Rebuilding Riga for Rail Baltica
After a long deliberation process, two architecture firms have won an international competition to design the new Central Station in Riga, a key link in the Rail Baltica project, which ultimately hopes to link the Baltic States and central Europe. So what is their vision for the new station and what role do experts predict this hub will play in Latvia’s future economy?
Identified as one of European Commission’s most important cross-border projects, Rail Baltica hopes to renew regional integration by re-joining the Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – with the European rail network by 2025.
In Latvia, which is located right at the heart of the future North Sea-Baltic Corridor, the project drew the largest public discussion in the country’s history, with interest and contribution of people from 15 regions.
The interest this project garnered, as well as its €1.9bn price tag for the Latvian section of the railway, is justified by the projected socio-economic contribution that the future link will bring to the country’s economy.
Linking Tallinn, Riga, Kaunas, Warsaw, Berlin and even Venice in the long-term, it is promised to offer new work places, increase connectivity, develop tourism and even strengthen national security for the region.
A survey conducted by European Railways, the state-owned corporation responsible for Latvia’s development of the Rail Baltica project, showed that 89% of Latvian residents were in favour of the project.
Key to the project’s delivery is the reconstruction of Riga’s Central Station, which is currently undergoing a €186m conversion into a multimodal terminal to host high-speed trains running among Baltic States, freight trains and national connection between newly built stations.
In March, the winners of the architectural competition, which it said sought to “obtain the most appropriate sketch design” of the station, were announced. Two firms, Danish architect firms PLH Arkitekter and COWI, prevailed in the contest after the jury briefly awarded second place to two other entries, due to the subpar sketch designs which had been submitted.
An “iconic” station
Latvia’s contribution to Rail Baltica will see the state shoulder approximately €1.9bn in construction works, with 80% of the first part of the project to be funded by the Connecting Europe Facility.
The contest for the redesign of the Riga’s 15ha station and 59ha of adjacent space was judged by a panel of international and Latvian experts and awarded €150,000 to the winning teams for their proposals.
Today, the Central Station is located next to Riga Old Town, a spot well-known for its historic churches and baroque architecture.
According to chosen architects PHL, the inspiration behind the new station building takes after the archetypal form of historic central stations worldwide, the arch, and will “aspire to the qualities of the art nouveau period”.
“Our proposal delivers a coherent, smooth and living infrastructural hub that connects the city and strengthens the existing identity of Riga,” said Steen Enrico Andersen, partner at PLH and leading architect on the design-proposal.
Inside the station, sloping roof canopies will be installed to allow natural light to shine through the station.
Two new tracks running parallel on the south side of the existing tracks are included in the plan, as well as a new bridge across the River Daugava, with integrated bicycle and pedestrian paths. A new connection between Riga International Airport (RIX) and Riga’s central railway station was also announced to be completed before 2022.
“The project will link the city together and prioritise public transit, pedestrians and cyclists to create a more sustainable cit?y,” said COWI project director Jakob Christensen. “The new station building in Riga will be a landmark for the city, boasting striking curves reminiscent of arched fern leaves. The aim is to create an iconic station building and provide the city with a strong visual identity.”
Also dubbed the ‘green metropolis’ by its designers, the proposal includes new areas of green urban spaces surrounding the station. So far, the project has no earmarked funds for reconstruction of the urban environment, since the main funding is allocated for the railway construction only.
“One objective of the design is to create a denser city with defined squares and urban places to frame an active city life for inhabitants, commuters and visitors alike – thereby strengthening the sense of Riga as a metropolis,” the PHL project proposal reads.
Baiba Rubesa, chair of the tri-national Rail Baltica project, identified the station as the section with the highest complexity in all three Baltic States, calling it “unique in terms of technology”.
The procurement on construction is scheduled to be launched at the beginning of next year, followed by the start of construction before 2022.
Latvia reaps the benefits
Once trains start operations across the new corridor, Latvia is expected to reap multiple benefits from its station and the traffic it will generate.
"The Rail Baltica project is an exciting, multidisciplinary project where architecture and engineering knowhow meet. Not only does the project have the potential to become an iconic, breath-taking and important entrance to Riga – it may also act as a driver for future development of the city," Christensen said.
The total socio-economic benefit of the project to the three Baltic States has been calculated at €16.2bn, according to a new report by Ernst & Young (EY). This includes everything from benefits to travellers, freight carriers and railway operators, as well as less noise and air pollution.
According to the study, the corridor will create a GDP multiplier effect worth an additional €2bn.
The highest flow of passengers travelling between the capitals connected by the line is expected to take place between Riga International Airport and Riga Central. Over one million passengers are expected to travel between those two points in 2035, followed by almost 800,000 intra-Baltic and a further 116,000 extra-Baltic passengers.
“The results indicate that the highest intensity sections will be the ones that combine travellers between Riga and Kaunas and Vilnius,” the report concludes.
“The central station, the connected station area, and the adjacent infrastructure hold great potential to be much more than just infrastructure,” Andersen says, “becoming an important city hub with a strong visual identity in the cityscape in a modern sustainable urban development.”