There has been much strident rhetoric in recent years regarding a Bering Strait Crossing and Intercontinental Railway System. I first proposed such a system in 1995 for several reasons. At the time, I was unaware that this idea had first been explored over a century before. Since 1995, I have refined my proposal into a project that is more realistic and within the realm of possibility.
Crossing the Bering Strait and building an Intercontinental Railway System is by no means a simple or easy task. Nothing good in life is! The pros and cons of any large project are usually "six of one and a half a dozen of the other", as the saying goes. There is the indisputable fact that climate in the Arctic and Bering Strait area is inhospitable most of the time and construction of a project of this magnitude would be difficult. Furthermore, the fact that Russia and Alaska are moving toward each other at about 16.5 mm per year, and that we are dealing with a seismically active region, presents a unique set of problems. In addition there are the complicated geopolitical problems and the very serious environmental concerns. And then the final question we must address: What useful purpose does such a project serve?
My proposal for this engineering feat is unique to the Bering Strait Crossing. The Bering Strait is about 84 kilometers wide at the closet points between Alaska and eastern Russia. This shortest path is within about 2 kilometers of Ratmanova (Big Diomede) Island, on the north side. The water is somewhat shallow there. I have proposed building an extension to the Diomedes, which would connect the two islands, and extending peninsulas east and west, using rock, crushed stone and sand extracted from cutting and boring through mountain ranges for the Arctic rail lines. Furthermore, peninsulas would also be built from the coasts of Russia and Alaska. There would be two 8-kilometer channels between the manmade peninsulas in the Bering Strait in this proposal. Prefabricated tunnel sections, about 8 kilometers long each, would be placed in blasted, dredged and leveled trenches in the channels on the sea floor. The maximum depth along this rail tunnel path is approximately 60 meters. This design would accommodate "continental drift" plate tectonic and seismic movement. The remaining tunnel sections would be sloped at 0.5% (1 meter vertical rise per 200 meter horizontal run) and fabricated onsite, a preferred slope for locomotive efficiency. This would be a more reliable and shorter tunnel system than a bored tunnel, such as the Chunnel. (For further reading and detail on the proposal, please visit this website).
The prefabricated tunnel design could be either an arch-shaped reinforced concrete structure or a corrosion-resistant steel alloy pipe-shaped structure. The cylindrical steel or pipe-shaped structure may be a preferred design, due to its higher structural integrity and relative ease of construction. "Pillow-block" type pedestals could be incorporated with the cylindrical design to provide a stable footing for the tunnel sections. It could be fabricated in a similar manner as submarine hulls. Several identical cylindrical segments could be welded together, end-to-end, and end caps temporarily attached till the sections are floated, towed, temporarily flooded and lowered into the channel trenches. After this procedure is completed, cofferdams would be built at the ends of the tunnel sections and reinforced concrete seawalls built. Then parallel manmade peninsulas (dikes) would be extended to the seawalls, the water pumped out and the sloped tunnel sections built onsite. Slip, or "telescoping" joints could be incorporated in the design where the prefabricated tunnel sections intersect the seawalls. This would allow for plate tectonic and seismic movement without damaging the tunnel system. This is not possible with bored tunnels. Furthermore, bored tunnels would have to go very deep below the ocean floor in order to achieve structural integrity. The design that I am proposing would allow for several emergency and maintenance access shafts along the tunnel route. The furthest access shaft would be within four kilometers walking distance from the middle of the tunnels under the eight kilometer wide channels and much closer on the peninsula sections. This is also not possible with bored tunnels.
In my original 1995 proposal I considered maglev trains. For reasons discussed in further detail on my website, I considered another option: the QUADRAIL TRAIN. This train would ride on two standard gauge tracks that would have common ties that tied all four rails together and maintained accurate spacing between the track pairs (15 to 16 feet center-to-center), as well as maintain accurate spacing between the standard gauge track rails. Conventional standard gauge trains could run on the same tracks as well. The QUADRAIL TRAIN would be 2.5 to 2.6 times wider than a standard gauge train, enjoy a lower center-of-gravity, higher speed capability and larger passenger or freight capacity. The QUADRAIL freight train could haul three rows of containers rather than one row in the standard gauge train, about three times the petroleum per tanker car, and side-load automobiles on auto carrier railcars for rapid loading and unloading. QUADRAIL passenger cars would be much roomier and more comfortable than its standard gauge passenger train counterpart. The QUADRAIL passenger train would be a smooth-riding pleasurable experience!
The track gauge in Russia is 60 inches. In the United States, Canada and China it is 56.5 inches. This presents a problem. One possible solution is to make trains with variable width wheel spacing using a spline axle configuration. As I recall, Spain has a system like this to run trains on differing track gauges. Another method is to run an extra rail per track. If the QUADRAIL system were ever successfully developed and tested, it may be better to simply run new QUADRAIL tracks through Russia. This way, standard gauge trains could run from Europe and China through Russia, as well from the United States and Canada.
There are a couple of "buzz-words" in the United States media, academia and government that really trouble me. They are: "Post-industrial society" and "Post-modern society." Somehow these institutions view "industrial" and "modern" as evil. Most of the cities where industries used to be located in America are now poverty-stricken ghettos. "Post modern" implies headed toward the "Dark Ages," as in "No electricity and transportation." From my observations of the environmentalist movement, I have concluded that it value nature above human life. The truth is that humans cannot survive on this planet without methods of keeping warm in the winter, protecting themselves from predators, methods of farming and manufacturing. As a society disregards these fundamental truths it goes into decay and ruin.
Building rail lines that connect nearly the entire world by crossing the Bering Strait would provide a transportation system that could move people and freight quickly and efficiently where needed. Gradually the entire system could be electrified and powered by hydroelectric and nuclear powered generating stations, thus dramatically reducing petroleum consumption worldwide. The United States, Russia and other nations could open modern industries for manufacturing quality goods in a pollution-free manner. A case in point: Ten percent of the gasoline I buy at the pump here in the United States is ethanol. It is made from corn or grain. That is wasted food! If a country, like Russia, provided that ten percent in petroleum form, then the enormous amount of corn and grain currently being used to make ethanol would be available as food for Russians. The farmers would still grow the crops but they would now be used for food rather than fuel.
Today an enormous quantity of petroleum is used for powering cargo ships and tankers crossing the Pacific. If electrified rail lines were run from the Americas to Russia and Asia, then that huge quantity of petroleum could be saved by replacing the energy source with hydroelectric and nuclear power stations. If that statement does not interest the environmentalists, then this one may: "The Exxon Valdez!"
Russians and Americans have more in common than our differences. We have both experienced horrific terror attacks. We have common enemies. I hope that the United States can soon nominate and elect people to run this country who have our interests and concerns in mind, truly representing "We the people." I hope that Russia and the United States can in the future work together to stop nuclear proliferation and terrorism. Then we could work together to build projects like the Bering Strait Crossing and Intercontinental Railway System. It would bring to fruition a new era where we can live in peace and freedom from fear.
William Simpson is an entrepreneur and a licensed master electrician with a degree in electrical engineering. He worked at a nuclear power station project for a major engineering construction firm prior to serving in the United States military.