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 Sovetsk – Klaipėda – Liepāja

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…

Berlin - Riga HSL

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.

Memel Curonia HSL

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).

Tilsit Memel line

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.

track Memel

Stadt Memel

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.

Palanga HSL

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.

Klaipeda - Liepāja HSL

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.

plan Liepaja

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.

High-speed line Sovetsk – Klaipėda – Liepāja

Upgrading Warsaw – Vilnius – St. Petersburg line

The 1333 km Warsaw – Vilnius – St. Petersburg line was built in 1862, entirely within the Russian Empire. (Poland was nominally a separate kingdom, but that meant little in practice). It was therefore built with Russian gauge, and operated as a unit. That all changed in the 20th century: the operation and function of the line were disrupted by two World Wars, and the subsequent boundary changes. At present it crosses four borders, crossing the EU external boundary three times, and it has a break of gauge. There are, not surprisingly, no through services, and the Belarus – Lithuania section is not in use.

Disused cross-border section: public domain image by Šarūnas Šimkus


There are no technical or geographical obstacles to a major upgrade. The line runs through flat or rolling terrain, rarely above 200 m elevation. In Poland it runs through rural areas, and further north mainly through forest, with low population density. North of Białystok, most of the line is single-track. On flat terrain, the alignment consists of straight sections with short curves between them. In the rolling uplands, there is some continuously curving track.

Apart from a few bridges over the main rivers, no complex structures are required. The line speed after upgrading would simply be a function of the resources applied. In turn, that would be determined by the line’s function, and its place in the rail network. That is what this post considers.


The primary function of the line would not be travel from Warsaw to St. Petersburg. That was probably never the case – the line is too long for that. A theoretical upgrade for 180 km/h would allow a through journey of about 10 hours, but that is still very long, except for tourist traffic. Paradoxically, shorter journeys would benefit from the upgrade, and their relative share of traffic would probably increase.

With a limited role for end-to-end passenger traffic, then break of gauge is not a problem in itself. The issue is its location, and that is related to the general question of rail gauge in the Baltic States. In principle, north-south lines could be standard gauge and east-west lines Russian gauge. A general conversion to standard gauge would make sense in Lithuania, and in Kaliningrad Oblast. The lines in the former German territories (East Prussia) were all standard gauge originally. Between the two World Wars, much of the Lithuanian network was also standard gauge. And from 1918 to 1939, Poland extended to Vilnius and almost to Daugavpils, and the St. Petersburg line was standard gauge to Daugavpils Station. The line to Daugavpils apparently changed gauge four times during the 20th century, including a German wartime conversion in 1941, and ended as a Russian-gauge line in the Soviet Union.

Although the St. Petersburg line passes through Belarus, its route through Hrodna is isolated from the rest of that network. It could be converted to standard gauge, provided there is a short dual-gauge approach to Hrodna station from the north. The isolated branch to Druskininkai can also be converted without any problem.

In Lithuania, the line is also relatively separate from the rest of the network, except at Vilnius. There is a branch to Utena, at present freight-only, and the line to Pastavy in Belarus shares a station only (at Pabradė). However, the important section though the Vilnius agglomeration is shared with the Kaliningrad – Minsk route. For freight there is an easy solution – the existing southern by-pass of Vilnius could remain Russian gauge. For passenger traffic, however, parallel Russian and standard gauge lines through Vilnius seem unavoidable. The proposed high-speed line Kaliningrad – Vilnius would require a standard gauge line into the main station. With parallel routes through the station, the line from Lida in Belarus can remain at Russian gauge.

The route to Sankt-Peterburg

The urban region of Warsaw (Warszawa) has a population of around 3,5 million. For 60 km out of the city, the line would be used by the proposed high-speed line Warsaw – Kaunas – Riga. The St. Petersburg railway originally had its own station in Warsaw, the Vilnius Station or Warszawa Wileńska. That station is still in use for suburban trains, but rebuilt as a shopping centre. The two high-speed routes therefore require a good connection to the cross-city east-west line line and Warszawa Centralna, or possibly a new central station. They best option is a second tunnel Elsnerów tunnel – the other Elsnerów tunnel was proposed for a Warsaw urban-regional metro. (The planned Rail Baltica line would detour over a freight line).

