Saaremaa is a large Baltic island (2 900 km2) north of the Gulf of Riga. Since 1896, it is joined to the smaller island of Muhu by a causeway. Muhu is separated from the mainland by the Suur Strait. Together the islands form Saare County with 32 000 inhabitants. Its capital, the only town, is Kuressaare (population 13 000).
Access to Saaremaa was restricted during the Soviet period, because it housed several military bases. Since the 1990’s, it has become a Baltic tourist destination, with about 300 000 visitors/year. Traffic flows are therefore higher than would be expected, given the population – especially on the route to Tallinn, the nearest large city (population 430 000). It offers 10-15 bus services per day, the fastest in under 4 hours.
The buses use the hourly ferry from Virtsu to Kuivastu, across the Suur Strait, part of Highway 10, Risti – Virtsu – Kuivastu – Kuressaare. From 1931 to 1968, Virtsu was the terminus of the 96-km narrow-gauge line Rapla – Virtsu, which connected to the older Viljandi – Tallinn line at Rapla. It provided a 150-km link, from Tallinn to the ferry.
The Virtsu line: public domain image by Jaan513 …
Already proposed in the 1930’s, a fixed link across the Suur Strait has been under discussion since the 1990’s. There is an environmental impact assessment, but no final decision, or construction date. The only options under consideration are a road bridge, or a road tunnel. The strait is relatively shallow, with a maximum depth of 24 m, and it is 7 km wide. The fixed link would be 8 to 9 km long, depending on the route option. (Most pass Virtsu: some lie further north, and most assume use of the existing causeway Muhu – Saaremaa).
A rail connection to Saaremaa, via a Suur Strait tunnel, could be either standard-gauge, or Russian gauge, or narrow gauge. A narrow-gauge tunnel is obviously easier to build, but would limit freight traffic. A standard-gauge tunnel only makes sense, if there is a link to the proposed standard-gauge Riga – Tallinn high-speed line.
A standard-gauge link could diverge from the high–speed line at either Rapla or Märjamaa, depending on the alignment between Pärnu and Tallinn. It would probably follow the alignment of the old narrow-gauge line, shown in brown on the map below. It also implies a standard-gauge line on the islands themselves, and very few stations.
In theory it would be possible to simply restore the narrow-gauge line from Rapla, if it had a station on the high-speed line. The change of train is however a disadvantage. The 750 mm gauge of the old line is also a problem, conversion to metre-gauge would be preferable.
The best option seems a rail route roughly parallel to the Tallinn – Saaremaa road. Trains would use:
- the existing line toward Risti,
- a new 35-km link between Risti and Kirbla (blue on the map),
- the Kirbla – Virtsu alignment of the old narrow-gauge line.
A Russian-gauge line is the only realistic option here, for compatibility with the existing route out of Tallinn. Beyond Risti, the line originally extended to Haapsalu, but that section was closed in 1995. Re-opening to Haapsalu is a logical compliment to a new Saaremaa line. The line to Virtsu would be 230 km long.
The line would cross the Suur Strait in tunnel, approximately on the line of the southern variants investigated for the road tunnel. (The tunnel entrances would be set back from the coast, to allow easier descent, but the tunnel would not go very deep anyway, perhaps 40 m). On Muhu and Saaremaa, the line would approximately follow the main road to Kuressaare.
At the end of the causeway, it would divert north, to serve a station at the edge of Orissaare. With only 1063 inhabitants, it is the second ‘urban’ centre of Saaremaa, and the station would serve the eastern end of the island. With very low rural density (about 7/km2) and no large villages, no other station on Saaremaa is needed. If the tunnel also carries cars, the terminal could also be at Orissaare. The line would enter Kuressaare on the eastern side, along Marientali tee, with a terminal station near Pihtla tee.