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Moving Canadian products to China – by railway

Is it really so impossible to think about a rail line linking Canada with the economic hubs of Asia?

What if Canadian farmers had a choice of more than just CN and CP rail to move their grain? Imagine the opportunities our agriculture would have if we weren’t restricted because of the limited trackage to the coasts, a shortage of hopper cars, a lack of pulling power, and increasing competition from oil and other goods for rail movement.

Also ask yourself: what if our grain exports weren’t constrained by a lack of commercial and terminal capacity? Picture a scenario where our grain exports couldn’t be shut down by a strike by any of the multiple unions that have a hand in the current movement of grains, and where our grain trade was not dominated by a few large multinational companies but was truly open to multiple buyers, brokers, traders. Imagine if even farmers themselves could easily export grains overseas.

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Then ask, what if a farmer could load a producer car and have that carload of grain delivered overseas to an end-use customer without any further handling of that grain? What would agriculture and Canada’s economy look like if farmers could do all this?

Maybe, this scenario is possible. In fact, this very solution to our current transportation log-jam was first proposed in 1890! That was the year the first governor of the Colorado territory, William Gilpin, proposed linking the entire world by railroads.

Two years later, Joseph Strauss proposed building a bridge across the Bering Strait as a sort of keystone for Gilpin’s plan. Nor was Strauss a mere dreamer. Instead, he went on to design 400 bridges, including the Golden Gate Bridge, although his Bering Strait Bridge remained only a concept.

In 1905 Czar Nicholas II actually approved building a rail tunnel from Russia to Alaska, only to have his plan disrupted by the First World War. Since then, there have been numerous proposals to build a Bering Strait rail tunnel connecting the two continents.

For instance, in August 2011, the U.K. Daily Mail newspaper reported that the Russian government approved the building of a 65-mile tunnel under the strait. In 2014, the Beijing Times reported China was looking at building a 10,000-km high-speed rail link between China and the U.S. via a Bering Strait tunnel.

On October 1, 2013 the investment corporation InterBering LLC was registered in Alaska. Its goal is the connecting of Russia and Alaska via tunnel. It has created a website which not only outlines past proposals for such a tunnel, but also provides details of the area, as well as various designs for such a tunnel.

It’s an idea that keeps attracting new enthusiasts, partly because we already have the technology to build an undersea rail link. The Eurotunnel linking England to France is proof it can be done. The Bering Strait crossing would require a tunnel about twice as long but under a relatively shallow sea. The bigger problem is the many miles of desolate, frozen, arctic tundra, forests, and mountains on each side of the tunnel.

Many readers may question the risk of building this tunnel in an earthquakes-prone area, although this is a risk we work with when we expand major cities like Los Angeles and Vancouver that exist in the same earthquake zone.

The challenge of cost

Of course, the biggest drawback to such a plan is cost. Without question, the costs of construction of such a rail network would be enormous. Costs for the tunnel and a conventional double track from Yakutsk (Russia) to Fort Nelson (Canada), including the Bering Strait tunnel would be up to $134 billion, according to InterBering LLC. But let’s put that dollar amount in perspective. The cost of the Apollo missions to the moon that put a total of just 12 men on the lunar surface was about $205 billion in today’s dollars.

Or consider the fact that Forbes magazine 2015 ranking of the richest men in the world reports there are now 1,826 billionaires. In looking at the rankings, 125 of these billionaires have net worths of over $10 billion.

If each of these 125 people would invest $1 billion into the Bering Strait railroad, we would only have to find an additional $10 billion. And seriously, if you were worth only $9.0 billion rather than $10 billion would you really be that hard up?

More importantly, let’s think about the returns that could be generated by building this rail system, especially compared to the economic returns from the Apollo mission. Think of the driving force the Apollo mission was to the computer, robotics, and telecommunications industries. Now think of the possible benefits not only to farmers, but to consumers and society as a whole of a rail link between North America and Asia. Think of the economic benefit of connecting the world’s largest population and manufacturing regions with the greatest amount of untapped raw resources, commodities, and consumers. The dollar return to the remaining $9.0 billion in assets of those 125 billionaires could be many multiples of their original $1-billion investment.

Think too of the economic stimulus a project like this could provide the global economy at a time when Canada, Russia, and China are all experiencing downturns.

Think outside the box

If there’s one saying I detest more than any other, it is: “Think outside the box.” But in the case of Canada, this saying might be appropriate. We really are boxed in with oceans on three sides. We are a long way from countries that want our commodities. And we are an ocean and three mountain ranges away from the biggest manufacturing region of the world and the countries most in need of our commodities.

We require more transportation of goods than most other countries, especially by rail, yet our rail system is dominated and controlled by an oligopoly of just two non-competing companies.

In the grains sector, we have complained about handling and transportation issues since the Second World War. In response, we have had at least 10 major studies of our grain transportation system, yet the same problems remain today.

It is time to think outside of the box. We must find a new way of getting our production to export markets. We have to find a way to bypass the current non-competitive rail system, the lack of port facilities and terminal storage, and the painfully slow loading of ships. We need a way to introduce more competitiveness into the entire sector. I think the Bering Strait rail link could be it.

The rail link we need is not a high-speed passenger service. It would be a heavy steel link that would allow us to move commodities out and products including containers, fertilizer, and manufactured goods into North America.

The link we need is not a privately owned rail line or an expansion of an existing rail company but a public utility on which all rail companies could compete for movement of traffic. It would be more like our public highway system than our rail system. Or like the air travel system. No one owns the skies. Airlines have to apply for and pay for the right to use the flight ways, or in this case, the rail beds and lines.

Most importantly, we need governments pushing this project now. This project must be a public utility to benefit both producers and consumers. The economic benefits of an intercontinental rail link could be shared by everyone, not just billionaire investors or the country which starts the project first. We need government with vision and drive, willing to work closely with the U.S., China and Russia to develop this link for the benefit of all citizens and not just investors or corporate interests.

The Bering Strait link could and should be a transportation corridor for not only trains, but pipelines and utilities as well.

On September 12, 1962 President Kennedy gave one of the most passionate speeches of all time when he said: “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

Just seven years later, Armstrong walked on the moon.

Where is the “Kennedy” with the vision that we need in order to compete in a global, free trade economy? Who can inspire Canadians to tackle this link and open up the economic box Canada is trapped in? Who is willing to challenge ourselves, the U.S., China, and Russia to build this link to compete with the corporate interests dominating world trade and economies?

I have no doubt this rail link will be built in the future. The question is if it will be for the benefit of everyone, including Canadian farmers or if it will be the greatest profit grab in history by a gigantic corporate entity.

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