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

Urban-regional lines in Samland and Kaliningrad

The German city of Königsberg developed a small local rail network during the first half of the 20th century, extending into the region of Samland north of the city. Samland (Sambia) is roughly a rectangle bordered by the Baltic Sea, the river Pregel / Pregolya, and the small river Deime / Deyma. The railways served growing beach resorts on its northern coast.

Samland 1923

If Königsberg had stayed a German city, it would probably have an urban-regional S-Bahn network. However, the Second World War resulted in the partition of the former East Prussia or Ostpreussen, between Poland and the Soviet Union. Königsberg was largely destroyed, and rebuilt as the Soviet city of Kaliningrad. The northern half of East Prussia became Kaliningrad Oblast: the mainly German population was expelled and replaced, and everything was renamed in Russian.

Although many local lines in East Prussia were never rebuilt after their wartime destruction, most of the network in Samland is still in operation. The shortest line runs due north from Kaliningrad, to the coastal resort Zelenogradsk (formerly Cranz, population 12 000). The 28-km line was built by the Königsberg-Cranzer Eisenbahngesellschaft. It ends at a terminal station, very close to the beach. The line along the coast diverges just outside the station: the third line visible is a former branch, to a small harbour at Cranzbeek.

Cranz Bahnhof

A longer line runs north-west to the resorts of Pioniersky (formerly Neukuhren, population 12 000) and Svetlogorsk (formerly Rauschen, 11 000 inhabitants). The line was built in 1901 by the Samlandbahn AG. It passes through Pioniersky, 35 km from Kaliningrad, and continues 5 km along the coast to Svetlogorsk-1 station (Rauschen-Ort). It then turns in a semi-circle, terminating at Svetlogorsk-2 (Rauschen Dune), 43 km from Kaliningrad.

Rauschen Bahnhof

Both these lines start at the northern station, Kaliningrad Severny, formerly Nordbahnhof. It is now at the centre of the reconstructed city, on the main square. However, there is only a single-track connection to the main station.

From Cranz, a line runs along the coast, including the 5-km Pioniersky – Svetlogorsk section. It was originally built to Warnicken, 7 km from Rauschen-Ort. In the 1930’s, a line along the whole coast of the peninsula was planned, and it was completed in wartime. It ended at Pillau, now Baltiysk.

The other line north of Kaliningrad is the 124-km secondary line to Sovetsk (formerly Tilsit). The 47-km section to Polessk (Labiau, population 7600) also serves Guryevsk (Neuhausen, population 12 000), on the outskirts of Kaliningrad. This line also starts at Kaliningrad Severny, and could be incorporated in an urban-regional network.

The proposed high-speed line Berlin – Riga would use a new alignment from Kaliningrad to Sovetsk, although it might follow the old line in places. The old line beyond Polessk, which has an indirect route via Slavsk, would then lose its function as a Kaliningrad – Sovetsk link, and might be downgraded to a freight line.

Indicative HSL alignment…

Polessk routes HSL

The 46-km line westwards to Baltiysk (formerly Pillau, population 33 000) was built by the Ostpreussische Südbahn. An 18-km branch to Palmnicken (now Yantarny), later became part of the coastal route around the peninsula. The line had its own station in Königsberg (Pillauer Bahnhof), but it now runs to the main station. In Baltiysk, there is a terminal station, but also connections to the port – a naval base in transition to a freight/ferry port.

Pillau Bahnhof

Radial lines from Cranz, Svetlogorsk, and Polessk into Kaliningrad Severny are logical, and they can be upgraded. However, at the very least, a double-track connection to the main station is needed, with a new river crossing (bridge or tunnel).

South of the main station, trains could continue over the main lines, to Bagrationovsk and Gvardeysk. They could also continue to Mamonovo, on the Elbląg line, but not through the main station. These are logical end points for S-Bahn type services, all about 40-50 km from Kaliningrad. Unlike the lines to the coastal resorts, these are existing or former main lines, and they need extra track capacity for urban-regional services. Kaliningrad Severny would continue the function as a terminal station, for peak traffic to the coastal resorts summer. (The lines south and east of the main station have no tourist destinations, and only some villages).

The original version of this post proposed a new 6-km north-south tunnel, to replace the existing link between Kaliningrad Severny and the main station. It would follow main roads through the centre, and then cross the main station at right angles. It could then split, to access all three routes out of the main station: south-west, south and east. A central tunnel is typical of S-Bahn / RER projects in other cities. However, in this case the benefits are minimal, since Kaliningrad Severny is already well located in the central area. In fact the city centre is ‘hollow’ – the Altstadt was completely destroyed in the Second World War, and only partially rebuilt.

Finally, the line along the coast, from Baltiysk (Pillau) to Zelenogradsk (Cranz), should be reinstated, by reopening the section from Primorsk (Fischhausen) to Svetlogorsk (Rauschen) via Yantarny (Palmnicken). In comparison with the radial lines, it would carry less peak traffic, and it might be operated with lighter vehicles (‘light-train’ rather than light-rail).

See Regional lines around Kaliningrad, for more on the secondary lines in the Kaliningrad Oblast.

Urban-regional lines in Samland and Kaliningrad