Paul Kilfoil's World of Travel, Technology & Sport

Posted on  by Paul Kilfoil.
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Your immediate reaction on reading the headline above and noting the date (1 April) was probably "Not another dreary April Fool's joke". I have to admit that that's what I would have thought as well ... except in this case it isn't a joke, at least not intentionally so. On 25 March 2015, The Independent newspaper in England carried an incredible story about a Russian plan to build a high speed railway from London to New York via Moscow, a bridge over the Bering Strait to Alaska and then through the frozen wastes of Canada. This article was in itself a response to one that appeared in The Siberian Times on 23 March 2015.

Route of the proposed inter-continental high speed railway

Apparently this grand plan was conceived by three high-level Russian gurus - Vladimir Yakunin (head of Russian railways), Viktor Sadovnichy (rector of Moscow State University) and Gennady Osipov (an academic). It was announced at a meeting of the Russian Academy of Sciences in March 2015 ; the news reports I read did not record whether the audience collapsed into guffaws of laughter or were awestruck at the sheer audacity of the project. It is interesting to note that two of the three people responsible for the plan are academics, and not even transport academics at that ; only Yakunin appears to have a railway background. Yakunin is known to be a close confidante of Russian president Vladimir Putin, so we can assume that this plan has some degree of official approval from the very top ... of course, given Putin's erratic behaviour and questionable decision-making over the last 18 months that doesn't necessarily mean a great deal.

Well, you can call me a skeptic, a pessimist or a naysayer, but this project smacks of lunacy, or at least an Ivory Tower lack of any grasp of reality. Do these people have any idea of the distances involved? Just look at the scale in the bottom left corner of the map to the right ... Or the difficulties of building (and operating) railways through the kind of inhospitable terrain you have in Siberia, Alaska and northern Canada? Admittedly Russia does have an existing, functioning railway from Moscow through Siberia to Vladivostock on the far eastern coast, so they have proven their ability to run trains through very rough country ; but that line (in fact, two lines - there is a route south of Lake Baikal near the border with Mongolia and China and a more northerly route called the Baikal-Amur Mainline) caters for slow-moving passenger and freight trains - the requirements for running high speed rail are vastly different. Just ask the French, who have successfully been operating high speed trains for decades (the TGV, or Train à Grande Vitesse) and have built thousands of kilometres of dedicated track at huge expense.

Laying railway tracks in Siberia ... a tough job

In Alaska and Canada there is absolutely no railway infrastructure at all anywhere near the proposed route, apart from a relatively short section (about 750 kilometres) connecting the Alaskan port of Seward to Anchorage and Fairbanks - everything else will have to be built from scratch over a distance of several thousand kilometres. Not to mention the bridge over the Bering Strait, an 82 kilometre wide stretch of water and ice between Cape Dezhnev on the Chukchi Peninsula in Russia and Cape Prince of Wales in Alaska. Building a bridge across this treacherous, storm-ravaged piece of ocean would be an engineering feat like no other ever attempted.

Unless they plan to build a tunnel rather than a bridge? That idea has been mooted before - as far back as 2007 it was reported that the Russian government had approved a proposal to build a tunnel underneath the Bering Strait. Who knows what happened to that idea ... no tunnel was ever built, nor was any construction work even started. Certainly the price tag that was punted for the tunnel (65 billion US dollars) seemed a little low for a project of that magnitude. At 103 kilometres, the Bering Strait tunnel would be more than twice as long as the Channel Tunnel between England and France.

But, in my opinion, the single biggest obstacle to this grand plan is the long-term human factor - who would travel on this train? The populations of Canada and the USA do not use trains like people in Western Europe, China and Japan do. In North America the automobile is king, apart from a small area of the eastern seaboard north and south of New York. In any case, there are hardly any people in the vast open spaces of northern Canada and Alaska. And high speed or not, it would still take many days to travel from New York to Moscow by train ; it would be far simpler (and cheaper) to fly. For high speed rail to be viable you need to run lots of trains and have them all nearly full, and I cannot imagine how that would ever happen in this case.

What about freight, you ask. Well, freight would probably account for the bulk of traffic on this line, but for freight trains the complexity and expense of high speed infrastructure is completely unnecessary. It doesn't really matter whether cargo takes 3 days or 5 days to get to its destination ; it is PEOPLE who want to travel quickly, and as we have established there are hardly likely to be many of them.

I must therefore conclude that this is a crackpot scheme, one that is doomed to failure once the realities of actually doing it are properly thought through. Watch the press and see if I'm proved correct ...

  © Paul Kilfoil, Cape Town, South Africa