Elron: passenger rail in Estonia
Continuing with my series on public transit in Estonia, I have made this post to look into passenger trains in Estonia. As an avid rail enthusiast and frequent passenger on trains, it would be appropriate to provide a look into rail transit in my home country as well, although most of my knowledge is about the UK’s rail network.
Passenger railways are mostly nationalised. Infrastructure is owned by AS EVR Infra, a state-owned enterprise, however the line from Tallinn to Viljandi in the southwest is privately-owned under Edelaraudtee. Until 2014, Edelaraudtee was also the operator of long-distance passenger trains with their fleet of Latvian-built diesel trains, and Elektriraudtee, also state-owned, was the operator of regional services around Tallinn with their fleet of Latvian-built electric trains. However, on January 1st of that year, Elektriraudtee took over all operations as new Swiss-built electric and diesel trains entered service across the network and was since rebranded to Elron.
The network operates with Tallinn as its hub, with 3 main lines extending to the west, southwest, and east. The western line is fully electrified with 3 kV DC overhead lines and sees mostly regional and suburban traffic. The line has seen a lot of upgrades over the past few years and is now mostly double-tracked, and while currently all services stop at all stations enroute, express trains between Tallinn and the town of Keila are to be introduced. Currently the line sees about 3 trains per hour, although most don’t travel the full length of the line.
The eastern main line runs to St. Petersburg, but passenger services terminate at the border in Narva. A branch south from Tapa runs to Tartu, where it once again splits with branches to the Latvian border at Valga and the Russian border once again at Koidula. Overhead lines run as far as Aegviidu, where electric trains terminate that provide an all-stations service on the route. Most of the traffic on this line comes from intercity services, between Tallinn and Tartu, Jõgeva, Tapa and Narva. Services between Tartu and Tallinn see heavy demand, and often passengers have to stand for at least a part of the 2 hour journey.
Electrification is to be extended from Aegviidu to Tartu, which will also see new trains rolled out to improve capacity and frequency. Unlike the existing electrification, this extension will use 25 kV 50 Hz AC, which is the standard in most of Europe, but is incompatible with the current electric train fleet. In addition to electrification, the tracks have already been straightened to allow for increased speed limits and sections are being double-tracked to improve capacity. Currently the service to Tartu runs approximately once every hour, although it’s inconsistent and generally not at the same time past the hour each time. Service at late nights is also limited, the last train from Tartu to Tallinn leaves at 20:08.
The southwestern line runs via the the suburbs of Männiku and Saku into the towns of Lelle, Türi, Kohila, Rapla and Viljandi. Until 2018, a branch from Lelle to Pärnu also saw passenger service, however this was terminated due to poor track conditions. The line is non-electrified and sees roughly 1 train every 2 hours in each direction to or from Tallinn, one train each day per direction running an express service to Viljandi.
Since 2014, all services are operated using Stadler FLIRT diesel- and electric multiple units. Stadler has sold trains from this family all across Europe, and the Estonian variant is similar to the one that roams the suburban network around Helsinki. However, Estonia was the first country where Stadler sold diesel-powered trains. While the trains are more faster, quieter, more accessible and more reliable than the old Latvian trains, they have not been without problems. Most notably, the trains have less seating than their predecessors, with more standing capacity instead. This became apparent immediately when the trains were first introduced, and mentions of it can be found even on the older posts of this very same blog. However, it has gained more attention as ridership has grown, and new trains are to be introduced from 2024.
The diesel and electric trains share a common design inside and outside. Electric trains feature a pantograph on each end, and diesel trains are fitted with a power pack in the middle, containing 2 Cummins QSK23 inline-6 engines. These act as generators to power both the electric traction motors and the onboard auxiliary systems. All trains have low floors throughout, except for the walk-through connections between coaches. Seating is in a 3+2 configuration and includes a few table seats as well, all of which feature 2 230V power sockets. There is 1 vestibule per carriage with entry doors on both sides, the area also includes digital wayfinding LCD screens showing the destination, next stops and scheduled arrival times. One vestibule per train is wheelchair accessible and the doors have small extendable metal plates to bridge the gap between the train and the platform. This area also features bicycle racks and a toilet. All diesel trains have at least one first class section with 24 seats, which can be reserved in advance and have more padding, larger tables and a dedicated WiFi network.
The station in Tallinn was built in the 50s, and as was the norm at the time, it looks extremely ugly and uninviting. Fortunately, one does not need to enter the station building to access the trains, as they are all unsheltered and out in the open air, accessible from both sides of the tracks. LCD screens with departure and arrival times have been fitted in recent years and the platforms have been renumbered to follow a logical sequence. The station does have some useful facilities though, like a Selver grocery store, Burger King, R-kiosk and a ticket office.
