An Englishman in Latvia

On public transport

February 26, 2024 Alan Anstead Season 2 Episode 1
On public transport
An Englishman in Latvia
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An Englishman in Latvia
On public transport
Feb 26, 2024 Season 2 Episode 1
Alan Anstead

For a visitor to Latvia, there is a massive choice of public transport. From trains, buses, smaller mini-buses, trolleybuses, trams, and coaches. There are also a few taxis. A few of these forms of public transport are brand-new. Many give you a feel for life during the Soviet occupation. There was even a song written about my favourite tram line! Let’s take a deep dive into public transport in Latvia. With a story or two to bring the topic to life.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes Transcript

For a visitor to Latvia, there is a massive choice of public transport. From trains, buses, smaller mini-buses, trolleybuses, trams, and coaches. There are also a few taxis. A few of these forms of public transport are brand-new. Many give you a feel for life during the Soviet occupation. There was even a song written about my favourite tram line! Let’s take a deep dive into public transport in Latvia. With a story or two to bring the topic to life.

Thanks for listening!

On public transport

For a visitor to Latvia, there is a massive choice of public transport. From trains, buses, smaller mini-buses, trolleybuses with their electric pylons catching the electricity cables above the road, trams running on rails alongside the road or on it, and coaches off to different parts of Latvia. There are also a few taxis. A few of these forms of public transport are brand-new. Many give you a feel for life during the Soviet occupation. There was even a song written about my favourite tram line! Let’s take a deep dive into public transport in Latvia. With a story or two to bring the topic to life.

Despite its relatively large land mass, Latvia has a small population of just 1.8 million people. About half of the population lives in Riga or its suburbs. All public transport routes lead to Riga! Car ownership isn’t high - it is the second lowest in the EU, and therefore, many people rely on its public transport network. 

There are train routes from Riga to other cities in Latvia: Liepaja, Daugavpils, Jelgava, Valmiera, Tukums, Saulkrasti and Rezekne. Trains run on the route to Jurmala every half an hour. But some of these routes only have a few trains a day. All the trains move slowly but running on railway lines; they easily beat road traffic through the clogged-up streets of Riga. 

Buses run everywhere on local networks and are often run by a municipality. Private coach companies ply the longer routes with an extensive network. Mini-buses look scary. I think would-be Formula One drivers drive them. I have never found the courage to board one. 

The trolley buses look like dinosaurs, although they have less environmental impact than diesel buses. Sometimes, the pylon over-carriage falls off the overhead electricity wires, and the driver has to jump out and put the pylon back on the electricity lines with the aid of a long string. 

There are a few taxis. One rarely sees them nowadays. They are costly. Most hang out at Riga airport. One still gets accosted Soviet-style when leaving the airport building, “Want a taxi?” or “Riga taxi?”. Saying that phrase is a joke in my family.


There are 2,427 km of train lines in Latvia. Some of this length is operated by Latvian Railways for passenger train spokes from Riga to other cities in Latvia, mainly to the east of the capital. Some lines are purely used now by Latvian Railways for freight trains, for example, to Ventspils. Apart from a 33 km narrow gauge railway between Gulbene and Aluksne in the east of the country that is run by a trust for local tourists to enjoy, most trains use the Russian gauge rail lines. Interestingly, railways with a railway track gauge of 5 ft (1,524 mm) first appeared in the United Kingdom and the United States. This gauge became commonly known as the ‘Russian gauge’ because the government of the Russian Empire chose it in 1843. This gauge was inherited across the then-Russian Empire. However, in 1970, Soviet Railways re-defined the gauge as 1,520 mm. The common gauge in the UK and Western Europe (but not Finland) is the so-called ‘standard gauge’ of 1,435 mm. Where did they get this measurement from? That is 4 foot 8.5 inches converted. The new Rail Baltica line being built to connect the three Baltic States by rail to the rest of Europe will use the standard gauge.

Tickets for trains are still cheaper than buses. My preferred form of public transport is the train. Luckily, we live a 10-minute walk from Imanta railway station, and from there, it is a 15-minute train ride to Riga Central Station or a 20-minute ride to Jūrmala in the opposite direction. That is a confusing destination for foreign tourists. On the train the other day, my wife was asked by German tourists where the stop ‘Jūrmala’ was. They won’t find it as Jūrmala is a collective name for the seaside resort. It's best to get off at Majori. The beach is a 5-minute walk, and the tourist office is immediately opposite the station!

