A huge project has been announced to connect China to the United States via a high-speed rail link, including an underwater tunnel between Russia and Alaska. But how realistic are the plans?
One track minds
All great engineering projects like bridges, dams and tunnels have a heroic element to them, but China’s railway plans are awesome in their ambition.
Last week it was announced that they intend building a High Speed Rail (HSR) line from China to America by way of Russia, Alaska and Canada. It would run for 13,000km. To give some sense of the scale, China already has the world’s largest HSR network, but that is only 10,000km long including the world’s longest HSR line currently, which is a mere 2,298 km long and runs between Beijing and Guangzhou.
The China-US line would also require the building of an undersea tunnel across the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska. At 200km it would be four times the length of the Channel Tunnel between Britain and France.
Other HSR lines have also been proposed: one to London, via Paris, Berlin and Moscow, along with an additional route to Europe following the Silk Route to reach as far as Germany via Iran and Turkey. A fourth line, connecting China with Singapore via Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia, is already under construction. Lines running from China to Africa are also under consideration.
Railway experts around the world have been both impressed and appalled by the China-US project. Some feel that the engineering is the major obstacle. Although the necessary technology does exist, the line will have to be built on permafrost, like the Trans Siberian Railway, and cut through some very rugged mountain ranges. That brings environmental challenges like rock slides, snow, and flooding. And building the undersea tunnel will be a huge enterprise.
Other think that the economics are the real challenge. Some estimate the total cost as high as $2trillion and find it hard to see how a passenger line (as is currently planned), as opposed to a freight line, could make enough money for the project to be worthwhile. Who would ever take a two-day train journey from Beijing to San Francisco when they could fly there in 12 hours?
Some say that this is just a fantasy. Even if the huge technical problems of its construction could be overcome, there is no way that the project could be anything other than an economic disaster and no one will invest in it.
But others argue that all great engineering feats have had to overcome technical and financial obstacles. No project, from Brunel’s Great Western Railway to the Channel Tunnel, would have happened without an inspiring vision of what is possible with human ingenuity and resourcefulness. It may take decades before it is a reality, but one day you may be able to get on a train in New York and read Beijing on its destination board.
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