OVER thirty years ago the possibility of an all-rail route from London to New York was seriously discussed, and as long ago as 1886 the United States Geological Survey made a report to the Senate on the feasibility of the plan to cross the Bering Straits. Recently the agitation has been renewed, and M. de Lobel, a French engineer, announces that he has secured ample backing for the construction of a tunnel between Siberia and Alaska.
From East Cape, Siberia, to Prince of Wales Cape, Alaska, is thirty-eight miles, and there are numerous small islands in the way, so that the tunneling would not be entirely submarine. The original plan as contemplated in the report of Mr. Powell for the Geological Survey was the building of a bridge, advantage being taken of these islands as resting-places for piers.
The Bering tunnel would be longer than that under the English Channel by eight miles. In the case of the latter, more than a mile of boring has already been done by a company which received a concession from the French government several years ago. The work was stopped because of the unfriendliness of the English to the project Now that the English and French are on better terms, there is an excellent prospect that the work will be begun again.
According to M. Albert Artiaux, general manager of the Northern Railway of France, there are no special difficulties connected with the digging of a Franco-English tunnel save those which result from its great length. Otherwise, he says, it would in reality be a simpler task than was the construction of the great Simplon bore, because there would be little infiltration or high temperatures.
The English Channel is underlaid with a formation impermeable to water and a hundred and forty feet thick. In a circular tunnel of fifteen or twenty feet in diameter in this stratum it is probable that the seepage of water would be no more than in an ordinary coal-mine. The time required for the construction is estimated at from five to eight years, and the cost variously from two hundred to three hundred million dollars.
Considered by itself and without reference to the Bering project, a tunnel under the channel would be immensely profitable in a short time. Anything that would rob the passage from England to France of the horrors of the trip on the Dover-Calais boat could not but be appreciated by the public of both countries.
At present the annual passenger traffic between England and the Continent amounts to not more than a million two hundred thousand - by all routes. With cheaper and quicker communication the number should climb to five or six millions in a few years. In the same way freight traffic should double and treble rapidly until the full capacity of the tunnel is reached.
As to the Bering Strait tunnel, the matter is not so simple. The cost alone, estimated conservatively at two hundred and fifty million dollars, is by no means an inducement for the investment of capital; but, coupled with the distance from civilization, the climate, and other difficulties associated with the location, the prospect is not an alluring one. According to the plans, the tunnel at its deepest point would have one hundred and ninety-two feet of water above it. Yet it is thought that the work could be done in four years.
Another difficulty connected with the Bering tunnel is the necessity of constructing long connecting links of railroad on each side. In Siberia the Trans-Siberian is thirty-eight hundred miles away, and the intervening gap is in the most barren and forbidding part of northern Asia. It is the country in which whole tribes of natives committed suicide last year in order to avoid death by starvation. On the American side twenty-three hundred miles must be covered with railroad before the Alaskan end is connected with Vancouver.
By this proposed new route the distance between New York and London would he fourteen thousand three hundred and seventeen miles, and at an average speed of fifty miles an hour - a liberal estimate - the trip would require almost exactly twelve days. London lies only six days across the Atlantic from New York now, but the victims of sea-sickness might welcome the longer way round as the shortest way home.