Learn from Baltic Nations, Get Northern Lights Train on Track

Editor’s note: This article appeared originally on July 29, 2022 in the Duluth News-Tribune.

“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”

— Gustavo Petro, mayor of Bogotá, Colombia

Before the restoration of their independence from Russia, the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were forced by Soviet central planners to build their railways to Russian-gauge track, which is 4-feet-11.8 inches and too wide for European trains that run on the standard gauge of 4-feet-8.5 inches. After the Baltic countries joined both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Baltic national leaders realized the need to better transport people, as well as civilian and military freight, to and from the Baltic countries and the rest of Europe. Their political leaders — who work for the growth and well-being of their fellow citizens — created their Rail Baltica plan, which is among dozens of expanding or new railroad lines around the world.

— Gustavo Petro, mayor of Bogotá, Colombia

Currently under construction, Rail Baltica is a standard-gauge-track railway line that will run from Poland, linking it with the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Operating speeds will be 145 mph for passenger trains and 75 mph for freight trains. This will create a beneficial economic and strategic military supply corridor from Warsaw, Poland, to Tallinn, Estonia. This railway line might be extended in mid-2026 north to Helsinki, Finland, via existing ferry links or a future undersea tunnel to cross the Gulf of Finland.

Midwestern citizens may wonder how four independent nations are able to overcome national politics to spend $5.9 billion to build 540 miles of new double-track electric mainline, along with new trains, stations and maintenance depots. A study produced by Ernst & Young estimated the socioeconomic benefits at $16.4 billion, a threefold return on investment. According to the same study, Rail Baltica will save an estimated 400 human lives in 29 years. Also, electrification is motivated in part to reduce carbon emissions, in accordance with the 2015 Paris Climate Accords.

At the same time, some Minnesota politicians are unwilling to spend far less money to build our future Northern Lights Express (NLX). That’s even though NLX would give Midwesterners the same climate, social and economic benefits in Minnesota and Wisconsin as Rail Baltica will give to the people of Poland and the Baltic countries.
Failing to build NLX would allow increasing traffic jams, faster wear and tear of our highway and interstate pavement, and the continued poisonous pollution of vehicle exhaust along the Interstate 35 corridor — while rural communities would continue to fall behind culturally and economically compared with larger cities.

From now on, Midwestern voters must vote out irrational obstructionists and vote in proactive leaders who will fund building the transformational NLX. An essential part of future Midwestern transportation infrastructure, NLX would decrease human illness due to carbon emissions, decrease traffic injuries and deaths, and increase employment opportunities and housing options for workers — while reducing regional inequalities between rural and urban areas.

To learn more, see Amtrak Connects US: A Vision to Grow Rail Service across America.

James Patrick Buchanan of Duluth is a lifelong passenger-train supporter and advocate.

About James Buchanan

After earning my University of Minnesota communication major and journalism minor, I am currently looking for a full-time position to use my skills in writing, photography, and page design. I am also seeking an environment that offers inspiring and new opportunities that challenge and strengthen my skill set, as well as opportunities to help my future company advance efficiently and productively. I was the top student in my Communications and Creativity class. I’m the professional artist to turn to for your creativity needs.

7 thoughts on “Learn from Baltic Nations, Get Northern Lights Train on Track


    I think that the Twin Cities might be better served by learning from themselves in regard to future commuter rail projects and concentrate our development on building safer freeways and highways and city streets. Every single commuter rail project in the Metro area has been a dismal failure. (The Blue Line, The Green Line, the Northstar Line).
    Ridership is nowhere near the projected numbers and while this might be blamed on the Pandemic there is little public support for more such lines even with Gasoline prices in the $5/gallon range. While it is interesting to compare Minnesota to the Baltic states, there are striking differences, Europe has a “rail culture” and people like riding the train. Also, the Baltic states have a higher population density than Minnesota and automobile ownership is approximately 1 car per 3 people. With these considerations, the Metro Council planning dictators might start spending money where it is needed and fixing the roads we have instead of boondoggle projects that become monuments to poor planning.

    1. Trademark

      The blue line and the green line both surpassed their ridership projections by far and have more than paid for themselves in the value of economic development brought to the area.

      Not to mention the improved access and mobility to transit riders.

    2. Zak Yudhishthu

      You correctly point to some of the differences between European nations and the U.S./Minnesota that make them more primed for successful rail projects.

      But I don’t think it’s correct to think of these things as fixed. The causality goes two ways! Why does Europe have a “rail culture” and people that like riding the train? Why are they less likely to have cars? Well, in part, that’s because the trains are effective, useful, and well-maintained in the first place. Maybe if the U.S. had better trains, we could have a “rail culture” too (although, as a college student in St. Paul, I would say that my peer group already has a “public transit culture”).

      We don’t have to accept the unfortunate decisions that got us where we are today.

  2. Allen G

    The reason Rail Bartica is being —> National defense.

    They already have freight and passenger service on that corridor. Many years ago I took the train from St. Petersburg to Berlin via Vilanus and Warsaw. They’re all already connected.

    The thing is Russia + the Baltics run on broad gauge / Russian gauge. IIRC some lines in Poland use it, too. We got to stop for a few hours while they swapped out trucks for the different gauges.

    In the time of war, they can’t afford to be swapping out trucks. It burn precious time and they’d be sitting ducks. Rail Bartica is about bringing European gauge through Poland and Baltics for defense purposes. Any chatter about economics is a convenient cover story. But it ain’t why they’re doing it.

    They’ve come together to do it because quite literally, their asses are on the line.

