What Happened to China's Planned Underwater Rail Line to the US?

The massive 8,077-mile project, announced in 2014, might still be in the works.
Chris Young

Seven years ago, a report emerged that China was "in discussions" over building a high-speed rail line that would go northeast from Beijing, would run for 8,077 miles (13,000 km) through Siberia, and then travel 124 miles (200 km) underwater, crossing the Bering Strait to Alaska. 

The ambitious plan — reported on by numerous news outlets at the time — would bolster China's impressive high-speed rail network and boost trade between China, Russia, Canada, and the U.S.

Like a nighttime train passing by in the distance, however, the rumblings surrounding the project soon dissipated, and little has been heard of the plan ever since.

Stuck on the tracks: delays for $200 billion rail project

At the moment, there seem to be no immediate plans to go ahead with the rail project, which would extend past Alaska and also travel through Canada before reaching the US — the project was imaginatively nicknamed the "China-Russia-Canada-America" line at the time.

Recent reports might provide an indication as to why the project seems to be on hold. According to the South China Morning Post, the plans were heavily criticized due to their initial proposed budget of $200 billion.

Detractors have pointed out that flights and cargo ships are a cheaper option for trade and their infrastructures are already in place.

Then, there's the engineering and logistics side of the problem. The tunnel would be an unprecedented venture, approximately four times larger than the longest undersea tunnels today — the Channel Tunnel connecting the U.K. and France, and the Seikan Tunnel connecting Hokkaido and Honshu in Japan, both of which are approximately 30 miles (approx. 50 km) long.

Could the 'China-Russia-Canada-America line' still happen?

There are still some indications that the project could eventually go ahead — though relations between the U.S. and China would likely have to improve before it could happen.

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The original 2014 report claimed that China was already advanced in talks with Russia — which had been considering a line under the Bering Strait for years — to begin work on the line, with engineers from both countries confident the project was possible using current technologies.

As IFL Science points out, China approved the world's first underwater bullet train in 2018, showing that high-speed rail technology is feasible under the sea. The planned bullet train project will extend 47.8 miles (77 kilometers) from Ningbo, a port city near Shanghai, to the archipelago islands of Zhousan off the East coast. 10 miles of that route will go underwater (16.2 kilometers).

Though the Ningbo to Zhousan line is far smaller than the Channel Tunnel, it will form a test project of sorts for underwater maglev rail lines. China will likely turn towards a larger project, such as the "China-Russia-Canada-America line", if the Ningbo to Zhousan line is a success.

Rail's green credentials boost massive infrastructure projects

Plans for greener infrastructure might provide the China-Russia-Canada-America line project just the boost it needs, as governments, including those of China and the US, are likely to continue to invest heavily in rail over the coming years partly due to its green credentials.

In the U.S., for example, rail is responsible for only 2 percent of the transport sector's emissions, despite accounting for approximately 40 percent of the country's long-distance freight volume.

Numerous rail innovations, including highly efficient automated rail inspection, also mean that such a project is likely feasible from a technological standpoint.

Though plans for the China-Russia-Canada-America line do currently seem to be at a standstill, it is likely that we will one day see a line connecting Siberia and Alaska in some form or another — plans for the Channel Tunnel were delayed for over a hundred years before the tunnel first opened in 1994.

There has been no official communication on the project in recent years, meaning it may well still be in the works. We'll be sure to keep track of and inform you of the latest developments.

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