tiistai 4. syyskuuta 2012

From Berlin to Tallinn by train – May 2011 humanistic travelogue

In May 2011 I had an interesting opportunity to make a photo-documentary about the current state of railway link between Berlin and Tallinn. The photographic/written travelogue was first presented at the Helsinki city hall in June 2011 at the "kick off" -conference for an EU-funded project Rail Baltica Growth Corridor. The second presentation was in Tartu, Estonia, in April 2012 at the Rail Baltica themed ”Logistics Seminar 2012”. This version is based on these two presentations.


In 2011 the journey between these two capital cities required at least 3 nights and no less than 6 changes of trains. The map below illustrates the current passenger rail connection via Warsaw and Vilnius. However, back in 1935 the journey took only about 32 hours, with a single change in Riga. The straight express train connection from Riga to Berlin then used the direct route via Kaliningrad, also shown on the map in light grey: (Click images for larger size!)

The current passenger rail connection between Berlin and Tallin shown on the map, displaying also the travel time for the first leg Berlin–Warsaw, as well as the pre–WWII route Riga–Poznan on light grey

Day 1, Berlin–Warsaw

My rail adventure began from Berlin in 25th of May with the first leg to Warsaw. I had thought to catch the Berlin–Warszawa-Express (A regular EuroCity service) from Berlin Ostbahnhof. But t
he first accidental change of plans took place already while still in Berlin. An arson attack, reportedly committed by anarchists (wouldn't have believed they are attacking the most sustainable transport system so far), had destroyed several traffic control and signalling cables near Berlin Ostkreutz station, so almost all the railway traffic in Berlin was seriously disrupted. Luckily I went to re-check the timetable from the Deutsche Bahn site the night before my departure...

DB seems to handle emergency information very well. A message on their timetable search according to my train said: ”EC41 Berlin Hauptbahnhof–Berlin Ostbahnhof. Disturbance. The train starts at Berlin Gesundbrunnen. Stops Berlin Hbf and Berlin Ostbahnhof cancelled. Additional stop at Berlin Lichtenberg”.

So ok, my journey began at Berlin-Lichtenberg station instead. This historical station was the most important terminal for long distance and international trains in East Berlin during the DDR times. Today the station mainly serves local (S-Bahn) and regional services. A relic from the Lichtenberg's days of grandeur still stands at siding –  a Vt18.16 class high-speed DMU unit, the 60's flagship of the former Deutche Reichsbahn (DR)closely resembling the legendary Trans-Europ-Express trainsets of the West.

 Berlin-Lichtenberg station on 25.5.2011 at 6:51. A 60's high-speed diesel trainset of DDR's Deutche Reichsbahn still stands at siding, as a romantic memorial for the innocent dream of speed and progress.

The Euro City 41 finally departed from Lichtenberg at 7:05, yet some 15 minutes delayed of the emergency schedule. The train, boasting a special "Berlin–Warszawa Express" livery, was mostly comprised of traditional, comfortable compartment coaches. There were three other passengers in my compartment. I had an interesting discussion on environmental aesthetics, progress and such with a Polish guy returning from holiday in Berlin. After we had crossed the river Oder and the train was already running through West Poland mosaic of fields and towns, he admired the historical German imprint on the cultural landscape, but openly expressed his repulsion against all socialist legacy still clearly present in ubiquitous forms of decaying concrete. Anyway, for my tired eyes the primary impression of this stretch was just the lush colourfulness of the early summer countryside, that the speed of the train melted into speeding stripes comprised of foliage green, poppy orange, bird cherry white, and turnip yellow...

Berlin-Warszawa Express speeds through the summery Polish landscape

Around noon we arrived at Warszawa Centralna underground station complex, meaning that in about five and half hours I had already covered almost one third of the total distance between Berlin and Tallinn. 

I had chosen to leave Berlin already the morning, to gain almost a full day to explore Warsaw, as the current timetables make the overnight stay in Warsaw mandatory for Berlin–Tallinn traveller; There is also a night train from Berlin, but it's arrival time at Warsaw is later than the 7:35 morning departure of the (only) daily train to Šeštokai, Lithuania. 

