A standard-gauge high-speed rail line (HSL), from Riga to Tallinn, would extend the proposed Berlin – Riga HSL. The line would be about 300 km long, with an intermediate station at Pärnu, about 180 km from Riga. At Tallinn, it might connect to a tunnel under the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki – probably with mixed-gauge tracks.
Since the first version of this post, the Rail Baltica project has expanded to include a high-speed line between Riga and Tallinn. Possible alignments are now being evaluated, although no funding is allocated yet. In fact the proposed Rail Baltica line does not even enter Riga or Tallinn, probably because it is primarily intended for freight. At Riga, it would pass through a multi-modal terminal east of the city, with a link line to the main station. The planned alignments in Estonia run to the ice-free port at Maardu (Muuga Harbour). Again, there would be a link line to Tallinn, but not even into the main station. A simple new station at Ülemiste would apparently be enough, which again suggests that the line will not carry much passenger traffic.
A high-speed line from city centre to city centre is clearly better. From Riga, this new HSL would follow the existing line to Garkalne or Vangazi, and then turn north, parallel to the coast. There are two 90-degree curves on the line out of the city, but no good alternative alignments. The route along the coast to Pärnu would be comparable with the proposed route of Rail Baltica, running about 3-5 km inland. There is a detailed map of the options at the Estonian Rail Baltica site.
Exit from Riga…
The original version of this post included a possible alignment through Limbaži, but it would offer no advantage over a coastal route. An alignment via Valmiera would only make sense, in combination with a standard-gauge line to Tartu. However, a new link north of Valmiera could allow trains to reach Pärnu on a restored Mõisaküla – Pärnu line, creating a useful regional interchange with the Riga – Tallinn HSL. (In the Soviet era, there was a Riga – Tallinn service via Limbaži and Mõisaküla, on converted narrow-gauge lines).
Pärnu (population 45 000), is the largest tourist centre in Estonia. It is a present served by a single-track regional line from Tallinn via Rapla, with an inconvenient station site, at the edge of the built-up area. The planned Rail Baltica line would follow that alignment, or it might even avoid Pärnu entirely, with a station about 10 km outside the town. Even if the trains are fast, badly located stations don’t work.
A better alternative is a line on viaduct along the E67 by-pass road (Ehitajate tee). The station could be relocated to the north end of Ehitajate tee, about 2 km north of the city centre, or it could be closer to the centre if a new bridge was built across across the river.
From Pärnu, the line could run approximately parallel to the E67 toward Tallinn, a fairly direct route, about 130 km long. Approaching Tallinn, the HSL would leave the E67, to join the existing rail alignment at Saku, about 15 km south of the city centre. With additional tracks, trains could run to the main station beside the old town, Balti Jaam.
The Pärnu – Tallinn section could also run via Rapla, on an alignment comparable to the planned Rail Baltica line. Unlike the Rail Baltica plans, however, the HSL should allow interchange with the existing line to Viljandi, and the regional service into Tallinn. That is possible, if the existing Rapla station is shifted about 300-500 m to the east.
The Rapla alignment should also run directly to Tallinn, via Saku. In both cases, the line could also terminate at a new station in Ülemiste, but that only makes sense in combination with a tunnel to Helsinki. (The Rail Baltica plans, where the line enters Ülemiste from the east, makes no sense for passenger traffic).
Click to enlarge: two options for a standard-gauge line into Tallinn…
A future Tallinn – Helsinki tunnel would probably start east of the city. It would be the longest undersea tunnel in the world, so construction is unlikely in the short or medium term. Possible alignments for the tunnel include:
- from the Viimsi peninsula near Maardu to the Porkkala peninsula, and then via the coastal rail line to Helsinki;
- from the Viimsi peninsula to Pasila rail depot in Helsinki itself;
- an alignment via Naissaar island, starting north-east of Tallinn.
The tunnel would be 80 to 90 km long, depending on the route chosen, with a maximum depth of about 200 m under sea level. The journey from central Tallinn to central Helsinki would be about 90 to 100 km. (The great circle distance between the two central stations is 82 km).
Trains from both eastern alignments would enter Tallinn via Ülemiste, allowing interchange there with the Riga HSL. The railways on both sides are Russian gauge, so the tunnel will primarily carry Russian-gauge trains. However, mixed gauge tracks would allow through standard-gauge trains to start at a terminal in Helsinki. Alternatively, trains from the Riga HSL and the tunnel could all terminate in an expanded main station (Balti Jaam) in Tallinn, with interchange there. Even with a HSL from Riga and standard-gauge tracks in the tunnel, however, it would not be efficient to operate long through services. Berlin to Helsinki is about 1400 km, and in any case most passengers would be from either the Baltic States, or Finland.