Transatlantic Tunnel

A transatlantic tunnel is a theoretical tunnel that would span the Atlantic Ocean between North America and Europe possibly for such purposes as mass transit. Many variations of the concept exist, including a tube above the seabed, a tunnel beneath the ocean floor, or some combination of the two.

Some proposals envision technologically advanced trains reaching speeds of 500 to 8,000 km/h (310 to 5,000 mph). The main barriers to constructing such a tunnel are cost with estimates of between $175 billion to $12 trillion as well as the limits of current materials science. Additionally, existing major tunnels, such as the Channel Tunnel and Seikan Tunnel in Japan, despite using less expensive technology than any yet proposed for the transatlantic tunnel, struggle financially.

A 1960s proposal has a 3,100 miles (5,000 km)-long near-vacuum tube with vactrains, a theoretical type of maglev train, which could travel at speeds up to 5,000 miles per hour (8,000 km/h). At this speed, the travel-time between New York City and London would be less than one hour. A more recent variation, intended to reduce costs, is a submerged floating tunnel about 160 feet (49 m) below the ocean surface, in order to avoid ships, bad weather, and the high pressure associated with a much deeper tunnel near the seabed. It would consist of 54,000 prefabricated sections held in place by 100,000 tethering cables. Each section would consist of a layer of foam sandwiched between concentric steel tubes, and the tunnel would also have reduced air pressure.

The cables would be anchored to the seafloor, and would have room to sway if a submerged object such as a submarine were to hit the tunnel. If a breach were to occur somewhere along the tunnel, the breached section could be isolated by titanium pressure-lock doors. If such a breach were to occur behind a train travelling in the tunnel, the train would be travelling faster than any incoming water, and could therefore escape the breached section before the doors needed to be closed. If, on the other hand, a breach were to occur in front of a fast-moving train, it might not have enough time to slow down to avoid hitting the incoming water or the isolating doors, thus resulting in a major crash (at up to 5,000 mph), probably destroying several sections of the tunnel.

Ideas proposing rocket, jet, scramjet, and air-pressurized tunnels for train transportation have also been put forward. In a proposal described on an episode of the Discovery Channel’s ‘Extreme Engineering,’ trains would take 18 minutes to reach top speed, and 18 minutes at the end to come to a halt. During the deceleration phase, the resultant 0.2g acceleration would lead to an unpleasant feeling of tilting downward, and it was proposed that the seats would individually rotate to face backwards at the midpoint of the journey, in order to make the deceleration more tolerable. However, spinning chairs would also cut down considerably on passenger capacity, and would also be expensive, therefore raising the cost per ticket to a much higher level.

Suggestions for such a structure go back to Michel Verne, son of Jules Verne, who wrote about it in 1888 in a story entitled ‘Un Express de l’avenir’ (‘An Express of the Future’). This story was published in English in ‘Strand Magazine’ in 1895, where it was incorrectly attributed to Jules Verne, a mistake frequently repeated today. In 1913, the novel ‘Der Tunnel’ was published by German author Bernhard Kellermann. It inspired four films of the same name: one in 1914 by William Wauer, and separate German, French, and British versions released in 1933 and 1935. The German and French versions were by Curtis Bernhardt, and the British one was written in part by science fiction writer Curt Siodmak. Perhaps suggesting contemporary interest in the topic, an original poster for the American release of the British version (renamed ‘Transatlantic Tunnel’) was, in 2006, estimated for auction at $2,000–3,000.

Robert H. Goddard, the father of modern rocketry, was issued two of his 214 patents for the idea. Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke mentions intercontinental tunnels in his 1956 novel ‘The City and the Stars.’ Novelist Harry Harrison’s 1975 ‘Tunnel Through the Deeps’ (also published as ‘A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!’) describes a vacuum/maglev system on the ocean floor. A 2004 issue of ‘Popular Science’ claimed that a transatlantic tunnel is more feasible than previously thought, and without major engineering challenges. It compares it favorably with laying transatlantic pipes and cables, but with a cost of 88 to 175 billion dollars.

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