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Wednesday, 3 January, 2001, 17:48 GMT
Russians dream of tunnel to Alaska

By Eurasia analyst Malcolm Haslett

Russian officials have expressed new confidence over building a tunnel under the sea to link eastern Siberia and the US state of Alaska. But is it really viable?

The dream of linking the American and Eurasian land-masses at their closest point - 40 km of sea in the Bering Straits - has been around for a long time.

But the idea dropped out of sight, perhaps for obvious reasons.

The tunnel would link remote parts of Russia and Alaska
Firstly Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867. Secondly, the regions on either side of the Bering Strait are among the most remote and least-developed in their respective countries.

On the US side there are settlements along the stretch of coast facing Russia, but they are not connected with the rest of Alaska by either road or rail. The nearest main road is at Fairbanks, almost 1,000km away, and Alaska has no rail connections at all with Canada or the rest of the United States.

On the Russian side the situation is even worse. The nearest road of any sort is about 1,500km from the straits, near the city of Magadan.

The idea is bound to capture the imagination of at least some of the more romantic entrepreneurs in North America

And Magadan is remote even by Russian standards. It would take enormous investment to link the country's easternmost point with the road network or with the BAM (Baikal-Amur Magistral) railway line.

Severe weather conditions and difficult terrain - including permafrost regions, mountains and summer swamps - would make building overland links very difficult and expensive.

Add to that the normal technical and geological complications of building long tunnels and one is faced with certainly the most ambitious and expensive tunneling project ever undertaken.

Channel Tunnel
The tunnel would be longer than the one under the English Channel
At 37km, the Bering Strait is only slightly wider than the English Channel, which is 34km wide.

But the man who has been the Russia-US tunnel's most enthusiastic backer, Viktor Razbegin, director of a Transport project centre in Moscow, admits that for geological reasons the tunnel would have to be much longer than the present Channel linking France and England.

Nonetheless, he suggests, there is real enthusiasm, and potentially money, for the project on the Russian side.

But would there be any chance of winning major investment in America.

Although the region is one of the very poorest in the Russian Federation, there lie under its soil rich deposits of oil, gold and coal

The idea is bound to capture the imagination of at least some of the more romantic entrepreneurs in North America.

Yet most are likely to be put off by the sheer size of the enterprise, and severe doubts about the returns. Would the amount of traffic through such a tunnel generate revenues remotely sufficient to repay investment in it?

One Russian who may think it would is the new governor of Chukotka, Roman Abramovich.

Russian high-speed train
Russian rail links stop far short of the remote tunnel zone
The rich and ambitious oil tycoon, elected the region's MP last year, recently consolidated his influence over the sparsely-populated region - which has an adult population of less than 50,000 - by being elected governor.

He knows that although the region is one of the very poorest in the Russian Federation, rich deposits of oil, gold and coal lie under its soil.

With sufficient investment it could become, literally, a goldmine. Roman Abramovich certainly thinks so. And that may be one reason for Viktor Razbegin's confidence that the tunnel idea has a future.

The rest of the world, however, may need a lot of convincing.

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