Rail gauge in the Baltic States

Population density in the Baltic States is low, so local traffic alone would not justify the present rail network. In fact, these railways were built for long-distance traffic, from the start. Most of the region was part of the Russian Empire, and from the Russian perspective, the Baltic railways connected ice-free ports to the imperial hinterland, and to Moscow and Saint Petersburg. The railways typically ran east-west, and the networks in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have retained that structure. In German East Prussia there were some standard-gauge local railways, but the main lines were primarily a link to the rest of Germany. They typically ran north-east to south-west – towards Berlin.

The Russian main lines were Russian gauge, and the German lines were standard gauge. (There were some narrow-gauge local lines). In both World Wars, railway lines were converted and reconverted, as the ‘Eastern Front’ shifted. After the Soviet victory in 1945, all main lines were converted to Russian gauge, including those in northern East Prussia, now Kaliningrad Oblast.

New and upgraded rail lines in the Baltic States were proposed here earlier. A new standard-gauge railway through the Baltic States is officially planned, the Rail Baltica project. By definition it runs north-south, and the official planning isolates it from the ‘Russian’ network. Better integration with the existing network was also proposed here. That raises the question of the ideal arrangement of Russian and standard-gauge lines in the region. This post looks at the logic of gauge conversion. As with all posts here, political considerations are ignored.

The individual rail lines can be grouped by function and geography. The ‘east-west’ lines connect to specific ports: Tallinn, Ventspils, Liepāja, Klaipėda and Kaliningrad. All except Kaliningrad were originally Russian, but now Kaliningrad is the only one in Russia. Nevertheless all have traffic from Russia and Belarus.

A standard-gauge high-speed line Kaliningrad – Kaunas – Vilnius was proposed here earlier. The existing Kaliningrad – Vilnius line could remain at Russian gauge, or also be converted with parallel freight tracks. South of that main line are two lines connecting to the Polish network, which should logically be standard gauge.

HSL Kaliningrad – Vilnius: southern boundary of Russian gauge…

HSR Baltic - Nemunas

A 40-km section through Šiauliai is shared by two east-west rail routes: Klaipėda – Daugavpils and Liepāja – Vilnius. Logically, they would share the same gauge, and because of their relative isolation from other east-west lines, that can be standard gauge. The port of Klaipėda would then lose its Russian-gauge connection to the interior.

The Liepāja – Jelgava – Daugavpils line should be kept at Russian gauge, as a main freight link. With about 8 km of parallel tracks for the Vilnius line, Liepāja would also have a standard gauge exit from the port. The route Liepāja – Jelgava – Riga would also be Russian gauge. With separate tracks Jelgava – Riga, it can be combined with standard gauge on the existing north-south line Sovetsk – Šiauliai – Riga. The parallel high-speed line to Riga would also be standard gauge. Riga would be therefore be accessible by standard-gauge, for both freight and passenger trains.

The Ventspils – Riga – Daugavpils line should logically have the same gauge as the Liepāja – Jelgava – Daugavpils line. The east-west routes through Jelgava and Riga would therefore retain Russian gauge. The north-south high speed route through Riga to Tallinn would be built for standard gauge.

Russian gauge north of Ventspils – Daugavpils…

Daugava line

With this arrangement, all existing lines north of the Ventspils – Riga – Daugavpils line would remain at Russian gauge, with the high-speed line to Tallinn at standard gauge.


Three north-south high speed routes would pass through Kaliningrad Oblast. Two would converge at Sovetsk: Berlin – Riga and Poznań – Sovetsk – Riga. At either Riga or Jelgava, the combined HSL would converge with the proposed HSL Warsaw – Kaunas – Riga. (A possible Kaunas – Daugavpils standard-gauge line would be an addition to this pattern).

North of Riga there would be one standard-gauge route, the high-speed line to Tallinn. There might also be a high-speed cut-off line on the Riga – St Petersburg route, but that would use Russian gauge. The Warsaw – Vilnius – St. Petersburg line would remain at Russian gauge north of Daugavpils. (With the relative isolation of the Vilnius – Daugavpils section, it might be possible to have the break of gauge at Vilnius instead).

This pattern requires conversion of existing lines, and some new lines would be built at a different gauge. However, it does not need much additional infrastructure, just some sections of parallel track on the approach to cites. The longest section of mixed gauge route would be Jelgava – Riga, about 50 km.

Rail gauge in the Baltic States

Revised: Baltic States infrastructure

Updated with new maps:

Revised: Baltic States infrastructure

High-speed line Riga – Tallinn

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…

Garkalne line

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.

Parnu through HSL

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

Central 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.

Finland Estonia tunnels

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.

High-speed line Riga – Tallinn

High-speed line Kaliningrad – Kaunas – Vilnius

Three high-speed lines (HSL) into the Baltic States were proposed here earlier. They are ‘north-south’ lines in the sense of being a connection from the South, but in fact they mainly run south-west to north-east. They cross ‘east-west’ lines, built inland from Baltic ports, when the region was part of the Russian Empire.

