an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

Taking the Carrot: Or, Seeing Estonia by Train


Since Estonia’s sleek and modern new trains are painted a bright orange, it didn’t take long for them to earn the nickname of “Carrots” (porgand in Estonian or the diminutive морковка in Russian). Estonian government-owned rail operator Elron knew a good thing when they heard it and decided to go with the carrot flow. When the time came to renovate their small waiting room in the Baltic Train Station (Balti Jaam), they added round benches painted the same bright orange color with giant “carrot” sculptures growing out of the middle. So, don’t be surprised when you overhear an Estonian saying that they’re “taking the Carrot” to visit family or friends down in Tartu or wherever they might happen to live.

From Tallinn’s main train station, you can take an intercity Carrot – a Swiss-made diesel Stadler Flirt Train – to most of Estonia’s largest cities: Tartu (ranked no. 2), Narva (no. 3), Pärnu (no. 4), and Viljandi (no. 6). The Narva train also stops in Rakvere (no. 7) although sadly not in Kohtla-Järve (no. 5). In other words, Estonia’s small train network can get you to just about any major city that you might want to visit in the country – with various other stops along the way in towns from Tapa to Türi or from Elva to Põlva.

If you head down to Tartu, you can also continue by train to Valga on the Latvian border – an interesting place because the other half of the town is in Latvia where it is known as Valka instead. And if you walk cross the border, you can hop on a Latvian train that will take you on to Riga – although just about everyone I know seems to prefer the direct 4.5 hour bus ride over the indirect double train route that can take you 7 hours (or more) to complete depending on your connection. There is also a second onwards train from Tartu which goes to Koidula on the Russian border. One day you may be able to catch a connecting train from there to Pihkva (Псков) or Petseri (Печоры) – this second town was once part of interwar Estonia until Stalin moved the borders after World War II. This 3.5 hour train ride to Koidula is the longest you can take within Estonia – although there is not much to see there once you get there.

If you’re looking to travel somewhere closer to Tallinn, then you can take one of the Elron’s electric commuter trains which connect the capital to various locations in surrounding Harju County. These electric Stadler Flirt Trains are either three or four cars long in order to accommodate the higher passenger volume. Their diesel counterparts, however, also come in two-car configurations which are used on some of the less popular long-distance routes – although the more popular ones also use three or four cars. In any case, the eastbound electric commuter will take you as far as Aegvidu while the westbound ones will take you to a number of different towns along the northern coast including the popular bedroom community of Keila as well as Riisipere, Klooga, and Paldiski.

Paldiski – the Estonian pronunciation of the Russian adjective in Baltic Port – got its real start as a base built for the Russian Imperial Navy in the late 1700s. It then went on to serve as a Soviet Navy Base after the occupation of World War II when it was mainly a training site for crews who worked on the type of nuclear reactors installed in Soviet submarines. Western tourists used to take day trips to the former closed city of Paldiski in the 1990s for its Soviet time warp experience – even the terrifying anti-trafficking film Lilya 4-Ever (2002) filmed its post-Soviet era scenes in Paldiski not long afterwards. These days, however, the town has been cleaned up and people are much more likely to go there to take a walk along the cliffs to the lighthouse and back or to wander around the barely recognizable remains of the old Russian Naval fortress. You can also have lunch in the former Imperial Russian toll house or find someone to take you out on his boat to visit the nearby Pakri islands – both large and small. But the main reason to visit Paldiski these days should be to see Swedish-Estonian sculptor Amandus Adamson’s lovingly restored studio and the remains of his garden. His house, sadly, did not survive the war.

For those who live in Tallinn, the Carrot also happens to be the fastest way to get between certain neighborhoods and Central Tallinn. For example, if you want to get downtown from Nõmme on Tallinn’s southern edge or from Ülemiste on the edge of Lasnamäe (or visa versa), then the Carrot is your best bet. My friends who live in the central Tallinn neighborhood of Uus-Maailm (New World) sometimes use the Kitseküla stop when they want to come visit Kalamaja or Telliskivi. Or there is the nearby Lilleküla stop which will also get you to and from the edge of the south Tallinn neighborhood of Kristiine and its eponymous monster mall.

Sadly, several of the international trains which once pulled into to Tallinn’s Baltic Station have long since gone out of service. My first visit to Tallinn in December 1983 was on the overnight train from Leningrad. One of the reasons that particular train no longer exists may be because it extended what was a 5 hour train journey into 7 hours by spending a couple of hours pulled over on various sidings while people tried to sleep. And although foreigners weren’t allowed to take it in case they might see something that they shouldn’t, there also used to be a day train traveling between Leningrad and Tallinn back in Soviet times. Estonia’s GoRail tried to revive that route back in the 2000s. Unfortunately, there was just no way that they could compete with the new long-distance buses – both in terms of frequency and price. These days, the bus ride from Tallinn to St. Petersburg will take you about 7 hours when you factor in the time for the border crossing. Just make sure you have your Russian visa!

As it happens, there is still one international train that visits Tallinn each day. And that’s the Russian Railways train from Moscow to Tallinn – a train I took many times in the 1990s and early 2000s. I’ve always been a fan of long-distance trains – especially when traveling across the former Soviet Union as trains were always the safest and most comfortable way to get from downtown to downtown. Even the protracted Russian-Estonian border crossing at Ivangorod-Narva never bothered me as I always had all my documents in order. These days, the Moscow train also passes through St. Petersburg on its 15-hour journey to Tallinn which gives Balti Jaam its second international destination. As the travel time from Tallinn to St. Petersburg is now about 7 hours when you factor in the border crossing – and that portion of the trip is done during the day, then there is no need for you to rent a sleeping compartment. However, if you are planning to go on to Moscow then you probably should book a coupé. As it happens, GoRail is still around these days and it has a new role to play – its engines pull these Russian carriages across Estonian soil.

And yet no matter how much I love taking the Carrot around Estonia, there is one vanished train that I miss most of all: the trans-Baltic known as the Seagull (Чайка) which used to ply its route back in Soviet times. Flying on the Seagull – well, it was more like slowly hopping along – you could get from Tallinn to Minsk with those two all-important stops in Riga and Vilnius. The Seagull provided the perfect way to see all three Baltic capitals and travel between them – up until the day that the Latvians decided to tear up the track on their side of the border. So it goes. Taking a bus is just not the same.

There are plans in place to re-open the Seagull’s old route – or at least most of it – to reconnect Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania with Poland and the rest of Europe (instead of with Belarus this time) as part of the Rail Baltica project. This proposed high-speed electric railroad is supposed to be built using standard European gauge so that there will be no need for the time-consuming process of switching undercarriages at the Polish border – which would need to be the case now as all Baltic trains still run on wider Russian gauge tracks. Taking a somewhat more coastal route, Rail Baltica trains are supposed to pass through Kaunas – Lithuania’s interwar capital – although there will be a branch line to get you to today’s capital of Vilnius. The target completion date for the Rail Baltica project is 2026 but, sadly, that date keeps slipping. That’s really too bad as I would have loved to have traveled on the Seagull’s old route just one more time from Tallinn down to Vilnius.

And yet, if life gives you nothing but Carrots, then you should make carrot cake and enjoy it while you can!


Image: The logo of my dream train: Santa Fe’s The Chief – an art-deco train with interiors designed by the brilliant Mary Colter (one of America’s first woman architects) – which used to travel across the South-West from Chicago to Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s.

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