, Lithuania benefits from the break of gauge, which is placed in its territory (in Šeštokai and Kaunas). As a result, it is the only Baltic state that has direct freight trains to Germany and without any transhipments.

Map of Kaunas-Duisburg intermodal link, source: LTG Cargo

The unified network of railway connections functioning under the Amber Train brand will be more fruitful for all participants. It is worth noting that a similar combination had been used for the Viking train that ran between Ukraine and Lithuania before February 2022. The service has several branches and extensions, which, in fact, formed one major service for delivering freight between the two countries. The Amber Train can repeat this success and even surpass it if the Baltic railway undertakings negotiate the combined offer, which is based not only on train connections but ferry lines too.

The development of intermodal transport in the Baltic states will be a major issue to discuss at the Intermodal in Poland 2022 conference to take place on 27-29 September in Janów Podlaski. The agenda of the event, registration for participation and other organisational information are available on the dedicated English-language website:


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