Estonia has officially kicked off works to build its portion of the upcoming Rail Baltica high-speed rail line with an inaugural ceremony that was attended by Prime Minister Jüri Ratas and European Commission’s Directorate-General for Transport director-general Henrik Hololei.

During the event, the foundation of the first construction structure, the Saustinõmme viaduct that will cross the Rail Baltica main line, was laid to mark the beginning of construction.

Scheduled to be completed by the second quarter of 2021, the first part of the project will be carried out by Finnish construction company AS YIT Infra Eesti. The company will cover a 4.1km four-lane highway that connects Luige and Saku junctions, new twin bypasses of the Saku junction and an animal tunnel.

The cost of works is estimated to be approximately €19m. They will be partially funded by the EU’s Cohesion Fund, which contributed €10.31m, and by Rail Baltic Estonia, which invested €6.92m.

Commenting on the project, Rail Baltica Estonia head Riia Sillave said: “During the last couple of years, the Rail Baltica project in Estonia has progressed at good speed.

“The detailed technical design of the route is under way, the architectural competition for Ülemiste Joint Terminal has been successfully completed and negotiations with the winners are ongoing, and the technical designing of the RB Pärnu terminal is about to begin.”

Attending the ceremony, Estonia’s Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Taavi Aas said that Rail Baltica “is the most important co-operation project of the Baltic States”.

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He added: “Equally important is good domestic and inter-agency co-operation, and I believe that Rail Baltic Estonia, the Estonian Road Administration and the Joint Venture of the Baltic States RB Rail AS will be able to successfully implement the co-operation that was signed today also at the future Rail Baltica sites.”

Talking of future prospects after the rail network is built, Sillave also announced plans to build various intersections between the future Rail Baltica and the existing infrastructure in cooperation with the Road Administration and major network operators in the coming years. These would potentially include “building highway bypasses, relocating high-voltage lines and gas pipelines”.

Rail Baltica is one of the top priority projects under the Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T) package of transport infrastructure projects within the EU.

Once fully completed, a single journey from Tallinn to Pärnu will take 40 minutes. The 870km rail network will connect Western Europe with the Baltics via Warsaw, Vilnius, Kaunas, Riga and Tallinn.

The line, which will run between Tallinn and the Lithuanian-Polish border, is estimated to cost approximately €5.8bn and is planned to be completed before the end of 2025.

Project in “critical state” due to poor corporate management and conflict of interests

While the project is progressing with respect to construction, it is also witnessing roadblocks.

Earlier this week, over 60 RB Rail employees published a letter on 27 November claiming that the project is in a crisis.

A statement signed by the employees and that was exposed by Baltic News Service said: “Notwithstanding the considerable progress made in the project, we are very concerned that the Rail Baltic project, which is generously co-funded by the EU, has reached a critical situation due to poor corporate governance and conflict of interest situations.”

The statement also pointed towards nationalisation as a solution to the line’s ongoing problems and suggested prime ministerial supervision across the three countries.

“We believe that for the project to succeed, it is ultimately important to join forces between all the Baltic States ahead of construction beginning,” the letter said.

“It is time to ask of the national parliaments, governments and the European Commission whether Rail Baltica is a project which will bring long-term benefit to the Baltic States and the whole of the EU, or whether it will continue to struggle with inefficiencies, conflicts of interest and careless attitudes towards EU and national public funds.”

In response to the statement, Latvia Transport Minister Tālis Linkaits said that the project is on the list of priorities for Latvia and all efforts are focused on finishing the project within the established terms. “The project’s implementation is a priority not only for the Latvian government but also for the EU transport policy,” he added.