The trains were uncomfortable until the new ones came into service at the end of 2023. However, they generally run on time, however slowly you think they are travelling when looking out the window. They are definitely not express trains! I have nothing but praise for the conductors, drivers and station ticket sellers. I once left my rucksack on the last train home late at night after a long day of travelling across Latvia. I realised as we got off. The station ticket seller gave the conductor’s phone number, and the conductor handed over my rucksack on the first train the following morning at Imanta station. It was a lovely gesture as I travelled by plane to the UK later that day!

The old trains are inaccessible to anyone using a wheelchair, and it takes two people to lift a pram up the steep train steps. Older people need to be like rock climbers to get on board! The doors to the new Vivi trains open at platform level. They are not double-decker carriages, but the part of each carriage above the wheels is on an upper level. There are still seats at the lower level for those who prefer to sit there. 

Latvian Railways started to rebrand its passenger service as Vivi in November 2023 with the introduction of these new trains. Looking carefully at the branding, you will see the strapline ‘Vienā vilcienā’ - 'on one train’ - below the Vivi logo. I have yet to work out what this means. Well, the new logo cost Euro 3,900. What more does one want for that price? The Vivi website and a new app are already in place. Unfortunately, you can only use the app if you have a Latvian phone number, unlike the old app it replaced. No one at Vivi thought about tourists and foreigners interested in using the trains, apparently. At least the old trains will get a coat of yellow and blue paint by the end of 2024. 

I like the Vivi trains and am happy when a new Vivi approaches the station rather than the old rolling stock. But they do have problems. Listen on!


At the end of February, Latvian Radio reported on LSM that only 8 of the 17 new trains supplied to Latvia at the end of 2023 were carrying passengers.

According to the passenger train operator Vivi’s spokesman, Edgars Butāns, the most significant faults are with the electronics of trains and various sensors.

“Those electric trains previously found to have faults are undergoing dynamic testing. This means that, depending on the nature of the defect previously detected, each train is driven at least 200 or 600 kilometres, simulating the journey according to the timetable. These checks shall also involve Škoda Vagonka personnel who react if necessary if any defects are detected.”

The Vivi spokesman couldn't say when passengers could board all the new trains.

Transport Minister Kaspars Briškens has told the supplying company Škoda Vagonka that 95% of new electric trains must be ready by the first week of March. Otherwise, the Czech company will be punished.

The contract to supply 32 new electric trains, signed in mid-2019, foresaw that all 32 trains would already be on the tracks by the end of 2023. In reality, the first trains only started running in December 2023.

Shortly afterwards, defects began to surface on several trains, and in early January, one of the new trains stopped on the line from Riga-Skulte for several hours. Cancellations and delays have followed for weeks after.

According to Vivi, of the 17 delivered electric trains, eight of the new electric trains are currently being used in passenger transportation, while five more are undergoing 'dynamic tests' after previously detected defects have been rectified. "Currently, the technical condition of two new electric trains does not correspond to their full use in passenger transportation, while two more trains have successfully passed tests, are in reserve and will be gradually returned to circulation shortly," Vivi clarified.

My comment is it is a pity. Oh, ‘Śkoda’ - the train manufacturer - in the Czech language means ‘a pity’!

Railway Museum

I went to the Railway Museum in Riga. This is close to the National Library, and the entrance is through the car park - it took me a while to work that out! The museum is run by Latvian Railways. The Russian gauge railway stock in the museum’s railway sidings was truly impressive. Some of the massive, brutal-looking Soviet-era locomotives still had hammer and sickle paintwork or pictures of Lenin on them. They have their original carriages behind them. Inside the museum building, one can step into a station from 50 or so years ago, explaining how the railways worked in those days, with rail traffic control systems and those lovely old leather cornered suitcases people used when travelling far. There are station master clocks made in Latvia and a 1900s carriage for transporting prisoners to the gulags. 

Two of my favourite locomotives from the outdoor sidings. 

Diesel-electric locomotive TEP-60

This train type was built in Russia between the 1960s and the 1980s at the Kolomna machine-building factory for passenger transportation. In total, 1,245 were built. The locomotive was ordered for use in the Baltics in 1963 and handed to the Riga depot. It was in operation until 1995. The locomotive has an 1145cc 2-stroke V-16 diesel engine. Locomotives of this class on the main lines of the Soviet Union railways replaced steam and became the most widely used locomotive for passenger transportation from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Steam locomotive Class L no. 0312

The Class L locomotives were one of the more advanced steam locomotives built in the former Soviet Union. They used mechanical stockers to feed coal and had a relatively low axle weight to be compatible with the war-torn railways of the former Soviet Union. Several examples of this locomotive type are still preserved in working order.

