Three high-speed lines (HSL) were proposed here earlier, that converge at Sovetsk, the former Tilsit. They are the high-speed line Berlin – Kaliningrad – Riga, the Ausbaustrecke from Poznań via Olsztyn, and the fast inter-regional line Kaunas – Šakiai – Sovetsk.
Berlin – Riga…
A new high-speed line would extend the high-speed route from Sovetsk, to the Baltic port cities of Klaipėda (population 157 000) and Liepāja (population 78 000). The section to Klaipėda would simply follow the existing railway, but the proposed alignment along the coast to Liepāja is new.
Klaipėda is the former German city of Memel, and Sovetsk / Сове́тск was formerly the German city of Tilsit. When the rail line between them was built in 1875, both were inside the German Reich, in East Prussia. This was the ‘far end’ of Germany, and the Memel line was not a major strategic route. It ran through Memelland, a strip of German territory north of the River Memel / Neman / Nemunas. Germany lost the Memelland to Lithuania after the First World War: the rest of East Prussia was divided after the Second World War. Sovetsk is now on the boundary between the Kaliningrad Oblast (a Russian Federation exclave), and Lithuania. This is also the EU external boundary.
In 1892 the Tilsit – Memel line was extended to Krottingen (now Kretinga), on the border with the Russian Empire. The port of Liepāja, was already linked to Vilnius by a Russian-gauge line, since 1874. During the First World War, a military line was built, to connect Kretinga to the Vilnius – Liepāja line: the junction is at Priekule. After the war, the German-Russian border disappeared, but a new Lithuania – Latvia border cut the line instead. All these past and present border crossings have restricted rail traffic, and the Lithuania – Latvia link is now disused.
HSL along the Curonian coast
The proposal here ignores the borders: a new standard-gauge high-speed line (HSL), alongside the existing line Sovetsk – Klaipėda, and then parallel to the coast. The new line would begin several kilometres north of Sovetsk, diverging from the proposed Berlin – Riga HSL. A new station at Sovetsk (population 43 000), would offer interchange between high-speed lines in five directions.
The existing railway turns north-west at Pagėgiai, after crossing the Neman / Nemunas River at Sovetsk. It runs parallel to the river for 40 km to Šilutė, and then parallel to the shore of the Curonian Lagoon (Kuršių Marios).
The line is about 5 km from the river, and about 5-10 km inland from the sea. This is a coastal plain, and most of the line is under 20 m elevation. The old railway consists of straight sections with curves, so the HSL can generally follow it closely, with improved curves. There would be one intermediate station on the HSL, at the district capital Šilutė (population 18 000, district 42 000), for interchange with regional services on the old line. (With most rural halts closed, there would be six or seven stations on the old line).
Curve improvement at Šilutė station…
The old line is 92 km long, the new line might be marginally shorter, bypassing some curved sections. The last section into Klaipėda has a very good alignment, and the HSL can be built directly alongside it. It forms the eastern edge of the present built-up area, and then turns about 45 degrees to the station, which is north of the historic centre.
Leaving Klaipėda, the new line would follow the old line to Kretinga, along the coast. At Giruliai, the old line turns inland: the new line would continue 20 km along the coast, to the resort of Palanga. Near Girkaliai, it would join the alignment of the old main road to Palanga, Klaipėdos Plentas. (The incomplete A13 motorway has by-passed this section of road). The Klaipėda – Palanga section would be 23 km long.
Palanga has 11 000 inhabitants, but the town is a prominent Baltic Sea resort, and a HSL station is justified. The main road is also the optimal alignment for a rail tunnel through the town, or possibly a viaduct. The station would be located where it crosses the main road from the east (A11, Kretingos Gatvė) – about 1800 m from the beach.
North of this station, the rail alignment would run alongside the main road (A13) for 7 km, to Palanga Airport. The HSL would pass directly in front of the terminal, so technically a station is not problem. However, with only 130 000 passengers a year, and three flights a day in winter, the airport might not justify a HSL station. A summer-only stop is a possible option.
The HSL would continue northwards, at first closely parallel to the road. After passing the Būtingė oil terminal, 16 km north of Palanga, the HSL would run roughly parallel to the A13 (Latvian A11) towards Liepāja. The road is about 5-8 km inland, until Nīcā, 30 km further, where it turns back toward the coast. The rail line would go straight on at Nīcā, passing east of the Liepāja Lake, a nature reserve.
Near Cimdenieki, on the outskirts of Liepāja, the new HSL would join the alignment of the existing line, near the former junction of the lines from Riga and Vilnius. High-speed trains would terminate about 8 km further at Liepāja Station, north of the city centre. The standard-gauge HSL would run alongside Russian-gauge tracks, into the station. The issue of gauge conversion was considered in earlier proposals, and the Liepāja – Jelgava – Krustpils – Daugavpils line would remain Russian gauge, even if all lines south of it were converted to standard gauge.
Apart from port freight tracks, Liepāja is a terminal station. Further north is the thinly populated Courland peninsula: rural densities here are under 10 persons per km2. The only large settlement is the port of Ventspils (population 40 000), about 120 km further along the coast. The only railway link was a wartime line: in 1944 the narrow-gauge line to Kuldiga was converted to standard gauge by the Wehrmacht, as far as Alsunga, and linked from there to Ventspils during the siege of Courland. The lines are now abandoned, and were never designed for permanent use anyway. Only freight traffic between the two port zones could justify restoration of a Liepāja – Ventspils line. For passenger services, Liepāja will remain a terminal.
The new high-speed line Klaipėda – Liepāja would be almost exactly 100 km long, station to station, and in flat terrain most of it could be built for very high speeds. The Sovetsk – Klaipėda section might be built for 200 km/h. On the entire 192-km high-speed route from Sovetsk to Liepāja, with three intermediate stops (Šilutė, Klaipėda and Palanga), journey time could be under 80 minutes.