Why you should care

Because a sea between two cities can’t stop these trains.

You’d think a frequent ferry passenger (especially one who suffers from seasickness) would fancy a faster, smoother way to zip across the 50 miles between Helsinki and Tallinn, Estonia. Yet Estonian events promoter Louis Zezeran says the futuristic plans to build an underwater railway that connects these capital cities with a speedy train must surely be a joke. “It won’t ever be done,” he scoffs.

But like the little engine that could, engineers think they can — and not just those itching to burrow under the Gulf of Finland. Plenty of other places around the world have their own plans as well, including underwater rail links that would connect Gibraltar to the north of Africa, Vancouver Island to Vancouver, British Columbia, and even the southern tip of South Korea with its provincial island of Jeju (which, for the record, happens to be a dormant volcano). While similar plans exist to join Ireland with Wales, and Denmark with Germany, perhaps the most preposterous pipe dream would see a train snaking all the way from Beijing through eastern Siberia before crossing under the Bering Strait into Alaska — requiring a whopping 125 miles of tunnel, 91.5 miles more than the world’s longest tunnel today, in Japan.

Sure, some of these proposals will likely end up in the kind of scrapyard that would scare Thomas the Tank Engine straight. And they’re not exactly cheap. That “Talinksi” fixed link, for example, could ring up to $14.5 billion — something that, along with construction noise and disrupted traffic or wildlife, might be cause for taxpayers to rail against. Yet feasibility studies to test the waters for many of these plans have already been conducted, and planners of at least one — the Femern project connecting the Danish island of Lolland with Germany’s Fehmarn island — hope to break ground next year and be completed by 2024.

Many existing tunnels overcame their own bumps in the road before completion. Which means certain challenges can be met.

These ambitious projects are being driven by both environmental and economic reasons. After all, when electrically powered, a train “doesn’t suffer from the same concerns as emissions from cars,” says Andrew Potter, a logistics expert at Cardiff University who was involved with the feasibility report of an underwater rail between Wales and Ireland. And, for businesses that haul goods, a choo-choo is cheaper than a plane and faster than a ferry. Boating to Ireland from Wales takes two hours, for instance, while getting goods across by train would take around one.

Advocates behind these plans also argue that linking cities will help boost their countries’ economies. Juho Siipo, managing director of Sweco Environment, the firm that conducted the pre-feasibility study for a link between Helsinki and Tallinn, says as many as 25,000 commuters will travel between the two cities each day, up from 30,000 who travel at least once a month right now. Meanwhile, the Femern project will reduce freight congestion running through the trade corridor between Scandinavia and Malta while also attracting business investments to both Denmark and Germany, says Jens Villemoes, press officer for Femern A/S, the state-owned firm coordinating the plans.

Big building ideas, of course, can quickly cave for a variety of reasons. Christian Ingerslev, vice president of the engineering consulting firm WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff, says today’s tech can, theoretically, see tunnels go on forever. But there are still stark limitations, depending upon the ground material — rock? soft? — and the needs to transmit power, safely remove muck, meet ever-increasing safety regulations and defy water pressure that can mess with seals at depth. Gulp. No wonder experts like Potter think the 73-mile rail between Ireland and Wales would take a couple of decades to complete, while Ingerslev calls the tunnel beneath the Bering Strait “a pipe dream,” owing to the fault lines.

Even so, many of today’s existing tunnels — some of which connect England and France, Istanbul’s Asian and European shores, and Japan’s Hokkaido island with the Aomori Prefecture, which is the longest mainline rail tunnel to date, at 33.5 miles — overcame their own bumps in the road before completion. Which means certain challenges can be met. For the 8.5-mile-long Bosphorus tunnel linking the two coasts of Istanbul, for example, different types of ground materials forced engineers like Ingerslev to come up with linking solutions. He worked on the middle, immersed tunnel, which was joined at either end by rock tunnels dug with boring machines. Those were then linked to cut-and-cover tunnels used to approach the surface.

In other words, where there’s a will, there’s a way. And, today, migratory birds are tipping their beaks to the majestic wind turbines adorning the Danish coast as they fly between there and Fehmarn island and beyond. Luckily for them, the Femern rail link will ensure their views remain unmarred by a giant bridge linking Scandinavia to Europe, where an estimated $8.2 billion is likely to be poured into an underwater project that, Villemoes says, will “really bring the European community together.”

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