Eurocity 41 at Warszawa Centralna station

Day 2, Eastbound from Warsaw

The journey plan for the second day included full 12 hours of travelling (and photographing): first, a Polish (PKP) daily express from Warsaw to Šeštokai, from there a Lithuanian train further on to Vilnius, and from Vilnius yet a two hours’ ride on a Russian night train from to Daugavpils (Latvia). 

The connections for the second day of my journey, as shown by the great Deutsche Bahn timetable search. The DB database contains timetable information from all around Europe, even cities' local commuter rail times are searchable; online timetables for the Warsaw–Daugavpils -section are also available from Lithuanian railways

2nd day, Warsaw–Daugavpils: A cartographical presentation of the same.

A bit after seven in the morning on May 26th, 2011 I again stood at the platform of Warszawa Centralna, waiting for the express train to Šeštokai. The seat reservation was recommended by the DB timetable search, but at the ticket sales booth they just said "you don't need it". So I was early at the platform in order to maximise my chances to get a window seat. While waiting, the cheerfully coloured electric trainsets of Koleje Mazowieckie (Masovian regional railway) pulled frequently in the station full of commuters on their way to work. I enjoyed my outsiderness and followed the energetic metropolitan choreography with pleasure. 

The coach stock on the PKP express train 10022 to Šeštokai was a bit more older style than that of the Berlin–Warzava -express on the previous day. The train had only second class, no seat reservations, no air conditioning, restaurant nor café – just soft and comfortable seats in classic 4x4 seat compartments.

After leaving Warszawa Centralna, the train soon stopped at Warsaw eastern station, Warzawa Wschodnia. The early summer morning could not have been brighter, (even if not optimal for photography).

Rough charm of the Warszawa Wschodnia station milieu, as seen from the accelerating eastbound train.

The train was almost full as Warsaw city changed to countryside. Frequent encounters with long electric commuter trains, however, still for a good time, reminded of the proximity of a big city and its far-reaching influence.

 One of many encounters with a commuter train, running on the opposite direction towards Warsaw

Our train stopped only in major towns, but on the way towards Białystok we also saw many signs of vital local services. Also in the deep countryside many small platforms were still serving the public. 

Passing Szymbory, one of still plentiful, down-to-earth countryside platforms 

A railway romantic also noted with joy how the pictoresque details, like manually operated switches and signals, were still distinct features of the railway milieu, even on the Warsaw-Białystok main line.

Mechanical signal box on the mainline stretch Warsaw–Białystok.

In Białystok, the biggest city of northeastern Poland, our train stopped for a bit longer, as a diesel replaced the electric locomotive that had brought us here from Warsaw. The train was also shortened by several coaches. Also the remaining coaches got a lot emptier here. Certainly signs of the journey embarking for more peripheral regions...

Allotment garden village just next to the tracks right after the departure from Białystok.

From Białystok until Sokółka, we were still travelling on the old Warsaw–Saint Petersburg artery, continuing through the territory of Belarus. Soon after Białystok I noticed a notable change in the proximate railway milieu, that now had even more rustical feel to it.

Embankment, Białystok–Sokółka. Nicht Hinauslehnen!
A typical village station milieu, complete with oil lamp -type switch lanterns at sidings

In order to circumvent the visa requirements of Belarus (or the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad), the passenger connection between Poland and Lithuania is arranged via the Suwalki corridor, a narrow stretch of their common border in the northeast (looking from Poland), through the border station Mockava. 

The Suwałki line, that disembarks from the old St. Petersburg mainline at Sokółka, retains the characher of a provincial single-track line with no electrification and curvageous geometry. As our train had grinded through the switches at Sokółka, I soon surprised on the notion that the traditional telegraph (or, more likely telephone) wires – long gone in Finland – were still in place along the line! Their cinematic, sweeping dance certainly added to the visual-kinaesthetic experience of a legendary railway journey. The surrounding landscape was not dominated by field plains anymore – instead it now comprised of a smaller-scale mixture of meadows, fields, woodlots and large forests.

Telegraph wires, Sokółka–Suwałki

Deciduous forest, Sokółka–Suwałki

Many remaining passengers were leaning out of large windows pushed halfway down, and enjoyed the auditory, tactile and olfactory sensations of travelling by train on a summer day.   
Cows were grazing almost on the track embankment, with plastic EU labels on their ears. Leaning out of window is officially forbidden by the stickers printed in four languages (Nicht hinauslehnen!), but the conductor allowed us this entertainment, so loaded with euphoric, vital sense of being alive – and so impossible to experience in modern trains. 

