China’s underwater train: Pipe dream or reality?
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China’s underwater train: Pipe dream or reality?

By Frankie Youd 21 Sep 2021

At present China has one of the most expansive high-speed rail networks on earth and it isn’t showing any sign of slowing down. According to reports, China is wanting to build a 13,000km high-speed railway line which would travel from mainland China, through Siberia and Eastern Russia and then under the sea to Alaska. Although the impressive China-Russia-Canada-American underwater bullet train line is on hold for now, we investigate whether this could be a possibility in the future and if it is more than an underwater pipe dream.

China’s underwater train: Pipe dream or reality?
China is wanting to build a 13,000km high-speed railway line which would travel from mainland China, through Siberia and Eastern Russia and then under the sea to Alaska. Credit: Nothing Ahead.

Technological developments have seen the transport industry introduce many new, impressive fuel types, touchless technology, robot helpers and autonomous vehicles. However, China is wanting to take that one step further by constructing a 13,000km high-speed underwater railway line, with the line starting in mainland China, running through Siberia, passing under the sea (200km) through the Bering Strait into Alaska and then continuing to Canada, then finally the US.

Although this may sound farfetched, underwater railway lines are not too far flung into the future with Japan having its own underwater railway line currently running today named the Seikan railway.

Japan’s 53.85km railway tunnel connects Honshu Island and the Hokkaido Island via track which is located 140m below the seabed. At present the Seikan tunnel is the world’s deepest and longest railway tunnel with approximately 23.3km of the tunnel being located under the seabed making it the world’s longest undersea tunnel.

If Japan is able to achieve this impressive underwater train experience, what is standing in the way for China to achieve theirs?

With flight duration from Russia to the United States lasting on average over ten hours, the introduction of the underwater bullet train would enable passengers to travel between the US and Russia in as little as 20 minutes.

Plans for this design were first brought forward in 2014, with reports claiming that China was in advanced talks with Russia who had been discussing construction of a railway line under the Bering Strait for years. The ambitious plan received a great deal of media coverage at the time, with many reporting that it would boost trade links between China, Russia, Canada, and the US.

However, after the initial announcement and excitement not much more was heard about the project with no plans being put in place for construction commencement. Recent reports seen within the South China Morning Post see the plans being heavily criticized due to the budget proposal of $200bn.

That being said, there are still indications that China’s underwater rail project may still go ahead due to China approving the world’s first underwater bullet train in 2018 with aims to demonstrate that high-speed railways are feasible under the sea.

The planned bullet train project will cover 77km from Ningbo to the archipelago islands of Zhousan which will see 16.2km of the route being underwater. Although this route is considerably smaller than the China-Russia-Canada-American line route, if successful this project will likely see China turning towards their larger goal. However, since the announcement of this project in 2018 media coverage and further information has ceased being released.

 

The technicalities

It goes without saying that the construction of this project would be one of great challenge paired with the sky-high costs and – arguably most important – dynamic political relations between the US, Russia, and China.

Experts have noted that the most challenging element of the project would be constructing the crossover at the Bering Strait, due to this section seeing the underwater tunnel being the longest in the world – extending for over 103km. This construction is expected to take between 12-15 years at an estimated $35bn just for the underwater link.

To connect the land to the sea new infrastructure will need to be laid out due to the closest terminus being 3,000km into Russia while in Alaska the project is expected to need over 1,200km of new railway line. To develop the missing infrastructure to connect the project it has been estimated that over $200bn will be needed which according to critics is out of proportion.

Willis Rooney, economist at GlobalData comments on the economic feasibility of the project: “I can’t see much evidence of intention to develop this project from any official sources, only an announcement by someone at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, who may have now passed away. It seems like it could be more a pipedream than an actual project.”

“These ambitious multinational projects tend to struggle to get off the ground, with differing national priorities and demands hampering the progress of development.”

“If it was to proceed though I believe that would be incredibly unlikely. The project cost would be a significant hindrance to its feasibility, particularly given the growing public debt levels at Chinese SOEs, which are likely to discourage investment in more fanciful projects such as this.” Rooney says.

“Geopolitical tensions are another likely stumbling block. These ambitious multinational projects tend to struggle to get off the ground, with differing national priorities and demands hampering the progress of development.”

As impressive as it sounds, the project appears to be on hold for now with critics continuing to slam the proposal for being ‘economically redundant’, saying that flying and cargo ships are cheaper and more efficient options for trade due to the proposed project being too complex. However, as technology advances and infrastructure develops, the China-Russia-Canada-American line could one day be more than an underwater pipe dream.