The Case for China’s Cross-Bering Railway
China’s rail expansion in recent years has gotten a lot of global attention. But a new proposal floated last week in a Beijing newspaper is of a different kind entirely. According reports, China is considering building a rail line to the continental U.S. via Russia, the Bering Strait, Alaska, and Canada:
China is considering plans to build a high-speed railway line to the US, the country’s official media reported on Thursday.
The proposed line would begin in north-east China and run up through Siberia, pass through a tunnel underneath the Pacific Ocean then cut through Alaska and Canada to reach the continental US, according to a report in the state-run Beijing Times newspaper.
Crossing the Bering Strait in between Russia and Alaska would require about 200km (125 miles) of undersea tunnel, the paper said, citing Wang Mengshu, a railway expert at the Chinese Academy of Engineering.
“Right now we’re already in discussions. Russia has already been thinking about this for many years,” Wang said.
The project – nicknamed the “China-Russia-Canada-America” line – would run for 13,000km, about 3,000km further than the Trans-Siberian Railway. The entire trip would take two days, with the train travelling at an average of 350km/h (220mph).
The Guardian article goes on to express some serious skepticism over this, noting that it’s basically just one “railway expert” being quoted here. I don’t think we should assume this is anything more than a concept being kicked around, at least for the time being.
The report has gotten a lot of attention, most of it negative – io9 called it “batty” – and that shouldn’t be any surprise. Building a rail line from Beijing to the heart of North America would be a massive undertaking and it wouldn’t be cheap.
But it’s not actually that far-fetched. The Guardian compared it above to the Trans-Siberian Railway, a similarly massive project built 100 years ago to connect far-flung locations across the tundra and mountains. China is no stranger to impressive railway engineering feats, with the Qinghai-Tibet Railway that recently opened being a good example of China’s desire and ability to build rail lines across harsh environments (including over permafrost) to get where they want to go.
Schemes to cross the Bering Strait have been discussed for decades. Eventually something will be built to cross the 82 kilometer wide passage, and that something will probably be a rail tunnel. Connecting East Asia to North America via a fixed link would help connect passengers as well as goods between the two regions.
Of course, such a link may not appear all that necessary right now. Container ships and airplanes currently move cargo and people between Asia and North America with ease. Why go to the trouble and massive expense of building a rail connection when those other options remain viable?
But that’s just the thing. Those options aren’t going to be viable for long. Burning fossil fuels to cross oceans is helping heat up the globe to alarming levels – and those fossil fuels becoming quite expensive even before carbon taxes are levied.
China currently burns an enormous amount of fossil fuel. But they know that’s not a long-term solution. They are very interested in building renewable energy to power their economy in the decades to come, one reason why they invested heavily in high speed rail in recent years. There will come a time, not long from now, when using airplanes and container ships to cross the ocean won’t be as viable as it is today. A railway to North America would come in quite handy at that point.
It’s not just the endpoints that matter here. In a warming climate, the Russian Far East, Alaska, and the Yukon would all become even more important than they are today. Each hold significant natural resources that China would love to have better access to in the years to come. And given the way the Rocky Mountains are angled, the cheapest and most direct route from the Bering Strait to the continental USA would go through the Canadian Prairies – right through the Alberta Tar Sands.
A link across the Bering Strait would enable Alaskan and Albertan oil to be shipped to Russia and China – and give Russian oil quicker access to North America. The trains could carry all sorts of other goods, from timber to minerals to finished products. And yeah, they can carry people, just as the Trans-Siberian Railroad still does.
Nobody should expect this project to commence anytime soon. But I would not be surprised if this report is an example of China’s long-term planning, something they’re considering when the time is right. It’s a sensible, workable idea whose time has not yet come, but for those of us who will likely live to see 2050, it’s an idea we may yet see become reality.