I was thorougly excited by the multisensory spectacle of this part of the journey. It is hard to imagine a way to get any closer to nature while travelling by train. As if it was almost possible to touch the surrounding landscape!  All the direct sensory information served the curious passenger, striving to build a foothold in place, technology and time – including occasional whifts of diesel exhaust, as the locomotive worked the train up the curving uphills. 

PKP Express train 10022 running on the Sokółka–Suwałki line 

The short section from Suwałki, a town of 70.000 inhabitants in the very North-Eastern corner of Poland, to the border station Mockava remains even more peripheral. Technically it is an outdated section with sandy embankment, wooden sleepers, jointed rails and low speed allowance (possibly 35 km/h?). But for me, the humble down-to-earthness of travelling this stretch was impressive. The speed of maybe 35 km/h allowed for focused contemplation on the passing landscape and its details, and the clattering of the train wheels over rail joints at various distances composed a vibrant three-dimensional sonic spectacle. Leaning on the fully opened window frame, I also enjoyed the gentle breeze of summer air, that smelled of lush vegetation and creosote of wooden railway sleepers. 

Typical milieu from the Section Suwałki–Mockava

Only a handful of passengers travelled the cross-border stretch between Suwałki and Šeštokai. The border between Poland and Lithuania also marks the border of two different railway gauge regimes. The Russian broad gauge of 1522 mm is used in the Baltics, while the Polish network belongs into the Central European 1435 mm regime. (After the First World War the new independent states Lithuania and Latvia had actually converted the section Berlin–Riga from Russian to European gauge (1435 mm) – it was then possible to travel all the way from Berlin to Riga on a single train).

Mockava border station, SW Lithuania

As a first concrete step in realizing the Rail Baltica project, the building of a new twin-gauge track between Mockava and Šeštokai was already in progress in may 2011. The idea is to accommodate both standard (central European) and wide (east European) tracks on the same sleepers. This arrangement also made it possible for the Polish train I was travelling in, to continue until Šeštokai, a few tens of kilometers into the Lithuanian territory. A  Lithuanian Šeštokai–Vilnius train was already waiting there at the opposite platform, so the change was swift. 

Train change at Šeštokai. The PKP train on the neighboring track is about to depart back to Warsaw.

The Vilnius train consisted of a Soviet-era standard diesel trainset. These Dr1 -class diesel multiple units (DMU's) were built in thousands at Riga RVR plant from 1963 on. This one had recently been throughly modernized, though. The interior had an appearance of a suburban train – actually the hard seats in their bluish upholstery somehow reminisced me of the London Tube. For a few hours long journey however, the train clearly felt much less comfortable than the previous PKP train. 

As it however happened, the relaxing idleness of a long journey caused me to completely forget about the clock-time. So the second unwelcomed surprise of my journey went unnoticed until stepping out from the train at Vilnius station, where the station clock was showing the time 18:30. I had been completely unaware until now, that our train had been almost 40 minutes late! Even worse, the uncomfortable quietness of the station also told me that my intended connection, the Russian night train via Daugavpils to St.Petersburg had already departed. “The Russian night train always departs right on its line” I later heard from a Lithuanian railway worker. 

It became annoyingly clear now, why it hadn't been possible to buy a through ticket Warsaw–Daugavpils, but rather two separate tickets instead (Warsaw–Vilnius and Vilnius–Daugavpils) – a through ticket would mean that the carriers have actually agreed to arrange the connection. At the station a friendly officier tried to comfort me by saying that there would be a train to Daugavpils tomorrow again... But I was not willing to delay my journey by full 24 hours anymore. They explained me the way to the coach station, where I was relieved to found out that there would still still be one Eurolines express bus departure to Riga for that evening. Still feeling unfortunate for having to give up using train for Vilnius–Riga stretch, I went back to the railway station to cancel my ticket to Daugavpils. (According to the UIC rules, international rail tickets are only refundable when proven unused with an official stamp). 

