A submarine railway line from the United States to China: a dream project?
A 13,000 km long railway line connecting China to the United States, partially submarine to cover the Bering Strait. This would be the final touch of the Belt and Road initiative, as it would connect the world by rail. But that will never happen, the majority of RailFreight readers said in a website poll this week. Only a small number of people had full confidence in the project, which has been discussed since 2014 and seems to have more people talking than actually building.
It’s called the China-Russia-Canada-America line, and it was first offered by China in 2014. It would start in mainland China, cross Siberia, pass under the sea through the Bering Strait to ‘in Alaska, to continue to Canada and finally the USA. It should not be confused with the Bering Strait Tunnel, which is only the part crossing the Bering Strait. This has been on the wish list of engineers for centuries. InterBering, a company based in Alaska, is actively working on the construction of the Bering Strait tunnel.
8% of global freight volumes
The construction of the China-Russia-Canada-America railway line could provide a capacity of 100 million tonnes of freight, or 8% of world freight each year between Europe, Russia, China, Japan, Korea South, Canada and the United States. In addition, it would allow passengers to travel between the United States and Russia in just over 20 minutes, if high-speed trains were running on the network. It is also nicknamed the Global Land Bridge, because it would connect the world, as are the arguments of those proposing the project.
It is not surprising, however, that the majority of RailFreight readers voted with little confidence in the project (56%). Technically, the project is very difficult, the costs are modest and perhaps most importantly, the political relations between the United States, Russia and China are not at their best. What’s more, it’s not entirely clear who will build the tunnel, as the different parties seem to have their respective ambitions.
Technically, crossing the Bering Strait is the most difficult task. If an underwater tunnel were built here, it would be the longest in the world, spanning 103 km. In comparison, the Channel Tunnel, currently the longest in the world, measures 50 km. InterBering, an Alaska-based company, appears to be actively working on the project.
The project would actually involve the construction of three parallel tunnels under the Bering Strait, as well as sections of railroad connecting the rail systems on each of the two continents, writes InterBering. “Two tunnels would accommodate traffic in both directions and consist of two levels: the lower part for slower freight and passenger traffic; an upper floor for high speed trains. The third tunnel would function as an emergency tunnel and would be placed in the middle.
Interbering says “integrate information and management processes with particular emphasis on the organization, financing and construction of an interhemispheric tunnel in the Bering Strait and connecting the railways of two continents, North America and Asia ”. According to the company, the project would take 12 to 15 years, at an estimated cost of 35 billion US dollars.
However, this includes the underwater link alone. In order to make it a global land bridge connecting China and the United States, new infrastructure must be laid, as there are currently many missing links. On the Russian side, the nearest terminus is 3,000 km away, while in Alaska, the project would require some 1,200 km of new rail line. Complicating matters is that Russian and US railways use different track gauges, writes Ed Peters in the South China Morning Post.
It is this missing infrastructure that makes the project a huge financial challenge. The total estimated costs are around US $ 200 billion, which critics say is disproportionate. As sea routes already exist, it is more viable to continue to navigate by sea, is the argument often heard by opponents.
Different actors involved
Although Interbering claims to “actively lead to a historic agreement between the governors of the State of Alaska (United States) and the Autonomous Okrug of Chukotka (Russia) making this rail tunnel project a future reality, China seems to be on a whole different page.
As mentioned, China announced plans to build the China-Russia-Canada-America line in 2014. At the time, Chinese engineers claimed to be in talks with Russia to start the line. In addition, it is currently building the world’s first high-speed submarine train, which would stretch from Ningbo, a port city near Shanghai, to Zhoushan, an archipelago of islands off the east coast. Many consider this to be a test project, to see if they could make the Bering Strait tunnel longer.
The Ningbo-Zhoushan tunnel is 77 km long, 16.2 km of which is underwater. Although the submarine section is shorter than the Channel Tunnel, the novelty is that it will facilitate high-speed rail traffic. To be precise, it will have a Maglev train, levitating above a magnetic track as it is propelled at high speed. And this is not a dream project, because it is already underway.
Political will on all sides
It is not excluded that China and Russia will cooperate in this project. After all, they already share the longest railway line in the world: the Trans-Siberia Line. The two countries have worked very closely in recent years to form a bridge between Europe and Asia, and a rail line to the United States would be an extension of that effort.
However, the willingness of the United States to work with Russia and China on this megaproject is less likely. Currently, relations between the United States and Russia are not at their best, and as China becomes the dominant economic player in the world, the United States might not be so keen to facilitate this growth.
At the same time, the benefits will be for all countries involved. “The Bering Strait Railroad and Tunnel Project can help enhance and expand 21st century prosperity by connecting the world’s greatest industrial nations to the vast untapped mineral resources of the Arctic,” said the Governor from Alaska, Wally Hickel.
To carry out the project, the countries involved will all have to get involved and all get involved. Before a consensus is reached and funding is available from all sides, the China-Russia-Canada-America line will probably remain a dream project.