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RailNews: Russia ready to build 40bn tunnel link to America

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Russia ready to build 40bn tunnel link to America
 
FROM GILES WHITTELL IN MOSCOW
 
IT would cost 40 billion, take 20 years to complete and even then would link only two of the world’s most remote places. Yet a tunnel between Russia and America under the Bering Strait can and will be built, according to a senior Moscow official.

Emboldened by the new millennium, the man in charge of modernising Russia’s vast but creaking infrastructure has said that the construction of a 60-mile tunnel under the international dateline from eastern Chukotka to western Alaska is only a matter of time. The money, he insists, is available.

The tunnel would be the biggest project of its kind. At the windswept point where they appear on most maps to kiss, the Russian and American mainlands are separated by only 23 miles of water and their furthest outposts, the Diomede Islands, by three. An international feasibility study concluded, however, that to be safe a tunnel joining them would have to be more than twice as long.

The study is ready to go before the World Bank and the US and Russian Governments with a draft agreement on how to take the project forward, Viktor Razbegin, director of Moscow’s Centre for Regional Transport Projects, said.

Mr Razbegin has been Russia’s chief promoter of a Bering tunnel for the past six years, during which the economic crisis has ruled out the super-projects for which the Soviet Union was famous. There was also a little local difficulty: the nearest road to the Russian side of the Strait is 1,000 miles away at Magadan, a former transit point for prisoners en route to Stalin’s harshest labour camps.

On the American side a road would have to be built from Fairbanks in the face of objections from environmentalists. For a rail tunnel, the nearest North American mainline station is at Prince George, British Columbia, 1,200 miles away. After a year of healthy oil and gas exports, however, Russia has record hard currency reserves and is keen to open up its frontiers for more mineral extraction.

Similar factors have attracted initial funding, much of it from Japan, for a shorter but still ambitious tunnel linking Hokkaido and the Russian mainland via Sakhalin. Construction of the Sakhalin tunnel is due to begin this year.

Russians have been obsessed with finding their own land routes to the New World, however long and arduous, ever since Peter the Great sent Captain Vitus Bering of the Imperial Russian Navy to discover what lay at the easternmost reaches of his continent in 1725.

From 1917 to 1991 the Diomede Islands were home only to birds of passage and nervous frontier troops. Since then Alaskan businessmen have tried to establish links with destitute Chukotka, but have largely failed. Maybe all they need is a tunnel.

 

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