High-speed line Warsaw – Kaunas – Riga

This standard gauge high-speed line (HSL) from Warsaw to Riga is complementary to the proposed HSL Berlin – Riga – Tallinn, and would provide a second high-speed route into the Baltic States region.

The proposal is an alternative for the Rail Baltica project, although some elements are the same. Rail Baltica is part of the Trans-European Networks (TEN), but like many of the TEN corridors, it is defined by politics and local interests, rather than logical planning. For a start, it deliberately has a longer route, to avoid Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian Federation exclave, former German East Prussia. The result is an L-shaped corridor, that fits into the gap between Kaliningrad and Belarus.

Rail Baltica from railbaltica.info


The map suggests a relatively straight line north from Warsaw, but that is far from the case. The Warsaw – Kaunas section does not carry passengers at present, in fact there are no passenger services into Latvia at all. It is very indirect: about 440 km via Białystok, Ełk, Suwałki and Šeštokai, while the great circle distance is 350 km. There is also a break of gauge near Šeštokai. Again this is deliberate: like other EU member states, Poland uses Trans-European Networks funds, to upgrade its internal rail network. Warsaw – Kaunas trains will therefore use a route that was never planned for Warsaw – Kaunas traffic: it bypasses the main stations at Białystok and Suwałki and makes a unnecessary detour to Olecko and Šeštokai. The upgrading so far is minimal, with no electrification.

Further north along the Rail Baltica corridor, a high-speed line is planned from Kaunas to Riga and Tallinn, but it deliberately avoids both those cites. It bypasses Riga, to serve a multimodal terminal outside the city, and runs to the Estonian port of Maardu, rather than the capital, Tallinn. The Rail Baltica project seems to be primarily a standard-gauge freight line through the Baltic States, with minimal integration with existing Russian-gauge railways.

Rail Baltica to Kaunas: this mixed-gauge line will clearly not be carrying any high-speed trains (image by Gediminias under GNU licence 1.2)…


The alignment proposed here avoids Białystok, with a new high-speed line via Łomża and Suwałki to Kaunas. Near Warsaw and Kaunas, it would follow existing alignments. This section would be about 400 km long. North of Kaunas, a new high-speed line would run on an entirely new alignment, via Panevėžys and Bauska to Riga (about 280 km). Approaching Riga, it would share the tracks of the proposed Berlin – Riga high-speed corridor, also standard gauge.

A general restructuring of rail gauge in the Baltic states is desirable, but it is not a precondition for the HSL proposed here. One option is to build or convert main north-south lines to standard-gauge, while the main east-west lines retain Russian gauge (1520 mm). Regional and local lines would then use the most appropriate track gauge, for their specific location.

Warsaw - Kaunas via Elk

The new HSL would start at Warsaw (Warszawa, metropolitan area population about 3 million), using the cross-city east-west line line out of Warszawa Centralna, or from a new central station. After crossing the Vistula (Wisła), it would use a new link line, parallel to the Elsnerów tunnel, which was proposed for the Warsaw urban-regional metro:


This link takes the trains to the Polish line 6, formerly the 1333 km Warsaw – Vilnius – St. Petersburg line (1862). (The line starts from Warszawa Wileńska station). Trains would then continue on new tracks, generally parallel to the straight alignment of the old line.

Click to enlarge: The Warschau-Petersburger Eisenbahn out of Warsaw (highlighted yellow) on an old Austro-Hungarian military map of around 1910, which uses some German place names. The Elsnerów tunnel is shown red.

North of Łochów, 60 km from warsaw, the new line would diverge from the old main line, turning north-northeast toward Ostrów Mazowiecka. The first station would be at this town (population 23 000), the capital of Ostrów Mazowiecka Powiat (75 000). The HSL can follow the western ring road, with a station where it crosses the existing rail line to Ostrołęka. From there, the line would continue about 50 km north-northeast, roughly parallel to highway 63, to Łomża. This is a small city (population 61 000), and capital of Łomża Powiat (111 000 including Łomża). The HSL can follow the existing railway into the city, then drop into a 2-km tunnel under the higher ground in the centre, emerging to cross the floodplain of the Narew.


North of Łomża, the line would run about 85 km north to Ełk (at first parallel to highway 61). Ełk (German Lyck) has a population of 60 000, and is the capital of Ełk Powiat (total 85 000). Here, the new line crosses the former Königsberg – Lyck – Białystok railway, which is not currently in operation as a through route. This line should be restored and upgraded over its entire length, as an important inter-regional link. The HSL can use the existing alignment through Ełk station: if all trains stop there, the curve at the north end is not a problem.

