China considering high-speed rail line through Russia to U.S. via Canada, reports claim

Steve Mertl
·National Affairs Contributor
China considering high-speed rail line through Russia to U.S. via Canada, reports claim
China considering high-speed rail line through Russia to U.S. via Canada, reports claim

That old 1940s' tune Slow Boat to China may be up for a redo if the Chinese government follows through on reported plans for a high-speed rail link to the United States via Canada.

Reports about the proposed project began surfacing earlier this month in Chinese media, exciting comment and speculation despite only vague details.

The fact the original story ran in the state run Beijing Times and was picked up by the English-languge China Daily gave the report some weight.

They reported China is considering a 13,000-kilometre route that would cross Siberia and reach North America via a 200-kilometre undersea tunnel across the Bering Strait to Alaska.

From there, the line would travel south to Vancouver, then east through Canada to the U.S. East Coast.

The trains would travel at an average speed of 350 kilometres an hour, the reports said.

"Right now we're already in discussions," Wang Mengshu, a railway expert at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, told the Beijing Times, according to a report by the Guardian's correspondent in the Chinese capital. "Russia has already been thinking about this for many years."

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China already has about 10,000 kilometres of high-speed rail lines linking regions of the country.

But the sheer scale of this project recalls the mammoth engineering feats of the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as North America's transcontinental railroads, the laying of trans-oceanic telegraph cables and the digging of the Panama Canal.

One estimate put the overall cost of the project at USD$2 trillion, with the tunnel under Bering Strait costing US$35 billion, the Vancouver Sun reported.

The tunnel would be four times longer than the Channel Tunnel linking Britain with France by rail, which celebrates its 20th anniversary of operation this year. It would also dwarf the 54-kilometre Seikan Railway Tunnel connecting the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido under the Tsugaru Strait.

China is already considering a high-speed rail tunnel linking Fujian province and Taiwan, as well as a 123-kilometre high-speed rail tunnel under the East China Sea connecting the northern coastal city of Dalian with Yantai, on the eastern coast, according to the Telegraph. Work on that is supposed to get underway as early as next year.

Experts told Russia's RIA Novosti news service the continent-hopping project is entirely feasible.

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Fyodor Soloview, an Alaska-based businessman who's been promoting an undersea tunnel linking Alaska to Russia for two decades, said it could take up to 25 years to complete the project.

Both Soloview and Hal Cooper, a rail consultant based in Kirkland, Wash., told Novosti the real challenge would be getting co-operation among the Chinese, Russian, Canadian and U.S. governments, especially given the diplomatic chill caused by the Ukraine crisis.

It's not clear from the Chinese reports whether the U.S. and Canadian governments are even in the loop about this project.

Soloview said given the time it would take to build the rail link, current rocky relations with Russia and the West should not be factored in.

"It will be a different government," he said. "It will be different people in 25 years, and it will be different people who will decide on building this connection."

The larger question would seem to be financial. China's economy has begun slowing from its break-neck pace. Will it have the future wherewithal to fund this ambitious project, as well as all the others it's considering, even with partners?