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Saturday 04.04.2020 | Name days: Valda, Herta, Ārvalda, Ārvalds

Rail Baltica not just marvelled, but cussed too in Lithuania

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Rail Baltica, railway project, Baltic, land ownership

Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN

If implemented, the ambitious 5.8-billion euro Rail Baltica project aiming to build a nearly 1000-kilometer rail link from Helsinki to Poland through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia will be a major infrastructural achievement of the Baltics, but the possibility of dashing at the now surreal speed of 250 kilometres per hour as soon as in 2026, when the project is slated for completion, comes at expense of many land owners in Lithuania’s six municipalities, which will be crossed by the European-gauge tracks.

«For the implementation of the project, 1 358 land plots were appropriated already, which amounts to 1 240 hectares. The process has not been entirely smooth, as there has been some litigation commenced by some land owners unhappy by the arrangements,» Ruslanas Golubovas, spokesman of Lithuania’s National Land Service (LNLS) told the Baltic News Network (BNN). He, however, suggested to speak to the Justice Ministry about the legal cases of the kind. The Ministry did not return BNN quest for information.

According to him, the Government in 2017 confirmed the ruling which envisions the mechanism of land appropriation for the purpose, as well as confirms the special plan for the construction of the railway in the Lithuanian territory. «Our territorial affiliates reviewed 4 201 cadastre data of land plots before approving 6 land appropriation projects. In total, we passed 1 750 land appropriation acts for the Rail Baltica project,» Golubovas said.

With first stage of appropriation completed, the LNLS is now proceeding with the second stage, which includes appropriation of land plots to be used for building local-importance roads and for reconstruction of the current roads.

But the process of land appropriation makes many land owners affected by it to frown and rail.

«Frankly, quite ambiguous feelings have engulfed me, as well as many other farmers. We surely understand how important the railway connection is for Lithuania, but many of us feel it was us who had to pay the ultimate price for it. Many feel that the state cheated us by paying a lower price for our land. Many of us were paid roughly 3 000 euros per hectare, although the market price is somewhere around 6 000-7 000 euro per hectare,» Virmantas Ivanauskas, a farmer and chairman of the Kėdainiai district of the Lithuanian Farmer Union, told BNN.

He said many local farmers sought to receive respective state land plots as the compensation for appropriation of their plots, but the National Land Service bucked, agreeing to pay only the pecuniary compensation. «Some of the farmers in other districts affected by land appropriation for the railway project went to court, contesting the decisions by the NLS. However, we do not have such cases in the Kėdainiai district, because, comparably fewer land owners had their land plots taken away here,» Ivanauskas said.

According to him, «around» 30 farmers saw their land appropriated in the Kėdainiai district, when elsewhere the number was «in several hundreds,» he claimed. When carrying out land appropriation, some of the plots were divided so unevenly that now part of them are situated on one side of the to-be  railway tracks and the rest – on their other side.

«Although local LNLS officials did attempt to take interests of every farmer into consideration, however, practically, not always it could be done. Unfortunately, I’d say,» Ivanauskas noted.

He, nevertheless, understands the importance of the railway project. «As everywhere, state’s interests are higher. Yet it is unfortunate that some people have fallen victims to them,» he said. The farmer had 7 hectares of his land appropriated by the state.

Vilhelminas Janušonis, chairman of the Pasvalys district of the Lithuanian National Land Service, told BNN that as many as «a couple of hundred» land owners were affected by land appropriation stemming from the Rail Baltica project interests.

Although he heard of some land proprietors suing the LNLS for what they believe were unjust land appropriation arrangements, he was not aware of such cases in the Pasvalys district, where a sizeable portion of the railway will be built.

«In fact, as our land is considerably cheaper than that in the neighbouring Panvėžys district, leave alone the Kaunas district, the owners were paid quite decently here. Some of them admitted to me they would have never sold their land so profitably,» Janušonis said.

He also paid attention to the fact that some of the appropriated land plots are split into several parts. «With the railway tracks separating them, the use and the value of such plots diminish. We want the state to additionally compensate such land owners or, alternatively, allot them state land plots on the same side of the tracks as the compensation,» he said.

Janušonis doubted if the Rail Baltica project will be executed by 2026 as scheduled. «There are so many hurdles to remove along the way. And with a lesser new EU budget, some ambitious projects like this one will inevitably see corrections,» he predicted.

LNLS director Laimonas Čiakas praised the land appropriation process for interests of the population. «It has been fast and smooth in overall,” he was quoted by Lithuania media.

Meanwhile, Loreta Maldutienė, chairwoman of the Kaunas branch of the national Farmer Union, told BNN she was unaware of any ongoing land appropriation for the railway project. «I believe our district will be affected by it later,» she said.

One thing is clear, however – many hurdles still remain in order for the Rail Baltica project to go forward. There are abundant deficits in the project’s budget and a lack of land purchasing – not to mention the need to ensure no damage to the cultural heritage sites – for the projected railway path.

Once the 700-kilometre railway from Lithuania’s Kaunas to Estonia’s Tallinn is completed, a trip from Vilnius to Tallinn, for example, would take four and a half hours, and Kaunas to Riga would take two hours, half the time it currently takes.

When it comes to the project’s cost of 5.8 billion euro, some 2.5 billion are to be invested in Lithuania alone, with 85 per cent of the money expected to come from the EU. The EU’s financing of the project has not officially changed, but as the project has evolved and stumbled, it has become clear that it will cost more than originally estimated.

Will rail passengers be able to dash between Kaunas and Tallinn at the never-seen- before train speed in the Baltics starting 2026? No one can make such a promise so far.

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