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Latvia aims for high-speed rail link to Russia: minister

Latvia aims to build a high-speed rail link to the Russian capital Moscow, in a move it hopes will spur commercial ties, Transport Minister Uldis Augulis said Thursday.

“We’ve set up a group to determine how to develop passenger transit, so that the transit would happen faster and with more comfort than today,” Augulis told reporters after meeting with his Russian counterpart Igor Levitin, who is on a working visit to Latvia.

Besides boosting passenger traffic, Latvia also sees the link as a way to increase trade, Augulis said.

Moscow for its part wants to expand freight volume through Baltic ports, particularly in Latvia, Levitin said. Russia’s own ports cannot handle rising trade levels, he underlined.

That marked a change of tone from 2007, when he had said that Russia aimed to boost its own ports and do without those in neighbouring nations.

Latvia and its Baltic neighbours Estonia and Lithuania have remained important trade conduits for Russia since the three small republics broke free from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991.

Political relations between the Baltic states and their former overlord have often been rocky, with tensions sometimes having an impact on trade.

But relations have eased, notably with Latvia, which is seeking to boost its economy in the wake of the world’s deepest recession in 2008 and 2009.

The Latvian capital Riga lies some 830 kilometres (almost 520 miles) west of Moscow, and rail links are currently poor.

No details have been released about the likely cost of the project, nor who will fund it. Initial results of a feasibility study are due in May.

Critics have taken Latvia to task over alleged heel-dragging in a European Union project to link the Baltic states to Poland and Germany — fellow members of the bloc, which they joined in 2004.

The so-called Rail Baltica project has gained little traction in Latvia, even though Brussels sees it as a priority.

Rail Baltica’s launch date has been pushed back three years to 2019.

“I’ve heard many promises and this is the last call to make sure that Latvia is ready to make important steps to develop Rail Baltica,” its coordinator Pavel Telicka said recently.

Augulis dismissed the criticism, saying improving infrastructure remains a top priority for Latvia regardless of the direction.