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Group envisions rail tunnel under Bering Strait


LONDON -- Does going from Russia to the United States by railroad sound like a pipe dream?

Perhaps, but that's the vision, or dream, of a consortium of financiers, engineers, entrepreneurs and others who have assembled into the Interhemispheric Bering Strait Tunnel & Railroad Group.

The group, incorporated in November 1991, wants to build an intercontinental railway to link the United States and Russia by -- tunneling under the Bering Strait.

Just when it seemed such dreamers might be having second thoughts -- the English Channel tunnel came close to going broke last week -- comes a new push for this undertaking. It would be, its brochure boasts, "the biggest project in history." It would cost something in the neighborhood of $40 billion.

The object is to open up the vast interiors of Siberia, eastern Russia and northern Alaska, tapping their natural resources for development.

But given the paucity of modern services in that part of the world, that too seems dicey.

It would require a 50-mile tunnel under the seabed between the Seward Peninsula of Alaska and the Chukchi Peninsula of Russia, plus an assorted 5,000 or so miles of track to meet railheads on either end.

Possible? George Koumal, 53, a Czech-born naturalized U.S. mining engineer, thinks so. Mr. Koumal, president of a firm called Engineering Technology International, which is based in Tucson, Ariz., thought up the idea in the spring of 1986.

"It was after the drop in North Slope oil prices," he said. "I looked at a map and I started to think: 'My God, this is a link between East and West if there ever was one.'

"For a while, I thought I was an original thinker," he added. What disillusioned him was a clipping from the New York Times of Oct. 25, 1906, reporting that a New Jersey company had incorporated and had raised $6 million to build just such a link.

But who is to say that Mr. Koumal's vision will not become reality? "Within my lifetime," predicted the engineer. "And I smoke."

" . . . I'm convinced it's technically feasible. I visited the site. I stood on the beach with the president of the Nome Chamber of Commerce and the mayor of Wales, a little Eskimo village of about 150 souls. You can see Russia. You can almost touch the Asian mainland with your hand."

Should the tunnel ever materialize, it would be the longest in the world, 60 to 80 miles, of which 52 miles would be under the sea bed. Mr. Koumal says the tunnel "is the least of the problems." More complicated, and expensive, is the railway construction needed.

Though in theory the line could carry passengers, the object is to haul freight. The whole intent is to open up nearly 4 million square miles for development, including vast Alaskan coal deposits and uncalculated gas, oil and mineral riches in Siberia.

So far the project has only drawn polite acknowledgment from the U.S. government and some stirrings of interest in Russia.

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