BNN IN FOCUS | New trains: Latvia adopts new models together with Estonia, but falls behind by a decade

Opinion piece. Author: Ilona Bērziņa
Latvian Pasažieru vilciens’ new brand “Vienā vilcienā” or “Vivi” turned out more symbolic than it authors intended. The problems with the train procurement procedure and Škoda Vagonka electric trains can serve as an example of Latvia’s troubles and an explanation as to why the country has been behind Estonia and Lithuania for so long.
“New and spacious train cars, orange-black-striped seats, writing tables and Wi-Fi – these are the new electric and diesel trains. […] There is a lot of room in train cars – a multifunctional zone even includes space for wheelchair-bound passengers and child carriages. Train cars have a large restroom and even enough room for bicycles. Trains are also outfitted with a first class zone, where passengers can lower their chair backs and each seat has its own computer desk.” This isn’t promotional material for the new Vivi trains, rather a citation from Estonian regional newspaper SÕNUMITOOJA from an article published on 7th of May 2013.

So, a logical question is why is it that Estonians, who announced their train procurement procedures almost at the same time as Latvia (in 2009), have been enjoying new trains for a decade and have since gotten used to them, but we are only starting our tests of our yellow Vivi trains? Moreover – Minister of Transport Kaspars Briškens is very direct in his public statements, that it’s a normal thing for a trains, like a car, to undergo test drives…

But, Mr. Briškens! It’s not normal for passengers to suffer in those train “test drive” periods.

It’s not normal when railway infrastructure (such as construction of high passenger platforms) remains unfinished! It’s not normal to call defects found during test drives “relatively trivial” if they cause a train to halt in its tracks! Why didn’t anyone plan ahead how to get passengers to their destinations in such situations? There are more questions than answers.
Meanwhile, instead of solving problems, officials claim this is normal practice around the world. IN other worlds, the new, freshly-manufactured trains had and will still have defects. If passengers want to avoid inconveniences, it’s best to avoid railway transport services for a year or so, maybe two, until all the “health problems” have been resolved.
If, according to Mr. Briškens, it’s clear that “every time a new train is commissioned, new defects are found”, they we have to ask why weren’t these defects dealt with in time? After all, the first new electric train was delivered from Škoda factory to Riga in summer 2022. By December of the same year, there were four new trains here. So there were all opportunities to test them for various defects. If we trust the Ministry of Transport, testing was performed, and trains were deployed on the railway both empty and filled with sand bags. On top of that, Pasažieru vilciens also provided EUR 2 million on experts hired to monitor the train manufacture process to help find hidden defects.
If these trains were actually tested and monitored properly, they should run perfectly, not break down immediately upon facing the first intense frost and continue revealing one new defect after another. Yes, the manufacturer will have to fix those defects and pay for repairs from their own pocket, only why should Latvian residents, who have all the right to trust trains will follow their timetables, have to suffer from these train health problems and negligence from officials?
The purchase of new trains took Latvia fourteen years with three procurement procedures, complaints and counter-complaints to the Procurement Monitoring Bureau and even lawsuits with Spanish CAF in 2012. Among the winners of this procurement, who were later removed from the race, were the aforementioned CAF, Swiss Stadler and Spanish Talgo. It’s worth looking into the contract with Stadler, which was terminated after the dissolution of the board of Pasažieru vilciens.
In an ironic twist, in 2014, when the new board of Pasažieru vilciens decided not to sign a contract with Stadler, Estonia’s Ministry of Economy and Communication received the Deal of the Year Award with its train contract with Stadler. Estonians were proud of getting their train park completely updated in 2014. New they have 18 new electric trains, 20 diesel trains. The old trains were successfully forgotten like a bad dream. On top of that, Estonia got its new trains not only faster, but also for a lower price.
Looking back at media reports of the time, we can see that our neighbours paid EUR 200 million for their new trains. Estonia purchased its new diesel trains in leasing for ten years. For its electric trains, Estonia paid 15% of the amount. The remaining amount was co-financed by the EU. Latvia, on the other hand, we puffed our cheeks and continued our national pastime – yet another train procurement announcement. The years-long epic concluded with Czech Škoda Vagonka winning after the appeal of Talgo’s victory.
It can be called score-settling between competitors, but in 2019, when Škoda Vagonka announced its victory, Spanish Talgo mentioned

that Latvian taxpayers will be forced to pay more for the trains – first they will overpay for the procurement of the same trains and then they will pay even more for daily maintenance of those trains.

It should be mentioned that Talgo’s proposed prices for the manufacture and maintenance of 32 new trains for a period of 35 years was EUR 225.3 million. The price of 32 trains from Škoda Vagonka was EUR 255.889 million.
The train procurement sage is a great example of a way to create some sector and residents unnecessary problems using completely legal and bureaucratically appropriate manner. As a result of this decade-long mess, Latvians have been forced to travel in outdated and uncomfortable trains. If government people think such a minor thing like passenger convenience and comfort is not something worth taking into account, they should consider switching from their comfortable cars and travel in a train from Riga to Tukums, for example. They should try that in summer, in the heat, or during the coldest portion of winter – unforgettable experience guaranteed.
One other option is travelling in a train to various important meetings and then stand there and wonder if they manage to reach their destination on time when a “trivial defect” surfaces.
Also read: ViVi down again due to technical difficulties. Several trains cancelled
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