The prototype of this locomotive was produced in Russia in 1945. More than 4,200 class L steam locomotives were built in Kolomna, Bryansk and Lugansk factories. In Latvia, class L locomotives operated from 1962 until 1989, and some were used later for pulling tourist trains.

The steam locomotive No. 0312 in the museum was built at Kolomna Locomotive Works in 1948. Initially, the steam engine was sent to Roslaw depot, but since 1963, it has operated between Daugavpils, Jelgava, and Riga. L-0312 is one of the last broad-gauge steam locomotives to have survived in Latvia.

It was mid-winter when I visited the museum, and I had to trudge through the snow-covered platforms and clean the snow off the display boards. But well worth the visit.

Rail Baltica

For what seems like years, Riga has been dug up to build a new railway line to connect the three Baltic States with the rest of Europe using standard gauge track. Even though the three countries still use the old Russian gauge rails. I like the idea of being able to jump on a train to another country rather than flying. One can already do that with the new daily service from Riga to Vilnius run by Lithuanian Railways, and the small train to the border town of Valka (split in half between Latvia and Estonia by a Brit, Sir Stephen Tallents, at the end of the First World War). Both are on my list of things to do this year - expect a podcast episode. Some 950 km of track, plus new stations, are being constructed between Tallinn in Estonia and Warsaw in Poland, via Riga in Latvia and Kaunas in Lithuania, with a link to Vilnius. The Rail Baltica is planned for completion by 2030 at a cost of Euro 8 billion. Luckily, this is a priority project for EU funding.  However, large infrastructure projects tend to run late, even if they are about railways! 


After trains, trams are my favourite. There are six tram routes in Riga. The old trams are slim and majestic, rolling along the rail lines alongside and often on the road. Several new trams in service are accessible for people with limited mobility, wheelchair users and people with prams. The old ones need at least two people to lift a pushchair into the tram from road level. I know. I’ve done that a few times! My favourite tram is the number 10. That line is still run with old trams. There was even a song about it by the band Labvēlīgais Tips (Favourable Type) in 1999.

“I look in the mirror, I see myself in a beautiful suit. 

The road leads me to Bišumuiža on the tenth [tram].

Another month-long marathon has ended for me. 

The moment shrinks to nothing until the door opens. 

The tenth tram in a double-track glow. 

Takes me far away for two weeks. 

The tenth tram.

Our heartbeats sound together. 

Come sit in the train of dreams.

In the driving room filled with the warmth of the sun and sunsets, 

the conductor Jēkabs smiles at the children. 

Call me by my first name. 

Trees and flowers and grass and dripping ice cream greet me in Bišumuiža.”

Rigas Satiksme, which runs the bus and tram network in Riga, restored a 1910 tram in 1982, and this is available to hire in summer. The tram has 18 seats and standing room for ten more people. It runs on ten different routes - which you choose as it is your hire. These wooden electric trams started in 1901 and took over from horse-drawn trams. In the late 1990s, my colleagues at the British Embassy hired it as a surprise birthday present for a colleague, Shofiya. Naturally, we had Rigas Champagne on board. I just looked at the hire price, and it is reasonable if you have a large group to fill the tram. And what an experience!

Better than the Coca-Cola lorry lit up for Christmas in America, the number 1 tram in Riga gets some festive cheer, decked out in blue lights for two months over Christmas. It makes people happy when they see it and brightens up those dark, grey winter days.

Buses, trolleybuses, mini-buses and coaches

There are 52 bus and mini-bus routes and 22 trolley bus routes. It is the most extensive network, getting someone from one corner of Riga to another. My son tends to fall asleep on the number 4 bus. They are warm, cosy places. Luckily, he is with a parent! As I mentioned earlier, I find the small mini-buses scary. They drive to the stop quickly. The door automatically opens. A few people get off and then on. The door shuts, and it pulls away quickly. They remind me of the mini-buses in the Caribbean. Except these are painted a bland white. But similar driver urgency to get going! 

When driving around the countryside, I am always conscious of the number of coaches that pass going in the opposite direction. Coaches, run by many private companies, are the best way to reach parents, relatives or even a home far outside Riga. The rail network is so limited.

The trolleybuses strike me as a relic from the Soviet era. And it’s less fun than the old trams.

In conclusion, Latvia has an excellent public transport system. The country needs it because of the low car ownership rate compared to other EU countries and because ethnic Latvians especially like visiting or living in the countryside. Ethnic Russians are less likely to travel outside of the few big cities in Latvia. There are some lovely quirks to public transport, especially in Riga. Do take a ride on the number 10 tram. Do spot the retro tram in summer. Check those Lenin-adorned trains at the Railway Museum. And check whether those Vivi trains have now adjusted to working in Latvia.

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