Tunnel in red, official link plans in blue-green…

Elsnerów HSL tunnel

Via the tunnel trains would acces the original St. Petersburg line, now Polish line 6. The fastest trains would serve Białystok in Poland (population 295 000) and Hrodna (360 000) in Belarus. The line then enters Lithuania, and continues to Vilnius (population 540 000). Between Hrodna and Vilnius (155 km), it runs almost entirely through forest, including a national park. (Outside the two urban areas, only six settlements are large enough to justify a station).

The Warsaw- Vilnius route (630 km) is approximately comparable with the Warsaw – Berlin route. An upgrade for line speeds of 200 km/h is appropriate, comparable with the German Ausbaustrecke. The alignment is favourable for a high-speed reconstruction.

Beyond Vilnius, the 170-km line to Daugavpils has more curves, and might be upgraded for a lower speed, about 150 km/h. Again only a few settlements would justify a station, about six or seven. Daugavpils (population 96 000) is probably the best place for the break of gauge. At the station, the line shares a route with the Riga – Smolensk line, but only for about 1500 m. A new line into the station from the south, with a new bridge over the Daugava river, would shorten the route.

Daugava crossing

North of Daugavpils, the 530 km line to St. Petersburg serves fewer urban centres: the only other large city is Pskov, about half-way between the two. The 85 km section through the region of Latgale to Rēzekne (population 32 000) might justify a regional service. But even in Latgale, once ‘densely populated’ by Latvian standards, the current population could support only four intermediate stations. Rēzekne itself has two stations: to facilitate interchange with east-west services, all trains could pass through the northern station. They could then turn north on a new link, to rejoin the St Petersburg line.

Beyond Latgale is a classic ‘main line’, dominated by long-distance traffic. There are only a few towns, villages are small and far apart, and the line is single track and not electrified. Rural population density here is under 10/km2. On the 170 km of line between Rēzekne and Pskov, only three stations would be needed: Ostrov (population 21 000), Pytalovo (6000) and Kārsava (2500). Nevertheless upgrading must provide a double track electrified line, suitable for at least 150 km/h.

From Pskov (population 194 000), it is another 133 km to Luga (population 36 000), where the character of the line changes. From here on, the line is double-track and electrified, and settlements are closer together. From Luga it is another 95 km to Gatchina (population 96 000), at the edge of the St. Petersburg agglomeration. Here, the line from Tallinn joins the Warsaw line. A four-track upgraded route would be needed for the last 45 km from Gatchina, to separate freight and urban services.

The ‘Federal Subject Sankt-Peterburg’, Са́нкт-Петербу́рг, has five million inhabitants. It would be the main destination for passenger traffic originating north of Daugavpils. The original terminal of the Warsaw line has been converted to a museum, with long-distance services diverted to the Vitebsk Station, and suburban services to the Baltic Station. With major upgrading of the Warsaw line, the Vitebsk Station might be overloaded. The Baltic Station is better placed as a terminal for the Warsaw line, and has more than enough space for expansion, especially with new underground platforms.

Varshavsky (Warsaw) Station in Saint Petersburg, 2014: image by Alex (Florstein) Fedorov CC3.0 unported licence…


With break of gauge at Daugavpils, services north of that city would probably consist mainly of inter-regional trains for the five intermediate centres: Rēzekne, Ostrov, Pskov, Luga and Gatchina. (An intercity service, calling only at Gatchina and Pskov, would not be much faster). North of Luga there would be regional services into St. Petersburg, and from Gatchina a more intensive urban-regional service. Local services would continue for the few remaining village stations on the line between Rēzekne and Luga. However, most of the rural halts, which have no facilities and a minimal service, would simply close. If there are any through trains from Warsaw to St. Petersburg, they would be fast variable gauge trains, with gauge changing at Daugavpils station. Such a service might serve only the five largest cites: Białystok, Hrodna, Vilnius, Daugavpils, and Pskov.

Upgrading Warsaw – Vilnius – St. Petersburg line