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Underwater Bullet Trains: Future of Transport or Pipe Dream?

Written by Robbie Hadley

Introduction

            The wonders of yesterday inevitably become the hassle of today. It wasn’t long ago when a plane trip was a thrill-seeker’s experience. Charles Lindberg became a global celebrity upon making his transatlantic flight, with Amelia Earhart following suit with her incredible achievements. Once they were made safe, flights were an elite luxury afforded by the very privileged few who can pay the exorbitant prices. Now, air travel is often a hassle for those who have to do it with any frequency. Business executives the world round will go to great lengths and pay any price to make an excruciating multi-hour flight slightly more bearable.

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            In the United States, this problem is exacerbated significantly where options for travel are limited to cramped and difficult flights or a multi-hour road trip. To illustrate the absurdity of this problem, the twenty-minute flight from Indianapolis to Chicago has an average round trip cost of $170 before taxes, fees, or upcharges. Want to make the drive instead? It is a bare minimum three-hour long drive with toll roads to nickel and dime you on the way through. The Amtrak train can get you there and back for only $66 dollars as long as your schedule fits one of the only three trains each week that runs the route.

For many in the US, the solution to this problem can be found by a quick look around the globe. In Japan and China, massive networks of high-speed rail make transportation between any two population centers a relative breeze. In China particularly, the government has subsidized 782 billion yuan, about 125 billion dollars, on implementing tens of thousands of kilometers of high speed rail. They are going to expand this investment by an additional 155 billion dollars in the greater Shanghai area alone in the next decade and a half. By 2035, they hope to have 70,000km of high speed rail and over 200,000km of track overall.

With this much money being poured into the industry, innovation is sure to follow. The Chinese government was proud to boast that they introduced the fastest ground transport in the world, a high-speed maglev train that can reach a top speed of 600kph, that’s 375mph. This, however, isn’t the end of their transportation ambitions. China has proposed a transatlantic high speed rail that runs underneath the Bering Strait and all the way to the continental United States.

Across the continent, India and the United Arab Emirates plan to link up underneath the ocean to make one high speed rail from Dubai to Mumbai. Although it would primarily serve to transport goods between the two major economic partners, it would also allow business elites to travel quickly between the two economic centers and avoid some of the hassles of a long haul flight.

Although underwater trains themselves aren’t exactly a new concept. We did an entire post about the Channel Tunnel that linked Great Britain with the rest of the European continent, these subnautical bullet trains are on another scale entirely.

If this sounds a bit far fetched to you, then know that you are hardly the only skeptic. Keeping in mind the incredible megaprojects that China and the UAE have already completed or made great progress on (see our posts on the Belt and Road Initiative and Three Gorges Dam for just a couple examples of this,) it is usually best to assume that they can make it a reality if they truly set their minds to it.

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The Indo-Arabian Railway

            In November of 2018, the Dubai based company National Advisor Bureau Limited casually dropped a video proposing a 2,000km high speed rail from the coastal city of Fujairah, underneath the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea, and all the way to Mumbai, India. The plan was to have a rail line, not on the seafloor, but floating as a neutrally buoyant tunnel along a path held in place by periodic pillars to avoid currents and other ocean forces moving the massive rail line too far off course.

            Despite being a bit absurd on the surface, there could actually be an enormous amount of utility in this line. Firstly, India has already started building out a high speed rail line of its own, with Mumbai at the very forefront. Construction of the Mumbai–Ahmedabad high-speed rail corridor began in 2017 and is projected to be completed by 2023, with the lines expanding across the country over the coming decades. There are even plans to install ultra high speed Mag-Lev trains. In a country where the rail networks are a vital artery for hundreds of millions of people, expanding that infrastructure to a major trading partner like the UAE could bring massive profits once the line was up and running from both travelers and exporters trying to move their goods much more quickly than other options could provide.