A new east-west high-speed line from Kaliningrad to Kaunas and Vilnius would link three proposed high-speed lines:

Berlin – Riga…

Berlin - Riga HSL

The Kaliningrad – Vilnius HSL would create additional high-speed routes, such as Berlin – Kaunas. At Vilnius, it would also link to an upgraded Warsaw – Vilnius – St. Petersburg line.

There is already a rail line from Kaliningrad to Kaunas and Vilnius: it continues to Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Because Kaliningrad Oblast is a Russian exclave, the line is a transit route. Residents of Kaliningrad have to cross the EU external border into Lithuania, and then exit the EU into Belarus, to reach the rest of Russia. Air travel is a more convenient option. For freight, the line is effectively the only route between the port of Kaliningrad, and its hinterland in Belarus and Russia.

HSR Baltic - Nemunas

At present the entire line is Russian gauge. Originally there was a break of gauge at Eydtkuhnen, on the border between the German and Russian empires. Apart from some narrow-gauge local lines, the other lines within East Prussia were all standard gauge.

The proposed HSL would run parallel to the existing line, duplicating the rail approaches to the stations at Kaunas and Vilnius. That leaves the options open for the rest of the network. The Russian-gauge line could simply be retained in it present form, or it could be converted to standard gauge, and a separate Russian-gauge freight line added.

With the construction of the three proposed high-speed lines, the main stations at Kaliningrad, Kaunas and Vilnius would be served by standard-gauge lines. Conversion of the line between them therefore seems logical. Reconversion to standard gauge would also be the most logical option for the rest of Kaliningrad Oblast, which is the northern half of former East Prussia. (The rest of East Prussia was allocated to Poland after the Second World war, and its railways remained standard gauge).

Although more complex, conversion to standard-gauge seems the best option in Lithuania, to avoid further gauge breaks there. The most comprehensive solution would be: standard gauge south of the rail line Liepāja – Jelgava – Jēkabpils – Daugavpils (brown on the map), and west of the Warsaw – Vilnius – Daugavpils line (dark red).

Lithuania gauge

For development of regional networks around Kaunas and Vilnius, unity of gauge is preferable. That also argues against retention of a Russian-gauge line for local services, when a parallel standard-gauge HSL is built. So a freight transit line seems to be preferable, even though it requires two separate new lines. It could by-pass Vilnius and Kaunas using existing freight lines, connecting via dual-gauge freight sidings, to industry and freight terminals in those cities.

For onward travel toward Minsk, HSL passengers could simply change trains at Vilnius. Alternatively, a limited number of variable gauge trains could be used for through services to Minsk, even possibly on a Russian-gauge HSL.

Alignment of the HSL

The alignment would follow existing infrastructure over the entire length, and is not described in detail. The standard-gauge HSL would start at Kaliningrad station, where it would diverge from the proposed Berlin – Kaliningrad – Riga HSL high-speed line. The city of Kaliningrad / Калининград, with 450 000 inhabitants, is the only large city in Kaliningrad Oblast (population 970 000).

East of Kaliningrad, the HSL would follow the existing line for 90 km, to Chernyakhovsk / Черняхо́вск, where it would connect with the Ausbaustrecke Poznań – Sovetsk. From Chernyakhovsk, the new line would again parallel the existing alignment to Kazlų Rūda, 37 km from Kaunas. Here, it would join the proposed high-speed line Warsaw – Kaunas – Riga, and they would form a single HSL into Kaunas. The section from Chernyakhovsk to Kaunas is 150 km long.

At Kaunas (population 300 000, region 675 000) there is one rail line through the city, with only a single track north of the station. There is a short bypass line at the eastern edge. The station location is peripheral, but there is no good alternative site. The new HSL would simply run next to the existing line, with a duplicate bridge over the River Nemunas, and new tunnels on the northern side. For transit freight, the bypass could be retained at Russian-gauge, and parallel tracks provided on the rest of the route through Kaunas.

Kaunas: east-west route in orange…

Kaunas lines

The HSL to Vilnius would also follow the existing northern exit, and then diverge to run alongside the A1 motorway. It can follow this motorway, and the connecting A1 highway, all the way to the edge of Vilnius, near Paneriai station. From there, it would follow the existing alignment into the main station, about 10 km further. These new tracks would also be used by high-speed trains from Warsaw, via the upgraded Warsaw – St. Petersburg line. The Kaunas – Vilnius section would be about 100 km long.

The main station of Vilnius (population 540 000) lies south of the city centre: as in Kaunas, there is only one line through the city. There is a bypass line, which also starts near Paneriai station, and runs south of the built-up area. Again, Russian gauge could be retained for this line, and the connecting route into Belarus. In effect the Russian-gauge network would begin at Paneriai, or further west if the branch to Grigiškės is extended to connect with the Vilnius line at Rykantai.

Routes through Vilnius: east-west in orange, Warsaw – St. Petersburg in blue, bypass in green…

Vilnius lines

Because the line through Vilnius is shared by two main routes, four tracks are essential here, even without any new high-speed lines. Six tracks are preferable, on the approaches to the main station, with widened cuttings on the eastern side. East of Vilnius, there would be standard-gauge track to the junction at Naujoji-Vilnia, where the Minsk line splits from the St. Petersburg line. If variable-gauge trains were used for service to Minsk, the gauge change would be here.

