Estonia is getting a high-speed railway to the engine room of the European economy. Scotland is not.

It is hard not to notice the stark contrast in transport priorities between Britain and the Baltics. 

The North-east corner of the EU will soon be locked in to the rest of the continent. The former North-West of the bloc - us - will not be.

The multi-billion-euro Rail Baltica scheme is hugely symbolic. So is the absence of any equivalent for Scotland, Wales and the north and west of England.

Last week Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, announced he was truncating HS2. The UK’s high-speed link will now only connect Birmingham and London, two cities already well served by transport connections.  

The very expensive line between England’s capital and second city is of little economic value without extensions further north, argue rail experts. 

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Embryonic plans to extend fast trains to Glasgow and Edinburgh were already long abandoned. Those for a branch to Leeds were dropped two years ago. Now Mr Sunak  has axed the main stretch from Birmingham to Manchester. 

The UK is on a slow train. But the Baltics on a fast one. How did this happen? 

Both HS2 and Rail Baltica have faced similar controversies over cost and routes. Yet one is going ahead and the other, mostly, is not. 

The €5.8 billion Baltic scheme is - relative to the GDP of the local nations - very expensive. 

There is a lot of tricky engineering, transport planning, environmental and economic issues to explore in both cases. 

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But let’s look instead at the big picture history of desire for European connections in both Scotland and the three Baltic nations - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -  over the last three decades or so. Just for context. Because where there is a will, there is a (rail)way.

It is 34 years since two million Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians formed a human chain across all three nations calling for independence from the then Soviet Union. 

That was the Baltic Way, or Via Baltica. Rail Baltica is often pitched as something similar, a sort of physical rather than political decoupling from the old Russian Empire.

By 2030 bullet trains will shoot from Tallinn through Riga in Latvia and Kaunas and Lithuania to Warsaw, where connections will go to Berlin and the rest of the EU. There will be branches to Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, and Riga airport.

The importance off Rail Baltica can be measured in kilometres - it is 870km or 540 miles long - but also in millimetres. 

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That is because, crucially, its gauge is 1435mm, like most of Europe, not the Russian standard 1524mm of the entire region’s Soviet-era tracks. 

Why is this important? Well, it means goods coming and going from the Baltic nations in to the rest of the EU don’t need to be taken off one train and put on to another.

The Baltics are not ripping up the old lines that connect them to Russia and Belarus. In less unstable times, Riga in particular could resume its traditional place for trade between western Europe and Russia. 

However, transport links have been hit by Vladimir Putin’s full-scale war on Ukraine. For example, the sleeper train between the Latvian capital and Moscow has not run since March 2022.

Right now rail connections between the Baltic countries are not good. It is far easier to take a bus than a train from Riga to Vilnius, for example. 

The Herald:

The new railway, the first stages of which will open in 2028, will eventually cut journey times in half.

Western observers have a bad habit of lumping together the Baltic States, seeing them as a single entity. But the new line will bolt the three actually rather different nations together, as well as connecting them to the rest of the EU. 

Finland too has bought in to the project, with its ferries to Estonia now linking it far further in to the Baltic region, Poland and Germany.

So much for symbols. This line is also strategic. The war in Ukraine has show that rail remains of huge military significance. It has been how both sides have largely shipped materiel to the fronts. That means that another reason that Baltic governments - and their EU supporters - have stuck with the scheme is military.

Putin’s big invasion focused minds on rail. ”It is particularly important to ensure reliable connectivity with Western Europe and to fully use the new rail transport connection with Europe to increase our country’s defence capabilities,” Latvia’s transport ministry said a year ago.

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The story is different in the UK. There has been little or no political or media discussion of the strategic and even defence importance of a reliable core railway from north to south. 

HS2 to Manchester was not just supposed to make travel up and down the spine of Britain faster. It was also designed to free up capacity on overwhelmed existing tracks for foreign and passengers. That will not now happen.

There has been some polemics about the UK lagging behind Europe on fast rail. And a few Brexiteers have even objected to HS2 because it was seen as part of a Europe-wide network. Note: the truncated HS2 will not directly connect to HS1, the short line from London’s St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel. 

In Scotland there have been conversations about direct or indirect rail links to the continent since there was first talk of burrowing under the sea to France.

Local politicians in Glasgow - such as former city leader and transport chief Charles Gordon - claim that in the 1980s they were promised sleepers to Paris or Brussels in exchange for not kicking off about huge infrastructure projects in the south-east. 

The Herald:

Indeed, calls for direct connections to France came from across the political spectrum. Mr Gordon, who chaired Strathclyde Passenger Transport, was vocally supported by Scottish Conservatives like the former Glasgow councillor and Ayr MSP John Young.

Rolling stock for such services were commissioned and built in the 1990s However, trains to France and Belgium never materialised. The carriages were sold to Canada’s Via Rail in 2002. 

Some of the luxury double-bedroom sleepers that were supposed to take passengers from Scotland and English provinces to Paris are currently in storage in Thunder Bay, Ontario. A few units are chugging between Ottawa and Quebec and between Montreal and Halifax.

Iain Docherty, the dean of advanced studies at Stirling University, has been following this saga for years. 

“In the 30 years since the opening of the channel tunnel, the UK Government has never been seriously interested in connecting anywhere north of London to the continent by rail. Through Eurostars and Nightstars have never run.”

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It is possible for Scottish passengers to change trains in London, of course, for Paris or Brussels. But Prof Docherty points out even that has been made relatively inconvenient.

“They could not even manage a pedestrian runnel from Euston to St Pancras due to 'security concerns’,” he said, “because the British Library was plonked on the site where a new high speed station should have gone.”

The cancellation of HS2 north of Birmingham as Rail Baltica gets built looks hugely significant, symbolically, strategically and economically.  

Scotland, as a nation on Europe’s north-west periphery, will be less well connected than countries in the north-east corner of the continent. That matters. Even in terms of CO2 emissions as we remain dependent on aviation. But will we talk about it?