Rail Carpatia: new solution for better connectivity between Three Seas countries

2022/08/25 at 8:17 PM

For several years in a row, Poland has been promoting the idea of enhancing connectivity between the countries of the Three Seas Initiative. In this regard, the country step by step constructs the Via Carpatia road, Lithuania, Slovakia and Hungary do the same in their own sections. But what about railways? Warsaw has its answer to this question: it is Rail Carpatia.

Illustrative picture. Railway tracks near Zduńska Wola, source: Lukasz Hachula / PKP PLK

One more new section of the Via Carpatia motorway will appear in Poland in the coming years. This is a result of the agreement concluded in late July 2022. The new motorway will be constructer in the Lublin Voivodeship, between Międzyrzec Podlaski and Radzyń Podlaski. It is of the numerous piece of news about such an important road for Poland, particularly for its eastern regions, and the Three Seas countries in total. “Via Carpatia is one road but many new opportunities,” Andrzej Adamczyk, Poland’s minister of infrastructure, likes to repeat when talking about the mentioned road. This year the Polish officials have focused on another issue, namely on creating the railway analogue of Via Carpatia, which was classified as Rail Carpatia.

Unclear concept?

Currently, Rail Carpatia is just a concept of the mainline that should run between the Baltic and Aegean Seas linking the regions located near the EU external border. Looking back into the background of the Via Carpatia motorway, it is worth noting that the development of a new transport artery is a complicated and time-consumed process. The road project began in 2006 with the Łańcut Declaration of four countries: Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, which were later joined by Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. Only 10 years later, the concept was transformed into a real project of the road corridor with several possible branches.

As for Rail Carpatia, the Government of Poland and the country’s minister of infrastructure, in particular, have been declaring its idea only three years in a row. Usually, the mainline has been mentioned during the Three Seas Initiative summits as the key project to enhance rail connectivity between the members of this association. In 2020, the Rail Carpatia was just mentioned in the speech of the Polish minister.

Transport is a major investment area for the Three Seas Initiative countries, source: Three Seas Initiative

A year later, he gave a much clearer explanation. “Three Seas is not only about road connectivity; it is about railway connectivity too. Look at Hungary, and how they commenced the project of linking Budapest with Warsaw via Slovakia. Remember the Rail Baltica, which is together with the Amber Corridor, creates another communication corridor going further to the south – Rail Carpatia,” said Andrzej Adamczyk at the Three Seas Initiative Summit in Sofia, which took place in summer 2021. This year Polish officials are paying more attention to the idea but there is no detailed information about the corridor.

Possible route

In contrast to Via Carpatia, Rail Carpatia has no approved route. At the moment, it is only clear that the mainline must link at least seven countries like its road analogue. Taking into account the route of Via Carpatia, it can be assumed that the planned railway corridor will connect the following cities: Białystok, Lublin and Rzeszów in Poland; Prešov and Košice in Slovakia; Miskolc, Nyíregyháza and Debrecen in Hungary; Arad and Craiova in Romania; Sofia in Bulgaria and Thessaloniki in Greece.

Prime minister of Poland Beata Szydło demonstrates the Via Carpatia project in 2016, source: Wikimedia Commons

There are railway lines between the mentioned points and all of them are more or less used for carrying passengers or freight. However, if the concerned countries prefer not to the new mainlines but to use the existing ones, the route of the railway corridor will be much curvier than its road analogue. For instance, the Lublin – Rzeszów section of Via Carpatia looks more straight than the existing railway lines on the map. And the same situation is in other sections and in other countries. Perhaps, the new, much more straight, lines, will be better for establishing a new transport artery.

Crucial obstacles

The first and most important issue to tackle for Rail Carpatia is its route, as it was mentioned above. The exact way will define the future costs needed to put the project into reality. Currently, it is hard to discuss the financial component as there are no studies and estimations. The three other issues are related to the existing rail infrastructure. First, it is the break of gauge in Lithuania, which will be eliminated only after constructing the Rail Baltica line and providing a smooth connection with Latvia and Estonia. As a result, eight of 12 countries, participating in the Three Seas Initiative (Greece is not a member), will be linked by the Rail Carpatia line.

Second, the countries of the corridor have different electrification systems: a direct current is used in Poland and eastern Slovakia while railways in other countries are powered by an alternating current. Moreover, there could be many non-electrified sections. Both problems can be solved by purchasing multi-system locomotives or installing wires on the non-electrified lines. Meanwhile, these solutions require additional investment. Third, it is the mix of single- and double-track sections that should be eliminated with the development of the railway corridor.

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