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            Aside from running passengers and goods on the train lines themselves, there were two other suggestions that if implemented, would also create a wellspring of cash and increase the quality of lives for millions. Firstly, the line would be accompanied by oil and natural gas pipelines. The UAE is a petrostate that has funded the majority of its megaprojects through its abundant natural resources helping fulfill the global demand for oil and natural gas. However, one of the enduring problems of these resources aside from their impact on the climate is transporting them to where they are needed. From megacarriers to continent-long pipelines, moving oil and gas has proved to be one of the largest logistical problems of the 20th and 21st centuries. 

An oil pipeline from the UAE to India would hardly crack the top ten longest in the world, stealing that tenth place from the 1200km long Nord Stream Pipeline which itself runs under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Europe. With some of these pipes supporting billions of liters of oil or gas every day, it isn’t hard to see how that could subsidize an otherwise questionably profitable rail line by giving the UAE access to Asia through this pipeline and also adding one more way around the highly contentious Strait of Hormuz which shares a border with their economic adversary, Iran, and through which much of the world’s supply of oil and natural gas must pass.

            However, this isn’t the only way that the UAE would benefit from this plan. One of the other proposals was to have a freshwater pipe along the same corridor. Water security is one of the largest existential threats to the UAE. Although many places in the world are grappling with the possible effects of climate change, the hot, arid climate of the UAE makes it one of the most vulnerable places in the entire world to a future climate disaster. The exact opposite problem plagues much of India which receives an average of 120cm of rainfall each year.

            Starting in June, the monsoon season begins and regularly floods huge swaths of the country. In the Maharashtra floods of 2005, nearly 95cm of rain was dropped on the city of Mumbai in a single 24 hour period causing devastating floods and displacing millions across the country. Although the task is not simple, the goal is. Take the extra water from India and take it to the UAE where it is dearly needed. Although it would hardly be a direct financial benefit to either country, this climate focused issue is of dire importance to the safety of hundreds of millions across both countries. All that being said, there is a certain irony in having an oil and gas pipeline right next to the freshwater pipeline that had to be installed because of the effects of oil and gas.

            So how close to coming to fruition is this plan? Unfortunately, it isn’t close at all. First of all, the National Advisor Bureau Limited is a Dubai think tank and consultant group and doesn’t seem to be in a position to build this multi billion dollar project on its own. They even said as much with a representative of the company quoted as saying:

“This is a concept. We plan to connect [the] Indian city of Mumbai with Fujairah through ultra-speed floating trains. The project aims to boost bilateral trade.”

            It doesn’t seem as if the plan has picked up any steam since neither country’s government has taken up the plan. As far as we can tell, there hasn’t been much full scale planning or feasibility studies. In all likelihood, any such study would quickly reveal the numerous pitfalls of this design. Ironically, the oil and gas pipeline is by far the most realistic part of the plan, but having it floating would be a massive environmental risk. If currents or a storm pulled it a little too far in any direction between support pillars,the line could snap and billions of liters of oil could spill directly into the ocean with no easy fix to reconnect the line or remove the pollutants.

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            Similarly, the same forces that could pull apart the oil line could do the same with a rail line. Although the environmental impact of this sort of failure wouldn’t be anywhere near as significant, the dangers to passengers and workers could be immense. If there were to be a disaster on the way, there is no help coming soon. While a plane can reroute and land in a different airport or a car can pull off on the next exit, there are no stops on the all-water route between the two countries. Other underwater routes such as the aforementioned channel tunnel mitigate this by being far underground and not in a tube within the water of the channel itself. With this plan of floating pipes anchored by a few sporadic support pillars, failure would likely spell the death of all passengers and crew on the train.

            Although the vision of drifting through the open ocean on a free floating train may be an exceptional addition to any science fiction utopia, it is unlikely to be built as currently described.

The Intercontinental Pacific Railway

            While a line between the UAE and India is more likely in the realm of science fiction, the same cannot be said for the plan to link the US and China by a direct, high speed line. This plan, despite its massive scale, has a few enormous points in its favor and just as many enormous challenges putting it at risk. Firstly, China already has experience with this sort of project, although admittedly not on the scale required.