The Kaliningrad – Kaunas – Vilnius high-speed route would be about 340 km long, so a journey time of 2 hours 15 minutes should be possible, for the fastest train services.

High-speed line Kaliningrad – Kaunas – Vilnius

Regional rail line Valmiera – Pärnu

A Riga – Tallinn high-speed line (HSL) would provide a standard-gauge north-south link between the two cities, with one intermediate station at Pärnu. The original post here suggested a route via Valmiera, combined with a standard-gauge HSL to Tartu and Pskov, but that implies conversion of almost the entire network in Latvia and Estonia. A line along the coast is simpler. The official Rail Baltica project, a north-south HSL, also follows the coast north of Riga. It lacks integration with the Russian-gauge network, but an integrated network is possible, even in this thinly populated region.

North-south HSL…


A new Valmiera – Pärnu regional line would be a logical addition to the network. It could connect at Valmiera with the proposed regional rail line Valmiera – Cēsis – Jēkabpils. From Valmiera the line would run north to Rūjiena and Mõisaküla, and then follow the alignment of the former line Valga – Pärnu, via Kilingi-Nõmme. Only these three villages would have stations: the area is too thinly populated to justify any others. The line would be electrified, but probably single track, unless it carries significant freight traffic.

Click to enlarge: the Valmiera – Pärnu line (orange) and the proposed route to Daugavpils…

Valmiera - Daugavpils

The line is described here from north to south. The small resort city of Pärnu (population 41 000) is at present served by a single-track regional line from Tallinn, via Rapla. The proposed HSL might follow the existing railway in Pärnu, with a new station at the south-eastern edge of town, or it might use a new alignment on viaduct along the E67 by-pass road (Ehitajate tee). The proposed line to Valmiera must begin at the HSL station, and in that respect, the southeastern station location is better.

Both the HSL to Riga, and the new line to Valmiera, would exit Pärnu toward the south-east, both following an old rail alignment. (The HSL would then turn south, about 5 km from Pärnu). The old railway is the former narrow-gauge line Pärnu – Mõisaküla – Rūjiena – Valga, opened in 1896. A branch from Mõisaküla to Viljandi was opened in 1897, and by 1900 the line had been extended to Tallinn. This created a very indirect route Tallinn – Pärnu, and a shorter route to Pärnu was built, via Lelle. At present, only Tallinn – Pärnu (141 km) and Tallinn – Viljandi (150 km) are in use, with infrequent services.

The alignment of the abandoned lines is still available: the Mõisaküla – Viljandi line, for instance, is accessible by motorcycle. And even in this thinly populated region, a rail network can function. Mõisaküla station was apparently a busy junction, although by western European standards it is ‘the middle of nowhere’.


The new line to Valmiera would simply follow the old line to Rūjiena, excluding some local sharp curves. The first station would be at Kilingi-Nõmme. The village has about 2 500 inhabitants, the municipality about 5 000 – population density here is only 7/km2. The station would be about 37 km from Pärnu (the exact distance depends on the station location in Pärnu itself).

The second station would be about 15 km further, at Mõisaküla (population 1000). The former branch from Viljandi entered this junction station from the south, so a service to Valmiera would require reversal. It might be better for trains from Viljandi to avoid the station, and continue southward toward Valmiera.

The third station would be 24 km further, at Rūjiena in Latvia, population 3 000. Here, the Pärnu – Valga line met a 1937 line to Riga, via Limbaži. (Only the Riga – Skulte section is still in operation). From 1981, after narrow-gauge sections had been converted to Russian gauge, a through service Riga – Limbaži – Rūjiena – Pärnu – Tallinn operated. (To facilitate that route, the station was relocated north of the village).

Click to enlarge: new alignment around Rūjiena…


So there were two historical routes south from Rūjiena, but never a rail connection to Valmiera. Adding this ‘missing link’ would create a viable regional network, despite the low population density. The old line to Valga passed right through Rūjiena village, but a new line could bypass it on the eastern side, with a new station. The new alignment would be about 45 km long, closely following the P17 highway.

The line would enter Valmiera from the north-east: the station is at the southern edge of the town. Although its population is only 25 000, Valmiera is the regional centre for the historical region of Vidzeme. It is on the main rail line Riga – Valga – Pskov – St. Petersburg: the secondary Riga -Tartu route diverges at Valga. Upgrading of these routes would justify a cut-off line between Riga and Valmiera, shortening the current alignment via Cēsis (121 km), but that is not a precondition for the Pärnu – Valmiera line.

Valmiera town

The new line would carry a regional service Pärnu – Valmiera (about 120 km). It might be extended to Daugavpils on the proposed cross-country line, or there might be a separate inter-regional service. The line south of Mõisaküla might carry a Viljandi – Valmiera service, if the Mõisaküla – Viljandi line is re-opened, although a Pärnu – Viljandi service is also an option. Although using an old alignment, the new line would be built for the European standard of 150 km/h. With three stops, the Pärnu – Valmiera journey time should be about 70-80 minutes.

Regional rail line Valmiera – Pärnu