Rail Baltica is a planed north-south rail line through the Baltic States, one of the Trans-European Networks corridors. Yet although it is intended to link to connect the Baltic States to the rest of the European Union, it deliberately avoids the shortest and most logical routes. The reason is simple: they would cross Kaliningrad Oblast. This is the northern half of the former East Prussia or Ostpreussen, allocated to the Soviet Union in 1945, and now part of the Russian Federation.
Former German territories…
The railway from Berlin to Königsberg, the capital of East Prussia, was one of the main lines of imperial Germany. It was cut after the First World War, when East Prussia was separated from the rest of Germany by the ‘Polish Corridor’, although some through trains operated. It was cut definitively after the Second World War, when Königsberg became the Russian city of Kaliningrad.
In 1914, a journey Berlin – Königsberg – Tallinn crossed one border. Today it crosses five, including a double crossing of the EU external boundary. There was no direct Königsberg – Tallinn rail line, neither during the Russian Empire, nor in the Soviet Union, but rail journeys were possible. It is not possible to make the trip by rail today: there are no north-south passenger services across Latvia.
The proposal here is made from a European perspective, and ignores the past and present borders. It includes upgrading of the former Berlin – Königsberg route, and the construction of a new standard gauge high-speed line, on an almost entirely new alignment, to Riga and Tallinn.
This post is about the Berlin – Riga section. The Riga – Tallinn proposal is described separately. (The Rail Baltica project includes a new Riga – Pärnu – Tallinn line, but no funds have been allocated yet).
The old line to Königsberg
The main line of the former Preussische Ostbahn extended 600 km from Berlin Ostbahnhof to Königsberg. It was built between 1850 and 1867 in the then Kingdom of Prussia, and linked Brandenburg (the historic core of the kingdom) to Ostpreussen.
The historical route was via Strausberg, Küstrin (Kostrzyn), Landsberg an der Warthe (now Gorzów Wielkopolski), Kreuz (Krzyz Wielkopolski), Schneidemühl (Piła), Dirschau (Tczew), Marienburg (Malbork), Elbing (Elbląg) and Braunsberg (Braniewo). The express train in 1935 took 8 hours from Berlin Zoo to Königsberg. The entire line is still in use, but not as a main line. In Poland the line is at right angles to the main traffic flows, and was downgraded relative to the north-south routes which cross it. It is numbered as Line 203 and Line 204. Over the last 50 km from Mamonovo to Königsberg there are two tracks, one standard-gauge, one Russian gauge. There is one Berlin – Kaliningrad train each weekday, journey time 16 h 46 min.
The new line
Proposed is a complete reconstruction of the old main line, for speeds of 200 km/h, and more where possible. Upgrading would include additional tracks, where necessary, for regional and freight traffic.
In Berlin, the line was 4-track as far as Strausberg. Two tracks are now used for the S-Bahn line S5, to Strausberg. The rest has been reduced to a non-electric single-track line to Kostrzyn, 85 km from Berlin. It carries an hourly service: line 26 of the Berlin regional network. The Ostbahn originally started from its own terminal, north of the present Ostbahnhof, and for many years it was not connected to that station. The current reconstruction of Ostkreuz station includes only one track from the Ostbahn into Ostbahnhof, and that is clearly not sufficient for a restored main line. From Ostbahnhof trains can reach Berlin Hauptbahnhof over the east-west Stadtbahn line, but it has limited capacity. (See the post on alternatives to Berlin Hauptbahnhof).
At Kostrzyn, the line crosses the Oder. It then follows the northern edge of the Warthe Urstromtal – a wide low-sided glacial valley. Gorzów Wielkopolski (ex-Landsberg, population 124 000) is the only city on this section. At Piła (Schneidemühl), the line turns more to the north-east, generally toward Gdańsk (Danzig). Besides these three stations, some fast trains would stop at Chojnice and Starogard Gdański.
Click to enlarge: Preussische Ostbahn, Strausberg to Landsberg, highlighted in blue. Map from the Posselt collection, circa 1905…
At Tczew (ex-Dirschau), the Ostbahn crosses the Bydgoszcz – Gdańsk line. Some services could turn here to Gdańsk, through this traditional rail junction. For high-speed services, such junction stations are no longer appropriate, and a new by-pass south of Tczew is needed. The Ostbahn now crosses the Vistula Delta toward Malbork (Marienburg): first the main channel, then the flood plain, and then the Nogat channel. A by-pass of Malbork station is also possible, but unlike Tczew, Malbork offers good interchange with the main line Warsaw – Gdańsk (Polish Line 9). The alignment across the delta would be shared, so extra tracks will be needed.