            The Ningbo-Zhoushan railway is currently in the home stretch of its six year construction. On this line, a sixteen km stretch in the Hangzhou Bay is completely submerged. Also, as aforementioned, China already has experience laying tens of thousands of kilometers of rail from the high mountains of Tibet, to the fields of the countryside, and the busy urban sprawl. They already have faced the toughest conditions in the world and come out the other side with functioning railways. With this experience, a transpacific railway might just be the next step.

            Also, this is no pie-in-the-sky thought experiment. The Chinese Academy of Engineering, a prestigious state run school that produces many of the country’s finest domestically educated engineers, has already been set to come up with a plan and proposal to make the line work. This also means it has backing from the central government of the country which is famous for making their projects successful by any means necessary, even when others may have given up.

            In order to make this seemingly impossible dream a reality, a tentative plan has been put in place to lay 13,000 km of track across the continents. Any high speed railway would work to connect the already robust Chinese network directly to its largest trading partner, the United States. This would be done by continuing the line through Russian Siberia, across the Bering Strait into Alaska, down through British Columbia on the western edge of Canada, and into the continental United States, although the exact end point isn’t yet decided.

            The first issue with this plan isn’t an engineering problem at all. It’s diplomatic. As any meeting of the UN Security Council will show, getting the US, Russia, and China to agree on anything is a gargantuan task. That isn’t even considering the division of powers within the United States that would likely mean that approval would have to come from both state and federal governments which are also rarely on the same page. Even if all four countries came to the table, deciding the route and acquiring the land wouldn’t be easy. You can also be sure that environmental concerns would be brought up due to disturbing countless acres of natural habitat along the 13,000km route.

            However, these sorts of international partnerships are far from impossible. As previously mentioned, there are thousands of miles of oil and gas lines that have been run across some of the most contentious regions in the world. China already shares parts of a rail system with Russia as does the US with Canada. Although that Russian-American connection would be the biggest barrier, if that could be worked around, the plan might just get a go ahead. The tempting prospect of a direct route between the world’s two largest economies could be a catalyst for compromise. With the pesky political problems aside, that leaves the biggest, 83km obstacle, the Bering Strait.

            Between Russia and Alaska is the Bering Strait. This narrow passageway to the arctic is the closest point between the Asian and North American continents. At about four times the length of the channel tunnel, the cost and effort of this stretch alone could cost as much as or more than the entire rest of the line. There is also the logistical problem of the Bering Strait being exceedingly remote. There are no major transportation routes via car or train on either side of the strait, which means the track would either need to be built to that point first in hopes that the tunnel is successful or all the supplies and manpower would have to be flown in further ballooning its already massive expense. We can assume the original estimates of a 200 billion dollar price tag was a wildly conservative estimate.

            Lastly, although the lessons learned from the Channel Tunnel would be invaluable, replicating that already difficult and dangerous work in arctic temperatures with little to no access to robust medical care would mean the danger to workers would be considerably higher. Although technologically, there doesn’t seem to be anything holding it back, the logistical and diplomatic problems could be large enough to torpedo the entire project.

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The Future of Railways

            Nomatter if they are subnautical or above ground, high speed rails will almost certainly be one of the most important parts of future travel and logistics. As the whole world grapples with the effects of climate change, rail offers a way to use green energy to move the masses around very efficiently. In the 19th century, the United States became united with a rail that stretched from one end of the continent to the other as did Russia soon after. China now has some of the world’s fastest and most robust mass transit by adding rail in nearly every corner of their expanding country.

            Will these rails eventually dive under the waves? Almost certainly, just not in the way that these two projects would hope to achieve. Shorter tunnels like the Channel Tunnel or the Ningbo-Zhoushan Railway have proven that underwater tracks are not just possible, but achievable and sustainable in the right circumstances and with the right demand.

            As our world becomes more and more globalized, we will have to adapt and meet this globalization with easier and faster ways of moving from place to place. Maybe one day you’ll be able to look out the passenger window into the murky depths as you zip by at 300kph, just as bored as an exhausted executive on a New York to London flight.

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