From Ełk, the new line would turn north-east to Suwałki, following only part of the existing route via Olecko. The Ełk – Olecko line was built as the Preussische Ostbahn line Insterburg – Goldap – Lyck (1879). The Olecko – Suwałki line was a branch of that line, so the existing route is indirect. The new line would take a shorter route south of Olecko.

The next station, about 45 km from Ełk, is at Suwałki (population 69 000, with another 36 000 in Suwałki Powiat). This is a regional centre, formerly the capital of Suwałki Voivodeship, with a population of almost 500 000. The present terminal station would be replaced by a through station further east, for instance on the Sejny road (highway 653).

North of Suwałki, the existing line follows an indirect route toward Marijampolė, via Šeštokai. The new alignment would be closer to the straight E67 road, for about 60 km, to Marijampolė. This is a regional centre with a population of 47 000, capital of Marijampolė apskritis or county (181 000). Near the city, the new line would run beside the existing line, but on separate tracks. (The broad-gauge line Marijampolė – Šeštokai continues only to Alytus, and terminates there, so conversion to standard gauge would be easy).

From Marijampolė, the line would largely follow the existing alignment, bypassing the junction at Kazlų Rūda, where it joins the main Kaliningrad – Kaunas line. This is not the shortest route, but the HSL can be combined with a later standard-gauge HSL from Kaliningrad.

The existing line enters Kaunas from the south, crossing the River Neman just south of the main station (which is east of the city centre). The new HSL would need new separate tracks, a new bridge, and reconstruction of the station. Kaunas has a population of 301 000, the statistical region (former county) 596 0000.

Kaunas: main line and freight bypass…

Kaunas through line

The existing lines leave the city in a north-western direction, toward Jonava: trains to Šiauliai make a right-angle turn there. The original version of this post proposed a new line due north, toward Kėdainiai, possibly staring with a new exit tunnel due north from the station. However, the present Rail Baltica proposals include a route for a high-speed line passing Jonava, following the existing exit line from Kaunas. It seems better to use this option, which would also allow for a future fast inter-regional line toward Daugavpils. A new exit tunnel is still essential, parallel to the existing tunnel, but longer.

The Lithuanian Rail Baltica website shows three main alignments toward Riga, one passing west of Jonava. All pass east of Šėta and Ramygala, and then west of Panevėžys. That city has 95 000 inhabitants, with about 240 000 in the former Panevėžys county (apskritis). A new station is planned on its western edge, although one possible alignment bypasses it entirely. There would be no connection to the existing station, and although the new line would cross the existing railway through Panevėžys, the station might not be located at that point either. The line would then pass either Joniškėlis or Pasvalys, and enter Lativa south of Bauska.

The lack of integration with regional lines and urban centres, is evident in the Rail Baltica plans. It would be better if the HSL alignment allows for a future upgrading of the line to Šiauliai, and therefore a link to Kėdainiai. The section from Panevėžys to Riga should have at least one intermediate station at Bauska, and possibly at Pasvalys. Above all, the HSL must have good interchange with the major east-west railway through Panevėžys (the Klaipėda – Šiauliai – Daugavpils route). A north-south tunnel under the existing station would also pass under the city centre, so that is a difficult option. A simpler option is for the HSL to pass west of the city, with two connecting links to the station, if necessary on separate (standard-gauge) tracks. That would allow a Riga – Panevėžys and a Panevėžys – Kaunas shuttle service.

In Latvia

The planned Rail Baltica alignment inside Latvia is shown on the map below: it does not have any intermediate stations. The detailed planning maps show alignments several kilometres east of Bauska, a small regional centre in the Zemgale region. The HSL could however cut through the outskirts of the town (at Jauncode), with a station close to the centre. The station would be about 65 km from Riga, so this section would also have a regional function, although not all trains would stop at Bauska.

Click to enlarge: map from Railbaltica.info


The official plans don’t include a line into Riga from the south, but that is the logical (and shortest) route. The HSL from Kaunas could join the proposed HSL from Berlin at Tiraine, at the edge of the Riga agglomeration. In any case, the HSL would need separate tracks into the main station, even if the other lines in Riga were converted to standard gauge.

Riga is the largest city in the Baltic states (717 000), and is a logical end point for a service from Warsaw. The new standard-gauge line would cross the Daugava river into a reconstructed Riga station: it is just south of the historic city centre (Vecriga).


Journey time Warsaw – Riga should be under 5 hours. The high-speed line would carry a combination of through services, and high-speed regional services (such as Riga – Bauska – Panevėžys).

High-speed line Warsaw – Kaunas – Riga

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