30 km from Malbork is Elbląg (population 123 000). The station is on a curve, but most trains would stop here anyway. East of Elbląg, the Ostbahn was built to avoid the Elbląg Uplands (Wysoczyzna Elbląska), and it is indirect. There are two possible alignments for a new high-speed cut-off line, about 70-85 km long. One would follow the alignment of the 1938 Reichsautobahn Berlin Königsberg. The railway and Autobahn (now the S22 highway) cross just east of Elbląg, and the area is built-up. The new line would start further from Elbląg station, and use an easier route to climb to the higher ground (climbing about 160 m in 10 km). The second option would diverge from the existing line at Słobity (Schlobitten), 27 km from Elbląg, and turn towards Kaliningrad. This alignment crosses flatter ground. Both variants would rejoin the existing alignment at Svetloye (Kobbelbude). The coastal line through Braniewo (Braunsberg), would be retained for regional and freight traffic.
From Svetloye to Kaliningrad, the line would be 4-track, all standard gauge. Break of gauge would be at Kaliningrad Station, the most logical place. The line from Elbląg (highlighted in red on the map below) is relatively isolated from the rest of the tracks at Kaliningrad, and the main station is on the south side of the centre. There is more than enough space for parallel tracks and platforms. (Much of the network in Kaliningrad Oblast could be re-converted to standard gauge anyway).
From Königsberg, the Preussische Ostbahn turned east, to the Russian border at Eydtkuhnen, now Chernyshevskoye. This line is still the main axis in the Kaliningrad Oblast: it continues to Kaunus, Vilnius, Minsk and Moscow (see the proposal for a high-speed line to Vilnius). At Insterburg (now Chernyakhovsk), the Ostbahn main line turned north, crossing the Neman (Memel) river at Tilsit (Sovetsk). Although the Tilsit rail bidge points toward Riga, the railway did not continue in that direction. Instead, it turned north-west to serve the Memelland strip, which was German territory, and its capital Memel (now Klaipėda).
There never was a main line from East Prussia toward Riga. A line was later built to connect the line north of Tilsit to the line Liepāja – Šiauliai – Radviliškis – Vilnius (1874) at Radviliškis. It is now used only for freight. From Šiauliai, there is a line north to Jelgava, also freight-only. (The line from Jelgava to Riga is electrified, and carries a suburban service).
The proposed new alignment (about 380 km in total) would start west of Kaliningrad station. It would cross the Pregola river, turning north-east toward Polessk (ex-Labiau). It might follow part of the alignment of the former secondary rail line Königsberg – Labiau – Tilsit, but it would not serve Polessk itself (7000 inhabitants).
East of Polessk, the HSL would turn toward the Talpaki – Sovetsk highway (E77, A216), and follow it into Sovetsk (formerly Tilsit, population 41 000), using the existing alignment through the station. South of Sovetsk, the line would join the proposed Ausbaustrecke Poznań – Sovetsk and the proposed HSL Kaunas – Šakiai – Sovetsk.
Just north of Sovetsk, a new high-speed line to Klaipėda and Liepāja could diverge from the Riga line. After crossing the Neman (Memel) river, the Riga HSL would turn north-east toward Šiauliai and Jelgava. The existing freight line (in black on the map) does not run directly to Šiauliai. The new line would follow the old line in places, but would generally follow the main road (E77, numbered A12 in Lithuania), a shorter alignment (in red). That would allow for stations at Tauragė (population 24 000, district 42 000), and at Kelmė (9000, district 32 000).
Click to enlarge…
The alignment through Tauragė is unsuitable for high speeds, but a single-track standard-gauge link to the existing station would allow some trains to serve the town. Kelmė is not on the existing freight line: the HSL would run alongside the A12 bypass, with a station at the edge of the town. Stations on Sovetsk – Riga section would be about 50 km apart: the HSL would also function as a fast inter-regional line, although not all trains would stop at all stations.
In Šiauliai (population 106 000), the existing rail line and station are aligned east-west, south of the city centre. There is no suitable alignment for a north-south line, unless it runs in tunnel under the city centre. That does not seem to be necessary: the HSL can follow an industrial siding south-east of the city, and join the existing alignment through the station. Obviously extra tracks would be needed. The existing exit line toward Riga is also unsuitable, and here a tunnel is unavoidable: it would be about 4 km long.
Click to enlarge…
North of Šiauliai, the HSL would again run parallel to the A12 / E77, with a station at Joniškis (population 10 000, district 24 000). The existing alignment through the town has a 6-degree curve, but there is enough room to realign it, with a new station close to the centre.
The HSL would then follow the existing freight line to Jelgava (62 000 inhabitants), a major rail junction with lines to Riga, Mažeikiai, Liepaja, Ventspils, and a freight route to Russia via Jekabpils. It is also the centre of the Zemgale region. The station itself has enough room for extra tracks and new platforms. From Jelgava, the HSL would run parallel to the existing line into Riga, 43 km away.
Riga is the largest city in the Baltic states (population 700 000), but it has a relatively limited rail infrastructure. A double-track bridge crosses the Daugava river into the main station, south of the historic city centre.
Reconstruction would (at least) double the bridge, with parallel standard-gauge tracks. The station would also need improvement: possibly the suburban lines could be re-routed through a new east-west tunnel, under the historic centre (Vecriga).
The extension of the line from Riga to Tallinn is described separately: High-speed line Riga – Tallinn.