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Key train to Kaliningrad axed


The new EU Kaliningrad programme is designed to promote contact and understanding between Russia's Baltic exclave at Kaliningrad and the territory's EU neighbours. But sadly, just as this new programme is announced, so comes news that a key train service linking Kaliningrad and Berlin is about to be axed.

This month's EU summit in Stockholm spawned plenty of interesting initiatives. Tucked away in the press releases was reference to a new programme that went largely unnoticed in the media. The new EU Kaliningrad programme is designed to promote contact and understanding between Russia''s Baltic exclave at Kaliningrad and the territory's EU neighbours. The new programme has a budget of €176 million, with 75% of the funding provided by the EU and the balance by Russia.

The demise of the Russian airline KD Avia in September hit Kaliningrad hard. The airline was based in the Russian exclave and offered not only direct flights between Kaliningrad and a dozen destinations in Russia proper, but also a rich range of routes from Kaliningrad direct to central and western Europe. The airline wanted to attract visitors to Kaliningrad in much the same way that Loftleiðir (the precursor of Icelandair) put Iceland on the map for an earlier generation of trans-Atlantic travellers.

The KD Avia collapse was a real setback for Kaliningrad. True, Russian airlines like Aeroflot stepped in to pick up some of the potentially lucrative Russian routes. But Kaliningrad lost its prime air connections to western Europe. But what Kaliningrad still had of course was the daily night train to Berlin. That, we thought, was a bright light in Kaliningrad's favour.

And with the approval in Stockholm of the new Kaliningrad programme we saw at once that Kaliningrad's key position as a node in Europe's rail network could and should be a cornerstone in any programme to ameliorate the effects of the Kaliningrad region's isolation. Kaliningrad is unique among Russian cities in having standard gauge tracks running into the city from the west. The daily train to Berlin was the sole night sleeper connection from Kaliningrad to points west. A model for the future, perhaps?

But it is not to be. Less than a week after the announcement of the new Kaliningrad programme, we heard that the Berlin to Kaliningrad train will be axed from next month. Last departure from Berlin is on 11 December. Kaliningrad, it seems, is about to become even more isolated.

Prior to the Second World War Kaliningrad was Königsberg, then the administrative capital of the German province of East Prussia. In the 1930s it took eight hours to travel by fast train from the middle of Berlin to the heart of Königsberg. Today, the same journey takes 17 hours - but at least it is in the comfort of a direct train in a cosy sleeping berth. From mid-December it will of course still be possible to reach Kaliningrad by train from Berlin. But it will take 20 hours and require four changes of train along the way - two of those changes taking place as times when most of us would surely rather be tucked up in our beds.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(hidden europe)