It is with great regret that I must announce the upcoming passing of the Tallinn to Pärnu train. To pay my respects to the dying route one final time, I took the Carrot down to Pärnu and back a couple weeks ago. Sadly, my journey between Estonia’s national capital and its “Summer Capital” was enough to confirm that the route’s condition was terminal.
As it happens, even a state-run network like Elron must provide a return on the government’s investment. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the Tallinn-Pärnu route ever did as there were rarely enough passengers to make the two scheduled runs each day worthwhile. And yet every morning one of Elron’s twin-carriage Swiss-made diesel Stadler Flirt trains would make the 2 ½ hour journey down to Pärnu. And then, for various reasons, that train simply waited for 7 ½ hours to make the 2 ½ hour trip back to Tallinn. The mirror Pärnu to Tallinn train could at least cover other routes out of Tallinn before it headed back down to Pärnu in the afternoon to spend the night on a railway siding. The Tallinn-Pärnu train, however, provided little return on investment as it remained idle for a ¼ of each day. Moreover, the train’s engineer and conductor simply stayed put with their train, earning overtime for a 12 ½ hour work day filled mostly with empty hours.
There were several reasons why the Tallinn-Pärnu train only ran twice a day. First, Pärnu has chosen a challenging path for itself as a Beach Town in a land where the short summer season only lasts between three to five months. Visiting Pärnu in November reminded me of that old Soviet-era anecdote where a Cuban student at Tallinn Technical University was asked what he thought about Estonia’s winter. His answer was: “Oh, your white winter is terrible – it’s so long and so cold! But your green winter is not too bad.” Yes, there are still plenty of things to do to fill an off-season day in Estonia’s Summer Capital including: visiting the recently revitalized Pärnu Museum as well as the quirky Museum of New Art; checking out Pärnu’s architectural mash-up of a city market; grabbing a meal with friends; and exploring its historic downtown by foot. But Pärnu’s main calling card – its lovely sandy beach – can be a pretty inhospitable place as the weather starts to turn cold. Although a seasonal train route might have solved part of one problem, it wouldn’t have solved most of them.
The main problem with the Tallinn-Pärnu train turned out to be the competing bus. While the Estonian Government has invested plenty of the taxpayer’s money – as well as EU funds – in improving the main highway between Tallinn and Pärnu, the same can’t be said about the Tallinn-Pärnu railway tracks. After all, once you left the town of Lelle about an hour into the ride, the rails were in such bad shape that they could only handle a limited number of trains per day even after the engines dropped down to 60 KPH from their usual 100+ KPH speeds. The buses that ply the Tallinn-Pärnu road can cruise along much faster – usually at a steady 90 KPH. As a result, a bus covers the distance between the two cities in less than 2 hours – or almost 45 minutes faster than it took on the train. The train was also slowed down by making over a dozen stops along the way while the bus only makes two or three.
And then there’s the issue of the train station – or the absence of one in Pärnu. The “station” was essentially a railway siding on the far edge of town served only irregularly by city buses. By contrast, Pärnu’s main bus station is right downtown within easy walking distance of most everything – plus it is close to the city’s main public transportation hub. Moreover, the bus station has an indoor waiting area – which becomes rather important when it gets cold outside – plus various shops where you can buy drinks or snacks for your journey. And then, you have an average of two buses an hour to choose from – rather than only two trains a day – as Pärnu is at the half-way point on the main highway south to Riga. And, of course, you can continue heading further south to Vilnius and beyond. To clinch things, the various competing bus companies charge the same (or less) than the train once did to get from Tallinn to Pärnu.
While I’ll always choose the train over a bus whenever I can (trains are more comfortable and offer the possibility of moving around), there was just no way that the train could compete with the bus without an extensive investment in new infrastructure which would be required to build a new train station downtown and also lay new track from Lelle to Pärnu that would make high-speed travel possible. If Rail Baltica comes to fruition, then the Tallinn to Pärnu route may well come back to life one day – along with new high-speed trains running on European gauge tracks. Until that day, those Estonians who live in one of the half-dozen or so small towns between Lelle and Pärnu – including those in Pulli (home to Estonia’s first known settlers after the Ice Age ended) – will sadly have to find another way to travel. And even if Rail Baltica does get built by 2026, the new trains will probably whizz by their towns at 250 KPH without stopping. As for me, I’ll also need to take some time as I mourn the passing of Estonia’s first Carrot.
Image: A hand printed Carrot on handmade paper available as a postcard or a print from Labora online or from their shop at Vene 18 in Tallinn.