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How Feasible Is a Trans-Atlantic Tunnel, Really?

For more than a hundred years, scientists, engineers and assorted visionaries have chawed over the likelihood and complications of trans-Atlantic mass transit. It’s a compelling reverie: imagine a trip between New York City and London that clocks in less than one hour. How would that transform future generations and economies?

The project doesn’t just seem daunting. It sounds impossible, right? Turns out the technology is not the bulk of the problem anymore. Engineers are becoming more and more convinced that our current technological position and rate of advancement will support at least one of the more popular theoretical prototypes for a trans-Atlantic people mover.

The Technology

The theories haven’t been proven on anything near the scale being discussed (3,100 miles of ocean at up to 5,000 mph), but many experts are confident that the most popular of those theories – a magnetic levitation (maglev) train propelled through a submerged vacuum tube – would do the trick.

We should be clear that no maglev train yet constructed can reach the speed in question. In this trans-Atlantic maglev scenario, the additional force created by a vacuum over the expanse of the tube system is what makes the theory so attractive.

The combination of air being pumped out of the tube (the presence of the air creates drag) and the magnetically elevated train would shoot the train along at unprecedented speeds, directed by alternating magnetic polarity. The only speed limitation would be how much additional gravity, or g-force, passengers would be able to tolerate comfortably.

One proposal for the conduit involves laying a series of roughly 54,000 prefabricated tube pieces, positioned by GPS and brave divers, and secured at around 150 feet below the ocean’s surface by suspension cables attached to the ocean floor.

The pieces, composed of steel casings that sandwich a foam hull and are sealed by rubber gaskets at the joints, would need to be fitted with impeccable precision and prayer. Problematic, considering the volatility of the ocean, but not impossible.

The maglev is the proposal that oversea rail tunnel expert Frank Davidson believes should come to pass. Davidson’s firm, Technical Studies Inc. (TSI), was one of the first to promote the idea of a Channel Tunnel – the rail tunnel now linking Folkestone, Kent to Coquelles, Pas-de-Calais – and eventually won the bid to design it circa 1957.

Considering how many originally scoffed at the concept of the “Chunnel,” Davidson and his sympathizers have the potential to silence the skeptics if the trans-Atlantic tunnel dream is realized and bears fruit.

So, it appears the true feasibility of a trans-Atlantic tunnel in this day and age, at least in terms of a construction attempt, comes down to two questions…

Do I Feel Lucky Today?

A lot of things could go wrong. Let’s say, very generously, that construction of this colossal project can be completed without massive casualty and wastefulness far beyond projections. When assuming this, we should also keep in mind that no human engineering feat has ever come close to something of this magnitude. Not the Pyramids of Giza, or the Great Wall of China.

Let’s say the tunnel is built. Protection of this whopping structure from threats like focused acts of terrorism, malfunctioning submarines, large ocean-dwelling animals and seismic activity would be an ongoing battle. Many of the proposed design elements account for such possibilities, but to what degree?

Who’s Going to Foot the Bill?

Cost estimates for any trans-Atlantic mass transit project are, mildly stated, prohibitive. They range anywhere from $175 billion and $12 trillion.

Existing major tunnels such as the Chunnel and Seikan Tunnel, which lies partially beneath the seabed of the Tsugaru Strait in Japan, are not pulling their weight in profits so far. Both cost far less to construct than any proposed estimates for a trans-Atlantic tunnel. The Seikan Tunnel opened in 1988 with a construction tally of ¥538.4 billion (approximately $3.6 billion).

Operated by Groupe Eurotunnel SA (EN Paris: GET), the Channel Tunnel project cost approximately $21 billion when it opened in 1994 – 80% more than its original budget. For years, Groupe Eurotunnel was riddled with debt, placed in bankruptcy protection and restructured before finally making its first profit in 2007. And things continue looking up. Last year, the company’s consolidated revenues rose by €116 million (12%) since 2012, to €1,092 million. The company expects to see €460 million EBITDA this year and at least €500 million EBITDA by next. The Chief Executive of the Eurotunnel Group, Jacques Gounon, was quoted by the BBC News last month, saying, “For the first time in the history of Eurotunnel, we think that the situation of the group is altogether satisfactory.”

Until some major issues are sorted out with the trans-Atlantic tunnel, it appears that the possibility of living in Hoboken and working at the Tate Modern is still out of reach for the moment.

On the other hand, the draw of such an awe-inspiring project could capture the imaginations of a lot of big-name investors. Anyone still left at the negotiation table if a trans-Atlantic tunnel gets built will certainly secure their places in history. And again, a number of engineers contend it’s a matter of when, not if.

We probably won’t see many companies whose major assets are tied up in big oil getting in on the maglev train action. But financial institutions, pension funds or a company like NRG Energy Inc. (NYSE: NRG) for instance, which does have deep fossil fuel pockets but also commits to more experimental projects that affect the future of energy and transportation – like its $1.5 billion eVgo electric car charging network – could hold the trans-Atlantic ticket.

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