One Belt One Road and Amber Train

Kliima, Estonia (Schnitzel_bank, CC BY-ND)

Estonia became the next country to sign up to the Chinese One Belt One Road Initiative. Meanwhile, Rail Baltica’s troubles continue amid criticism and possible future competition from the Amber Train project.

GTS Rail has signed a co-operation agreement with Xian International Inland Port Multimodal Transportation, a Chinese railway company, as reported in eadaily.com. Estonia and its port of Muuga will be the fifth on the list of countries serviced by the One Belt One Road Initiative. It is set to join Hungary, Germany, Poland and Finland.

The agreement was signed during the visit of an Estonian trade delegation to China headed by Viljar Lubi, Deputy Secretary General for Economic development at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications.

Not only is the East to West route progressing, but also regional North to South links. Lithuanian Railways and their Estonian and Latvian counterparts tested the “Amber Train”, a new container rail service. Container freight was handled from Poland to Estonia. The train made the journey from Trzakiszki in Poland via Lithuania and Latvia to Paldiski in Estonia. Local companies operated the train on each part of the journey, according to wwwrailwaygazette.com and Baltic media portal, Baltic Course.

Mantas Bartuška, CEO of the GTS Rail, stated that this was “an excellent example of an effective collaboration between the national railways of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, where the essential details to bring the project to practical completion were agreed on and coordinated within a month from the birth of the concept. Cargo from Western Europe will now reach the Baltic States in the shortest time possible”. Regular operations should commence after finalization of technical and commercial matters in Vilnius.

Edvins Berzins, president of Latvian Railways, stated that the project offered “great potential”. He envisaged that the planned Rail Baltica project might “provide new opportunities” in the future, however, “today we can work with the existing network and offer our clients convenient and efficient freight logistics”. This arises suspicions that the Amber Train concept may be the one to circumvent the Rail Baltica, if the latter fails.

Raul Toomsalu, CEO of Estonian EVT Cargo, stated “This type of cargo transportation saves both time and money. Besides, railway services have smaller impacts on the environment than highway services as they produce less noise and are safer.

The cargo’s owner was Forwardis, a subsidiary of the French SNCF Logistics Group, and the designers were able to test communication technologies between the operators. The first test shipment was in April 2018, from the Šeštokai trans-shipment center in Lithuania to Riga, and then to the Paldiski terminal in Estonia. It carried 43 French-originated containers arriving from France, picked up in Poland and then to Lithuania. After that Latvian Ldz took over and passed it on to EVR Cargo of Estonia for the final leg to Paldiski.

Latvijas Dzelzceļŝ and its subsidiaries LDz cargo and LDz Logistika of Latvia , Lithiuania’s Lietuvos Geležinkeliai and EVR Cargo from Estonia were involved.

Rail Baltica Ups and Downs

Atkins, the British project management consultancy, has won the tender to undertake the Rail Baltica Infrastructure Management Study. This will identify the optimum model for the project in terms of life-cycle cost, economic efficiency and market functioning. The contract itself is worth almost EUR389,500 and was signed in April. It’s supposed to be completed by the autumn of 2018.

Kaspars Briskens, Business Development Manager for RB Rail, stated “The selection of a suitable infrastructure management model is also critical to the success of the Rail Baltica project in the long run… [it] shall provide a better assessment of the long term value of the Rail Baltica infrastructure in all three Baltic countries and beyond as well as evaluation of the socio-economic return on the European and national investments”.

Rail Baltica’s woes continue

According to euronews.com, Baiba Rubesa, the CEO of Rail Baltica, casts a measure of doubt over future financing especially with Brexit on the horizon. “Assuming that Brexit is going to happen I think all bets are off for business as usual in the EU, so we’re working hard to make sure we are able to retain our priority project status”. She continued on an optimistic note “There’s an extreme likelihood of continued financing because this is a priority project as it established one of the last missing links in Europe. But then the question is: what is the intensity rate of financing and over what time will it come?”

She also spoke about the regional and environmental benefits but declined to comment on her own position, one that has come under criticism from Estonian and Lithuanian shareholders in RB Rail. “We’ve had dialogue over this and I’m clearly still in my position. We continue to drive the project forward”.

Estonianworld.com has called for the suspension of the entire project pending resolution of important unanswered questions. There are the environmental benefits that are questioned — a report by EY (Ernst & Young) overestimated the extent of air pollution saving, citing a report by the pro-transparency NGO the Avalikult Rail Baltcust (Openly About Rail Baltica) which has stated that emission standards and fuel consumption figure are favorable to the Rail Baltica project.

It also questions the financial side, with a lack of clarity about the contribution of the individual states (therefore taxpayers) to the project. The EU has underwritten 85 per cent of the EUR5.8bn but the article argues there is still lack of a dialogue with citizens about the rest of the costs.

The environmental impact has not been sufficiently investigated. Cutting a line through forest and wetlands has not been thought through but pushed in the teeth of scientific opposition including former Prime Minister, Andres Tarand, and much of the information remains hidden contrary to the Aarhus convention (the 2001 UN multilateral convention on access to environmental information).

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