The Cosmopolitan Railway

In 1893, a footnote to the Book of the [Chicago World's] Fair stated, "The connection of the railroad systems of the world by way of Bering strait is by no means the chimerical project that some would have us believe, nor one that may not ere long be accomplished".

128 years later, such a link still has yet to come to fruition, nor will it in the near future. But that isn't to say that the idea is dead, far from it, and the project is now more technically feasible than ever, even if there would be countless environmental, economic and social issues to hammer out first. 

Just five years ago, China began planning for a railway that would connect it to Russia, the United States and Canada via a 200 kilometer tunnel.

Artistic rendition of the Bering Strait Railway Tunnel. From Bering Strait Tunnel Back on World Agenda! by Rachel Douglas, 21st Century Science & Technology, Spring/Summer 2007

Since a connection between North America and Asia has been in humanity's stream of consciousness for over a century, I think it's time we discuss the history of the proposal, and its potential future in today's blog.

To start our discussion, we first begin at a city nowhere near the Bering Strait, and that is Denver, Colorado, where in 1890, governor William Gilpin penned the 396 page The Cosmopolitan Railway: Compacting and Fusing Together All the World’s Continents

Well, except South America and Australia that is, but still, in Gilpin's dream, one could board a train in New York City bound for Paris, France. The key to the entire project was a bridge over the Bering Strait. 

“Railways continue to extend themselves, soon to become a universal system over all the lands of the globe. We have seen the energies of the American people, bringing into line and into use these new powers, span their continent with the Pacific railways, as with the rapidity of lightning from a mountain loud. Availing themselves of the favorable thermal warmth upon the Plateau and upon the immediate seacoasts, bathed by the Asiatic gulf stream, they will continue to expand their work to Bering Straits, where all the continents are united. This will extend itself along similarly propitious thermal selvage of the oriental Russian coasts into China. To prolong this unbroken line of cosmopolitan railways along the latitudinal plateau of Asia, to Moscow and to London, will not have long delay.”

A poorly projected map of Gilpin's Cosmopolitan Railway showing the connections to Afro-Eurasia.

Certainly, nativist views shaped his worldview at least in some capacity, as he also stated, "The less significant and isolated continents of the southern hemisphere- South America, Africa, and Australasia- will be reached by feeders through Panama, Suez and the chain of Oriental peninsulas and islands. The whole area and all the populations of the globe will be thus united and fused by land travel and railway." So while his dream was to unite the entire world in transportation, he was far less concerned with doing so for the global south.

While Gilpin only proposed to connect the global north, other proposals filled in the gaps. When combined with the Cape-to-Cairo Railway that was proposed around the same time, Gilpin's plan would have made it theoretically possible to go from Florida to South Africa on rails. Even more grandiose plans called for a Pan-American Railway, something even President Theodore Roosevelt advocated for, "It is not impossible that, following such development, the magnificent conception of an international railroad connecting the United States with the remotest parts of South America may at last be realized.” A Pan-American Highway, composed of various routes in the Americas would be the closest thing that came into existence from this proposal. It connects Alaska to Chile, with the only missing link being the Darien Gap.

But in connecting Asia and North America, in Gilpin's proposal, Denver would have been the center of railroad activity in the world. As the decade previous had seen the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which itself followed the First Transcontinental Railroad and the Southern Pacific Railroad, there existed much optimism about how the world could be connected, and Gilpin believed Denver, Colorado was at a particularly great geographic location, further supplanted by his belief in the superiority of North American geography. 

He wasn't the only one. Journalist Julian Ralph noted that "Chicago is 1,000 miles from New York, and Denver is 1,000 miles from Chicago, and San Francisco is 1,000 miles from Denver, so that, as anyone can see…  these are to be the four great cities of America.”. Nonetheless, a growing interior United States of America would cut into Denver's growth in the early 20th century, but it was not Denver that prevented the building of a bridge or a tunnel over the Bering Strait, but rather the advent of air travel. 

Engineers of the late 19th century believed that a bridge would be more feasible that traveling through the air. “We will be running through trains in five or six years,” French engineer Loicq de Lobel said in 1902. “No more seasickness, no more dangers of wrecked liners, a fast trip in palace cars with every convenience.”

The following year, the Wright Brothers made the first heavier than air flight, and aviation was born.

Still better than Spirit Airlines.

The new technology, coupled with Russian fears of Americans gold prospecting in Siberian territory would kill any further discussion on the project in the early 20th century. But the major events of that century, namely the Two World Wars and the following Cold War would halt any mention of the project throughout most of the century.

But after the fall of the Soviet Union and improving relations between the hemispheres, particularly in the era of globalization, the idea once again gained traction late in the 20th century, and proponents keep the idea alive in at least some form to this day. Since the project is largely feasible, even if it would be an economic nightmare, the question of the Cosmopolitan Railway shouldn't be if it could be built, but rather whether it should be built. 

InterBering has proposed the above design for a Bering Strait tunnel.

While a 200km tunnel to connect the continents is technically feasible, there's still a lot more infrastructure that would need to be built just to make the rest of the project viable. In fact, because of the proximity between the Diomede Islands, there could actually be two tunnels of about 45-50km in length, that use the Diomedes as a stopover.

But building the tunnels themselves aren't really the issue; there exist longer underground tunnels in the world today. The really problematic issue is just how remote of an area the rail line would run across, and all the infrastructure that would have to be built to connect them to the networks of east Asia and North America.

For example, the Alaska Railroad does not run anywhere near the Bering Strait, and it doesn't connect to any of the other railroads in the United States or Canada, at least directly, as CN and the Alaska Railroad run aquatrains, essentially railcar ferries, to southern ports from Whittier, AK.

Image: Alaska Railroad

The closest railroads to ever exist near the Bering Strait were spectacular failures; and the Seward Peninsula Railway was still about 100 miles away. And that's the American side; the closest rail connection on the Russian side is about 1,800 miles from the Strait.

All of this infrastructure would also have to be built between a five month period in the summer, as the sun doesn't rise during the winter, and in addition, temperatures are cold enough to prevent most, if not all, human activity. 

However, with the approval of a rail line linking western Canada with the United States (approval, not actual shovels in the ground), the idea that the grandiose Bering Strait Railway project may one day come to fruition. 

Coming back to the 1893 World's Fair which mentioned the Bering Strait Railway, I'm reminded of the famous Daniel Burnham quote, "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big." 

However, as incredible as it would be to be able to take a railway trip from Chicago to, let's say, London, and given how much of a disruptor this project would be to global shipping networks, I don't think the cost could be justified, either in economic or environmental terms. There are many ways that this project could go wrong, and only a few scenarios in which I can see the cost paying for itself. The cost would easily be in the hundreds of billions of dollars, and it's not as though there aren't numerous smaller infrastructure projects in the US and ongoing maintenance that could use that kind of capital as well.

But that's only my opinion, and I would love to hear yours in the comments. If nothing else, the proposal is certainly worthy of the imagination of the world's people.

Thanks as always for reading!

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