  3. martin b

    Save the taxpayers money ,this is a pipe dream The Northstar is a disaster Unless we have one-car familiy people are not going to give up driving The two Light rail lines are mobile drug dens with criminal activities.Europe gas and taxes are alot higher Estonia it is $7.50 ,
    transit is free in Tallin

  4. James Buchanan Post author

    Tom Clancy wrote this in the forward to the book Super-Trains by Joseph Vranich: “What if someone were to invent a magical new mode of transportation that was safe, energy efficient, and environmentally begin? Someone has. It’s called the train.”

  5. James Buchanan Post author

    Here is a summary of the Ernst & Young study of the Rail Baltica plan. The benefits for building Rail Baltica are the same benefits we Midwesterners will get from building our Northern Lights Express.


    The Rail Baltica Global Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA) presented on April 24 during Rail Baltica Global Forum 2017 confirms that the Rail Baltica project is financially and economically viable. The new study reaffirms the project’s economic feasibility and highly beneficial nature, providing the necessary updated parameters for the project’s continued EU and national co-financing.

    The Ernst & Young Baltic Ltd (EY) prepared study is a Cost-Benefit Analysis of the whole Global project [1] – public-access railway infrastructure in the three Baltic states. The key aim of this study is to re-assess the economic case for Rail Baltica in light of the amended route alignment and expanded project scope since the 2011 AECOM study, and to provide new parameters for long-term project financing.

    The study suggests that the total estimated cost of the project is 5.8 billion in all three countries. Estonia – 1.35 billion (national share ~268 million); Latvia – 1.968 billion (national share ~393 million); Lithuania – 2.473 billion (national share ~493 million).

    Measurable project socio-economic benefits – estimated at 16.2 billion euro – will far outweigh national co-investments. Furthermore, it is assessed that the project would create a GDP multiplier effect worth an additional 2 billion euro. In addition, there will be substantial unmeasurable benefits (mostly of a catalytic nature). There will be considerable unmeasurable benefits from a strengthened Baltic business community to greater regional access to entertainment, culture or other services. Therefore, the project is economically viable, as the benefits to society considerably exceed project capital and operational expenditures.

    On average, Rail Baltica will generate measurable discounted net benefits/cash flow worth 6 Euros to the wider economies of the three Baltic states for every invested euro from national budgets.

    The Rail Baltica project will create 13 000 full-time equivalent construction jobs and over 24 000 FTE indirect and induced jobs in related industries during the construction phase. However, during the operational phase, Rail Baltica will create the conditions to save 400 human lives, equivalent to average annual value of 30 M EUR. It will create CO2 emission reduction benefits worth 3.0 billion EUR and air pollution reduction benefits of 3.3 billion EUR value – contributing greatly to the EU’s global leadership in environmental sustainability.

    In 2030, it is estimated that infrastructure maintenance costs for the entire railway line in all three countries, for example, for track, traction, bridges/tunnels, terminals and stations, etc. will be 58.9 million euro.

    The study also verifies that the infrastructure manager is financially sustainable in the long-term, following an initial 5-year period of national financial support (28.6 million Euros shared by the three Baltic states) during the project uptake stage as Rail Baltica achieves its intended potential.

    Passenger travel

    Rail Baltica will be a game changer, especially, for intra-Baltic travel. Rail Baltica competitive advantages for passenger travel are:

    • Speed, time savings, comfort, productive travel time, safer and environmentally sustainable means of transport;
    • RB passengers – mostly domestic hub-to-hub and intra-Baltic travelers. Also, used by extra-Baltic travelers (e.g., from Warsaw to Kaunas);
    • The international train service will be available at least once per two hours on the main line (resulting in eight train pairs daily in each direction);
    • Estimated long-term average income per passenger: Tallinn – Riga 38 EUR; Time = 1:55 min (travel by car – 68 EUR; h= 4:05 (full costs assuming one passenger per car)); Estimated long-term average income per passenger: Riga – Vilnius 38 EUR; Time = 2:01 (travel by car – 65 EUR; h=3:30 (full costs assuming one passenger per car));
    • Time saving benefit: 2.4 billion EUR.


    It is estimated that in the base scenario RB Rail will carry 2 million tons in 2026, 13.7 million tons in 2030 and approximately 20 million tons in 2055.

    Rail Baltica’s competitive advantage for freight:

    • Speed – freight transport between the Baltic States and Central European destinations would take less than 2 days while the same route for trucks takes up to 4 days;
    • Reliability – with predictable and regular schedules, limited stops and high resilience to unfavorable weather conditions, supply chains via rail can be organized on just-in-time basis, especially when efficiently aligned with other intermodal supply chain elements (e.g. Gulf of Finland ferry schedules);
    • Full loads – Rail Baltica would connect several key stopping points (hubs) where full loads can be obtained, thus limiting empty kilometers;
    • Cost – the transportation cost compared to road transport will decline in medium to long distances, thus extending the geographical scope of the Baltic States’ and Finland’s foreign trade markets enabling to supply at the same cost to/from more distant markets;
    • Origination of freight: mostly from transit 57% (e.g. Finland – approx. 29%; CIS to/from Poland, Germany and rest of Europe – approx. 31%); imports/exports (Baltics) – 43 % (Estonia – 10%, Latvia – 10% and Lithuania – 23%);
    • Time saving benefit from freight: 2.9 billion EUR.

    CBA is just one of the decision-making instruments in a whole set of studies and expertise that have been or will be developed during the RB project implementation process. Therefore, this CBA is to be viewed in combination with such key documents as the Rail Baltica project long-term business plan, a series of commercialization studies, an infrastructure management strategy study, supplier market studies, an operational plan and other related studies.

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