The ultimate road/rail trip

Trans-Siberian road map

Source: CNN

It would have be the fanciful, proposed railway and superhighway connecting New York to London via the Bering Strait. With high-speed rail, I reckon that you could hurtle from one city to the other in about three days (read to the end for how I calculate that).

From the article:

At a Russian Academy of Science meeting in March, Vladimir Yakunin, the 66-year-old head of Russian Railways, unveiled detailed plans for what may seem like an impossible infrastructure project. Yakunin proposed engineers could build a high-speed railway through the entirety of Siberia, dubbed the Trans-Eurasian Belt Development (TEPR)—the final destination of which would be the mouth of an underwater tunnel crossing the Bering Strait. Highway, too, could be constructed adjacent to the tracks, effectively making ground transportation possible from Anchorage to Moscow—or for that matter, New York to Paris. Or, if we’re going to go there, Miami to Johannesburg.

“This is an inter-state, inter-civilization, project,” The Siberian Times reported Yakunin saying at the meeting. “It should be an alternative to the current [neo-liberal] model, which has caused a systemic crisis,” by which he means an economy based on investing in derivatives and stock buybacks and, in consulting engineer and infrastructure expert Dr. Hal Cooper’s words “things that are easy to do on your computer, but which don’t benefit the real world.” The idea is to instead focus on reviving economic forces that revolve around building something—and in this case a very big, maybe impossibly ambitious something—in the physical world.

Impossible? Of course not. But very, very expensive:

Of course, in order to do this, approximately 12,500 miles of road and new railway would have to be built starting at Russia’s eastern border—which would include the 520 miles between the frigid shores of Nome, Alaska, and Fairbanks, the northernmost point of the Alaskan Highway. And then there’s that 55-mile Bering Strait tunnel itself, which has been priced at somewhere between $25 billion and $50 billion. And what Dr. Hal Cooper calls the “Worldwide Railroad Network” in a 2007 report could range from between one and $1.5 trillion which, Cooper notes, “will be the equivalent of what the United States will spend in total on the Iraq War, for which there will be no measureable benefit to anyone.”

Estimated cost of the US “war on terror” through FY 2019: $5.9 trillion, or about four Worldwide Railroad Networks.

Interestingly, the idea has a long history:

Dreams of bridging the East and West across the Bering Strait have been percolating since the 19th century. Cooper told me that as early as 1846, then-Colorado territorial governor William Gilpin invested in a study to build railway up to northern Alaskan shores. And, it turns out, even decades after being ousted from office, Gilpin was still publishing plans for the “Cosmopolitan Railway” which would fuse together all continents chiefly via the Bering Strait.

The real problem is organizing the resources and manpower to get it done, which requires both political will and a population that is able and motivated to work together on difficult projects. This is becoming more rare. The last man walked on the Moon in 1972, and the Concorde supersonic flights that zipped passengers across the Atlantic in three and a half hours were discontinued in 2003.

The next question, then—which has been on the table now for 150 years—is whether anyone would be willing to invest in a project that could collectively cost trillions of dollars and whose anticipated economic yields would be a generation away.

According to back-of-the-envelope calculations by CNN, the proposed superhighway from New York to London would stretch about 12,910 miles. Assuming high-speed rail could be built along this entire length, with trains running at the average speed of the Shanghai to Beijing bullet train service (181.4 mph), then we’re talking about a rail trip of 71.2 hours, or just under three days.

If the trains could run at the top speed of the Shanghai Maglev Train, or 268 mph, then you could expect to blast from New York to London in just over 48 hours. Now, would that not be the world’s most awesome trip?

UPDATE: China is also mulling a high-speed rail project across the Bering Strait. Of course!

Full steam ahead

China bullet train countryside

This is what a serious country looks like:

China plans to build 3,200 km of new high-speed railways in 2019, with the total length expected to exceed 30,000 km, the country’s top railway operator said Wednesday.

For all the ‘Muricans reading this, that’s nearly 2,000 miles of new track – roughly the distance from Philadelphia to Phoenix – with a total of more than 18,600 miles. Incidentally, the peak year for US rail-building was 1887, when more than 13,000 miles of track were laid down.

The 3,000-plus km of high-speed railways are part of the planned development of 6,800 km of new railways for the new year as the country will keep fixed-asset investment on railway on a large scale, Lu Dongfu, general manager of the China Railway (CR), told a work conference.

6,800 km = 4,225 mi

The country saw an expanding high-speed railway network over the years, with a total length of 29,000 km by the end of 2018, accounting for more than two-thirds of the total high-speed railway in the world. China aims to build 30,000 km of high-speed railways by 2020.

China’s railways are expected to transport 3.54 billion passengers and 3.37 billion tonnes of goods this year, the general manager said.

[…]

Lu said the CR would facilitate the investigation and research of Sichuan-Tibet railway and try to start construction by the end of the third-quarter of 2019.

Never let it be said that China isn’t ambitious. I’d love to have me some high-speed rail on the Acela corridor (Boston to DC, with stops at New York and Philly) and – what the hell, as long as we’re dreaming – between New York and Los Angeles.

Imagine if the US were an advanced country and had the wherewithal to build a high-speed superconducting maglev train that could rocket people between New York and LA in under seven hours, following in the footsteps of China, Japan, and South Korea, which all operate similar systems on a much smaller scale.

Here’s my account of taking the bullet train from Guangzhou to Beijing back in 2013.