The station in Tartu is better, and has been restored to generally resemble its original late 19th-century design. There are 3 tracks across 2 platforms, with northbound trains generally using the track closest to the street and the station building, and southbound trains using one of the two other tracks, accessible through an underpass. This platform was recently rebuilt for the second time to be more accessible, and has been moved north from its former site to make room for a new underground ramp.
All other stations are of a generally minimalist design. Platforms have been rebuilt to standard height to allow for level boarding and feature printed timetables. While some old station buildings remain open to the public, most no longer are. All platforms are now accessible by ramps on all stations.
Tickets for all trains can be bought online at elron.ee, from the conductor on board the train, or using Elron’s stored value ticket card (or a combination of the three!).
Online ticket sales open 7 days in advance and close one hour before the trains departure from its origin. Tickets for standard class do not provide a seat reservation nor is it possible at all: there are effectively and unlimited number of tickets available. Prices for tickets depend on distance travelled, however some express trains charge a few additional euros due to high demand on these services. First class tickets include a compulsory seat reservation, and when all seats have been booked, no more first class tickets will be sold. Tickets can either be delivered via e-mail or to Elron’s ticket card.
The ticket card can be used for storing credit or tickets themselves. The system is highly flexible: credit can be loaded either online or on the train, can be used on both, and can be combined with other payment methods. All trains now feature ticket machines, where holders of the ticket card can buy tickets using their credit. However, this is optional, and conductors can assist when needed.
If a passenger hasn’t bought their ticket in advance, they may buy a ticket from the conductor, however this will be slightly more expensive. Cash and payment cards are accepted onboard.
This is an aspect of train travel that has seen improvements the most over the years, in my opinion. I’ll take a look at a journey here from Tallinn to Tartu from end to end. This is a route that I frequent, often 2x/month.
My journey on train 214 begins at the main station in Tallinn, where I had arrived about 20 minutes before its departure at 16:46. I had arrived at the station on a tram, so I first went to the departure boards outside the new waiting room to see which track my train departs from. The LCD screen reports track 3: the longest in the station. Most eastbound trains use tracks 1-3 on the south side of the station, with a couple using track 4. The 4-car diesel train was already at the station, so I boarded through the first door and went to look for a seat.
As the train wouldn’t depart for another 20 minutes, there were plenty of seats to choose from. I opted for a table seat near the walk-through connection between two carriages. The table seats on this section are the furthest from the doors, so there won’t be cold air blowing up here as passengers enter and exit. The table is rather small, but it includes a small trash bin and 2 power sockets. As the departure time came closer, the 3 other seats around the table filled up. As I looked around after we got moving, all the seats I saw were filled, but I didn’t spot any standing passengers. I recall 2 journeys where I’ve had to stand: both on peak time southbound express services where I arrived just a few minutes before the train’s departure. After the first stop at Tapa, a lot of passengers got off, and on both instances I was able to sit down for the rest of the journey. This train however is a stopping service, which takes about half an hour longer than an express, but costs a few euros less. Shortly before departure, I present my ticket card to the conductor, which has the ticket I have purchased in advance.
After 2 stops in Tallinn we speed up to 120 km/h. We share tracks with electric trains as far as Aegviidu, so we skip most of stops until there. Automatic pre-recorded announcements are made for all stops on the way and more details can be found on LCD screens in the vestibules. After Aegviidu, we stop at all stations to Tartu. This is also where on-board WiFi is the least reliable: I often switch between my own 4G internet and the free WiFi, since they use different providers. Another aspect where the train falls short is seat comfort. While it is a high back seat with a decent amount of padding, it’s quite upright, so it’s not very comfortable for sitting down for 2 hours or sleeping.
Between Tapa and Jõgeva passengers thin out, but at Jõgeva the train fills up again for the journey to Tartu. As we pass the first level crossing in Tartu I begin to pack up my things and prepare to exit the train. A final announcement is played moments before our arrival, thanking us for choosing to travel by train. We pull into the newly-rebuilt platform 2 in Tartu and make our way down the ramp into the underpass to the main station building. I exit through the side door from the underpass, which leads to a staircase up to street level, bypassing the station building proper.
Passenger rail in Estonia has improved significantly over the last decade and with new trains on order and infrastructure upgrades on the way it will get even better. A high-capacity rail backbone is crucial to a functional transit system and local governments should take note here how incremental upgrades can lead to a major uplift in passenger experience.