A record-breaking global infrastructure project could bring The Big Smoke closer to The Big Apple – via The Third Rome. It is a speculative plan, but alluring. Who hasn’t dreamed of taking a car trip around the entire world?
In short, the plan is to build a single highway that runs from London, all the way across Russia, crosses over into Alaska, and then crosses the USA, finally landing in New York City. The project would cost trillions of dollars, millions of man hours, and would cause untold bickering among its stakeholders. Would the outcome be worth it? And how would we accomplish such a monumental feat of engineering?
A physical road between the USA and the UK would be astounding. Unprecedented by orders of magnitude, the overland link connecting London, Moscow and New York could revolutionize global passenger and freight transportation. Vladimir Yakunin, President of Russian Railways and the proposer of this project stated:
“This is an inter-state, inter-civilization, project. It should be an alternative to the current model, which has caused a systemic crisis. The project should be turned into a world ‘future zone’, and it must be based on leading, not catching, technologies.”
The project is pitched as the savior of the global economy – and not without cause. The project would create tens of thousands of construction jobs across the route, and could create new cities and industries in some of the harsher regions of Eastern-Russia.
Can such a highway be built? There are serious questions regarding existing infrastructure throughout Russia, particularly throughout Siberia. The roads are said to be terrible on large portions of the existing Trans-Siberian Highway, with some sections morphing from three-lane highway to single gravel tracks, with sand, potholes, and marshland all abundant. This could make it difficult to move the construction equipment needed to build the road.
However, the Trans-Siberian Railway is a far more established and consistent route of passage, and is already “connected” to mainland Europe, though there are different track gauges to contend with. As the primary benefactor of the project, the onus would be on Russia to develop its existing infrastructure – although it may prove easier to build a new super-fast rail service alongside the slower existing railway.
The Bering Strait
The Bering Strait is the 51 miles of ocean separating Alaska from Russia. Bridging across or tunneling under the Bering Strait is not a new idea, but it’s also hard. Crossing the Strait is a linchpin to the success of the entire project. The current thinking is that it may be practical to build a series of bridges, using the Diomede Islands as a meeting point between the peninsulas.
Current plans for bridges would include a highway, at least a double railway line, and infrastructure for gas and oil pipelines across the Strait.
Amazing engineering. Proposed Bering Strait Bridge with highway, pipeline and railway pic.twitter.com/LjftnfkCnX
— mobius™ (@codename_mobius) August 31, 2013
The TKM-World Link railway is a planned 6,000km link between Siberia and Alaska. The railway would tunnel under the Bering Strait, resulting in a 100km tunnel link between the two nations. Cost estimates vary, but the project stands to cost at least $65bn.
China have also announced their equally ambitious tunnelling project from Beijing to the US, also via the Bering Strait. The proposed 13,000km route would feature a 200km tunnel between Russia and Alaska, with a trip from Beijing to New York taking just over 2 days.
Who Stands to Profit?
Given that some 9,000km+ of rail and/or highway will be situated within Russian borders, Russia stands to benefit most. The project could revitalize an the country’s ailing economy, allowing billions of dollars in trade from Europe to Asia and beyond.
Aside from providing a boost to transportation infrastructure, Russia could also use the venture to build a series of new gas and oil pipelines, crisscrossing the globe, expanding their already comprehensive natural resource network. As the Russian economy is dependent on the successes of its natural resource exports, an announcement of this magnitude makes considerable sense.
One reason to engage in a project like this would be reducing the cost of freight transport. However, it is unlikely that enough global cargo trade would shift toward a Pan-Eurasian/US rail to compensate for the phenomenal costs associated with such a project.
With the quantity of twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) now carried on a single container ship having risen from 9,310 in 2003, to over 18,270 in 2013, rail-freight cannot compete on the same scale. Even if the rail-link extended to Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzen and other Chinese manufacturing power-houses, the sheer scale of operations offered by the container ships outstrips that of a freight system – even if it involves having to sail around Singapore.
What Will Speed it up?
One way this project might come to fruition earlier is by integrating a number of social and ecological technologies into the base of its design.
Introducing series of piezoelectric plates alongside any railway would also boost the projects ecological viability, too. If the countless freighters rolling along the thousands of km of track each day were generating enough electricity to power aspects of the surrounding areas, plus their own signaling and points, it could enable the project to run with a reduced carbon footprint.
Driverless cars could provide a source of safe and efficient highway transport across Russia and beyond. We’ve already seen Google’s unmanned vehicles complete their own cross-country road-trips. Combined with rapid developments in battery capacities, we could see driverless electric vehicles traversing the super-highway in the near future.
So, Will It Happen?
If Russia wanted to make this project a reality, it could – but it would involve some serious political concessions. The Russian annexation of Crimea raised hackles in the US, and the EU isn’t keen on the saber-rattling coming from the Putin-led government. On an economic level, there would need to be big, public, and official commitments to the project before investors would come involved in this kind of project.
Super highway, or super no way? Would you drive from NYC to the UK? Or would you like a driverless car to do it for you? Let us know below!