The cancellation stamp stating that  “the ticket was not used between the stations Daugavpils and Vilnius for personal reasons" in Latvian, Russian, and German.

Vilius station at the break of twilight, seen on my way to the coach station.

Missing the day's only train connection made it necessary to give up using train for Vilnius–Riga leg. The last express bus from Vilnius to Riga departed at 21:10, arriving at Riga past midnight.

It is true that Riga–Vilnius is currently the most troublesome leg in the Berlin–Tallinn railway connection. The only possible route is the detour via Daugavpils, and the only daily train between Vilnius and Daugavpils is the Russian night train, and the Sestokai–Vilnius –service 
  is apparently not officially connected with it. The express coach connections between Riga and Vilnius are plentiful instead. The sparse train timetables are strongly contrasted by the announcements at the Vilnius coach station, screaming about cheap night buses to London, Hannover and so on. It seems that the less capital intensive coach industry has demand-orientedly organised itself into a substitute for the troubled railway system under innovation-spurring competition. Probably the coach now also has taken over the symbolic meaning of adventurous overcoming the distance to Central Europe... But one promising note about the Lithuanian railways was that the investment on station renovations, railway infrastructure maintenance, improving rolling stock and so on appears serious. One could be hopeful that the railway renaissance is gathering its momentum Lithuania.

Day 3, Riga – Valga

I arrived at Riga in the very early hours of the third day of my trip, (quite ironically) some 10 hours ahead of my original schedule. 

I managed to find a youth hostel with a 24hours reception from the Old town. After a good sleep I was still in no rush. I had only the 3 hours' Riga–Valga leg left for the third day of my journey, as during the time of my journey there were no evening train from Valga to Tallinn (The daily Riga–Tallinn connection is now fixed with a 10 minute change in Valga, as can be seen from the Latvian and Estonian railways' timetable searches).  

Again I went early to the station to look around.

The commuter services around Riga seemed sparse for the city's size. It is also noteworthy that the long-distance train 664 to Valga is also listed on the commuter departures side as an "orange line" service for Valmiera.

The train 664 from Riga to Valga also comprised of a modernised Soviet era standard, the DR1A diesel multiple unit.

Grandma vawing goodbye to her grandson leaving on the Valga train .

We left Riga in a full load, with standing passengers on the aisle.

The 664 to Valga had stops in every 5 to 15 kilometres, so the Riga–Valga section clearly had the feel of a commuter rail, serving connections between city and suburbs. Given the amount of passengers on board, the multitude of localities along the line, and the sparseness of timetable, it is easy to judge that local services are seriously undersupplied especially in the close proximity of Riga. Also for some odd reason the electrification had been dismantled from the Riga-Valmiera section. 

 Sigulda station. Concrete electrification pillars remain, but the overhead wires are missing.

As the journey progressed towards northern Latvia, the stations were still spaced closely to each other, they were only smaller and in many cases surrounded not by villages but dark forests.

A small station in northern Latvia seen through the blistered glass of the coach window 

Lugazi, Latvia

Trackside landscape (Lugazi, Latvia)

Day 4, Valga–Tallinn

For the fourth day I still had the last five-hour leg to Tallinn left. Only two trains per day (at the time of writing) run between Valga and Tallinn, so I chose the early morning departure. I stayed overnight in a cosy Hotel Metsis located about 1 km from the station. 

The Trans-Estonian leg of the last day
Early in the fourth morning (May 28th, 2011) I walked through the quiet, misty town back to the station. It was all quiet and the light filtered by the linden leaves was magical. The tranquil idyll was only gently broken by the low hum of an idling diesel engine, that carried from the railyard across the sleepy town.

Morning at the Valga railyard

The Edelaraudtee 5:47 morning train to Tallinn was already waiting for passengers at the platform. Its stock again consisted of  a standard DR1b unit of  Soviet inheritance.

Ready for departure. As a contrast to the Lithuanian and Latvian trainsets of the same type, the interior of the Estonian train had preserved its original ascetic charm, as the near future plan is to replace the DR1 series altogether with new rolling stock. 

