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More than a century of work: this tunnel to somewhere is idealistic, but possible.


It is tantalizing, that small stretch of water between Uelen, Siberia, and Wales, Alaska, with the two Diomede Islands between them, all seemingly just waiting to be connected.

The idea of connection is more than 150 years old, considered in the mid-1800s by President Abraham Lincoln and Henry C. Carey, his economic advisor, both of whom believed in the creation of a rail network crossing the Bering Strait. They were later joined in this vision by William Gilpin, first governor of the Colorado Territories, who proposed such a railroad line to be constructed linking North America and Russia across the Bering Strait. This was part of a general idea at the time to link all great cities by rail.

The idea waxed and waned over the succeeding decades, but got nowhere.

At the end of World War II, Russia's Joseph Stalin expressed an interest to President Truman in re-opening talks concerning connecting U.S. and Russian rail networks with a tunnel under the Bering Strait, but Truman wasn't interested in pursuing the project.

The idea persisted over the ensuing years with money raised for initial feasibility studies, but the problem of an insufficient technology base prevented further action. That, coupled with two world wars, political instability, and hostility between Russia and the United States, prevented the idea from gaining momentum.


The technology now exists, and the concept of a Bering Strait rail tunnel is back with the Inter-Hemispheric Bering Strait Tunnel and Railroad Group officially registered in Washington, D.C. in 1991.

In July 2006, George Koumal, president and CEO of ETI Inc., spoke with President Bush about the Bering Strait project, and a few months later, at a meeting at the Federal Agency for Railroad Transport, a decision was made to build the Yakutsk-Magadan track with its extension to the Bering Strait.

"The tunnel would extend for 68 miles, 180 feet under the water, for a cost of $65 billion," explained Anchorage Attorney Joseph Henri, member of the IBSTRG board of directors. "It will transport 3 percent of the world's total cargo." It could take up to 15 years to construct.

The tunnel would utilize Little Diomede Island and Big Diomede Island with shafts to be sunk into each island. These would connect to service tunnels below in order to provide for vehicles to get around, a place for escape in an emergency, and to accommodate drainage.

The average speed for a freight train could be 50 miles per hour, resulting in a total time of a little over an hour to complete a one-way journey. The one-track freight and passenger train would be computer-controlled.

"The tunnel," said Koumal, "could connect the Alaskan Railroad Terminal at Eielson Air Force Base, where the railroad ends, with the BC Rail in British Columbia. No definite place has been decided upon at present. A feasibility study would have to be done in order to determine the exact route. It could be Edmonton, Alberta."


The United States, he explains, "would benefit from the tunnel due to the present inability to transport bulk goods, raw materials, and commodities from Russia through Canada and into the United States. The United States would also benefit from the resources and reserves found in Russia."

Koumal believes that the tunnel and rail combination would be "a more cost effective and environmentally friendly means of transporting bulk material over great distances."

Koumal also sees the rail tunnel alleviating what he describes as the great poverty in the heartlands of China.

"How can they make money? By exporting items along the route down Russia, and then into China and both Koreas."

While he admits it could take 25 years to complete the rail/tunnel system, he believes it would provide the benefit of resulting in intercontinental travel.

"People could travel from England, across the Channel to France, then take the rail system to Russia and across the tunnel to Alaska, then east to Washington, D.C." Koumal doesn't see this causing a massive invasion of people into and across Alaska because the tunnel, he believes, "would control the access of people to the land."


Both Henri and Koumal see the proposed tunnel as pro-environmental.

"There will be no carbon emissions," explained Henri, "since the system will be that of all electric locomotive traction with wires overhead. No technology is lacking."

"With an increased use of railroads," said Koumal, "there will be a decreased dependency on autos."

The tunnel will support one train track with a passing side track every 10 miles, and sidings to get off the main line.

The authorities in Alaska have not been contacted for their opinion on the proposed tunnel. The State's new governor, Sarah Palin, has yet to be approached by railroad officials with plans for this enormous project.

Responding to questions through an aide, Gov. Palin stated that her commitment during her administration is to get a gas line built.

The tunnel, she believes, is a huge project and she hasn't been briefed on its benefits to Alaska or on how it is to be paid for.

Koumal acknowledges this, and knows that "there is lobbying that needs to be done. We are idealists without money." Several state representatives and state senators were contacted but were unavailable for comment on the proposed project.
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Title Annotation:BUILDING ALASKA
Comment:More than a century of work: this tunnel to somewhere is idealistic, but possible.(BUILDING ALASKA)
Author:Pielli, Brooke
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:Aug 1, 2007
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