The last leg to Tallinn began through the upgrading works bathing in poetic mist

Not many passengers came from Valga, but the number grew steadily especially when approaching Tartu, as the train called at all stations. The track between Valga and Tartu was apparently in technically excellent condition, as the ride was smooth and quiet. And if the train I was travelling on still itself retained its rustic character, works were in progress everywhere and all the stations of the Valga –Tartu section had recently been througly renovated and acquired new and quite a fresh platform design. It however seems that exactly the same design will be imposed to every Estonian station – could this be a little boring?

The train from Valga as arrived in Tallinn, 28.5.2011 at 10:40

I finally reached Tallinn at 10:40 on the 28. May, roughly 75 hours after leaving Berlin–Lichtenberg station. 

So what could I say about the experience as the summing evaluation? 

Firstly, I enjoyed a lot, regardless the sore back and numb butt I got after many hours spent on the hard, straight-back seats on Estonian and Lithuanian trains (The Polish and Latvian trains that I happened to travel on, were much more comfortable in this small but essential respect). 

My view is that "slow travel" (a very relative concept!) has moral and aesthetic rewards. All the mandatory pauses on the journey offered possibilities for adventurous enjoyment. The increasing political will for the improved, faster rail connection between Berlin and Tallinn is, however, to be wholeheartedly welcomed, and works are already underway.

Few concerns about this progress remain, however, besides the basic existential tragedy that with all kinds of "developments" something is also irreversibly lost. 

First, an important observation from my journey is that local, stopping services are still clearly important (and socially and ecologically feasible). As these services are much less economically productive than the fast intercity services, a careful attention is hopefully paid for that the local services are not weakened during the process (with the classic excuse of speeding up the long distance connections). Local services are already undersupplied in the Baltics, especially around Riga. So it is to be hoped that railways are developed under a comprehensive future vision that allows space for plural understandings of competitive passenger rail and is based on systemic thinking. A lot of synergetic potential exists in the combination of express trains, slower and cheaper trains, slow local trains. In learning how to build a really effective rail system one has look no further than Switzerland.

I also believe a deeper, more philosophical but no less important question should also be kept in mind: Is high speed (rail) always viable? Or really as sustainable as is regularly assumed? 

The concern relates to the very modernist view of space as time and time as a cost, and to resulting dream of annihilating space with ever-accelerating speed. Could it be that speed has become an overvalued, fetishist object as the mobility sociologist John Urry has recently argued? There seems to be a firm foundation for a cautious intuition, that humanly and ecologically justified limits for acceleration exist. It might also well be the case that continuous acceleration does not benefit the society much in the end, as on the systemic level, the "utility" of speed has been regularly converted not into less time "on the road", but into longer distances traveled... And on the natural-scientific side of the problem it appears that the technological gains in eco-efficiency will never cancel out the basic laws that govern the physics of speed. According to eco-philosopher Wolfgang Sachs: to beat friction and air resistance at higher speed will always require a disproportionally increasing amounts of energy. For example, the energy consumption of the high speed French TGV or German ICE doubles when the speed jumps from 200 to 300 km. In his sustainability strategy for Germany, Sachs proposes the fast trains be designed for no higher speeds than 200 km/h, to limit the disadvantages from growing faster than advantages. As a rule of thumb, a relatively fast conventional train seems to be overall more sustainable than a "bullet train".

If Rail Baltica was designed to allow for 200 km/h maximum speed, this would suggest roughly 10-15 hours travel time between Berlin and Tallinn (~1500 km), depending naturally on the line alignment and number of stops. This is certainly slower than flying, but this speed should be fast enough, as it is reasonable to believe that also the aviation industry must reduce the speeds dramatically in the forecoming decades.

Even today, a lot of low-tech improvement could already be made with just simple timetable arrangements. Of the 75 hours I spent travelling, only some 28 were actually spent onboard the trains (and on the bus Vilnius–Riga), as the current timetables are poorly coordinated from the perspective of international travel. 

I could conclude by the notion that the future of international long-distance rail journey depends at least as much on cultural views, visions and co-operation than on technology per se... Railway networks today are very much perceived and optimized nationally, while yet in the 1930's the view was cosmopolitan, and railways symbolised the optimistic utopia of the whole Eurasian continent coming together – with much lower speeds than the Sachs' proposal for "sustainable top speed", 200 km/h.

International railway connections from Riga, 1935

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