interview appears in the Oct.
19, 2001 issue of Executive Intelligence Review.
Land-Bridge to America:
From Bering Strait to Tierra del Fuego
consultant Hal B.H. Cooper, Jr. is based in Seattle. He designed the
schematic maps for priority world rail routes, published in the January
1997 EIR Special Report, "The Eurasian Land-Bridge: The 'New
Silk Road'--Locomotive For Worldwide Economic Development." Among his
current projects, Cooper is actively promoting a new
"Alaska-Canada-Lower 48" Rail Corridor, connecting via the
Bering Strait, with Eurasia. He was interviewed on Oct. 4 by Marcia Merry
Back in 1997, EIR published your maps (Figures 1 and 2),
of what ought to be world priority rail routes, in the report on the
proposal for the Eurasian Land-Bridge. Since then, a lot has happened. Now
there is talk in Washington and other capital cities, that because of
security, or because of projects long overdue, we should start moving on
infrastructure. Let's begin with the Western Hemisphere. What can you say
about the North American routes never built? What about the Alaska-Canada
Highway, the "Al-Can"?
Well, certainly, going back to early in the 20th Century, there were
proposals to build that line, and in fact, the proposals involved building
a tunnel under the Bering Strait, and connecting to the rest of the world.
But with the onset of World War I, that was stopped. Some people say
that that was one of the reasons that World War I happened, for the
specific purpose of stopping that railway development.
in more recent times—there had been some interest in World War II, but
it was shelved because of the steel shortage. And now, there is renewed
interest in building the railroad, in conjunction with a natural gas
pipeline, electric power generation, and perhaps water transport, along
the lines of the NAWAPA [North American Water and Power Alliance] project.
In other words, at the time of the Al-Can Highway—that was World War
II—would that be the same route?
Yes it would.
Is it through the Peace River Valley? Or how does it go?
No. Actually, the way it goes, is that the rail line would generally
parallel the existing Alaskan Highway. Starting from Fairbanks, it would
come down through the valley parallel to the highway through Delta
Junction and Tok Junction to a place called Alcan, at the border, to a
place called Beaver Creek, and down through Whitehorse in the Yukon
Territory in Canada, over to Watson Lake. Then, coming around in the Liard
River region, over to Fort Nelson, on the east side of the Rocky Mountains
(because, as you know, they are not so high up that far north), and then
through Edmonton, and then coming down into the United States, into North
Dakota, through the Minot and Bismarck area, into the Twin Cities
[Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota] area. And then to Chicago, where it
would, of course, all connect to the entire rest of the American rail
there would be a separate line going from a place called Teslin in the
Yukon Territory, down through Dease Lake to Prince George, British
Columbia, to Vancouver, to Seattle; and then, of course, connecting with
the West Coast rail network as well. So, there would then be direct rail
access from Alaska down to the Lower 48 states on the West Coast and in
How long would the route be from the Alaska border?
The part that has to be built, that doesn't exist now, is about 1,300
miles. The total corridor between Fairbanks and Bismarck is approximately
2,700 miles. It's over 3,000 to go to Chicago.
What about farther down in North America, down into Mexico and Central
Well, there has been a proposal advanced by a group in North Dakota,
called the Central North American Trade Development Corridor, which I
discussed in one of my earlier papers on infrastructure development for
Latin America. This would come from Minot, through Bismarck, North Dakota,
down through Pierre, South Dakota, and ultimately end up in Abilene,
Texas, and cross the border at Eagle Pass, Texas into Mexico, and then
straight to Mexico City, on the main rail line from Saltillo. That would
allow rail development down through Central America to South America, and
connect into the rail systems in South America.
As of 1990, many of the rail lines in South America were still run by the
governments. But since then, there has been there, as well as in North
America, the so-called "market reform," the privatization and
deregulation sell-off of assets.
Yes, that's correct.
What effect has that had on the potential for upgrading and getting on
Well, in some cases, good, and in some cases, not so good, depending on
who is doing it. In Mexico, of course, what has happened, is you have had
a considerable investment in rail facilities. There have been three
different companies involved in privatizations. Although the government
has had to keep its participation in those projects.
South America and Central America, there has been privatization of the
Panama Canal Railroad, and I notice in Guatemala recently, there was a
privatization. But there is a necessity of whoever is owning the
railroads, to greatly expand the infrastructure, and this is really going
to require government participation on a major scale, not on a minor
scale, as we've had.
been a tendency for governments to get out of the business, rather than
get in. And that's probably the exact opposite of what we should be
doing—and certainly from the capital investment standpoint. The
difficulty with private financing of railroads, is the fact that
typically, they are high-capital, relatively low-rate-of-return
investments, as compared with some others. As a result, making profits is
not necessarily very easy, certainly as compared with energy generation.
During the first week in October, there were hours of discussion on
Capitol Hill about the urgency, for security and infrastructure
reasons—because we don't have any redundancy—to take on capitalizing
projects. Can you tell us about the tremendous ripple effects there would
be in building rail projects?
I'm going to do that, but first I'm going to answer the security concern,
because it was on the news just 15 minutes ago, by Sen. Joseph Biden
[D-Del.]: Amtrak wants $3 billion for infrastructure upgrading. Of course,
the airlines have already gotten a $15 billion package—and Congress has
been somewhat reluctant to do that. Interestingly enough, this entire
investment of $3 billion that Amtrak is proposing, is all for the
Northeast corridor. There is nothing for the rest of the country. And this
is why there's been so much bad feeling against Amtrak, because it's been
looked at as an organization that takes care of Boston to New York to
Washington, and nothing else. If we're going to have a national system,
security included, we need to be thinking about the whole country, and not
just a small part of it. And unfortunately, that's the philosophy of the
Amtrak management. And frankly, it always has been, and it's been probably
one of the biggest impediments to us developing a sufficient national rail
system. The mentality needs to change.
let's get to the question of materials. The rebuilding of up to 70,000
miles of rail lines across this country, to double-track, or triple-track
specification, is going to require, certainly, at least $100 billion-plus
investment, and perhaps significantly more than that. There's going to be
the need for a large amount of steel, a large amount of concrete—of
course, reinforcing steel is used in concrete—a number of other metals.
What is the factor for something like steel per track-mile?
For single track-line, it's around 1,500 tons per mile. That includes some
sidings, but that's approximately what the number is. You probably have
about 2,500 tons per mile for double-track railroad.
is a need to electrify the railroads, so we don't need to import oil. And
that means we can use our domestic energy resources, including nuclear and
coal, in powering trains, and then we don't have to use oil.
is the fallacy of the transportation system that we've developed in this
country since World War II: We rely almost completely on airlines for our
intercity passenger transportation, and we rely almost entirely on trucks
for our intercity freight—certainly for the high-value commodities.
That's something that we drastically need to change.
going to be a great need for completely rebuilding and reconstituting our
entire basic industry infrastructure, including steel, aluminum, cement,
and a large number of metal and other industries that have been allowed to
languish, and, in many respects, to go down the drain—because of lack of
demand, because there has been no force to implement infrastructure
programs. It is finally beginning to be recognized nationally, that it has
to be done; and it has to be done for the whole country, and not just for
a small part of the country, for railroads. That's certainly the fallacy
think that, also, we're going to need to have governments involved from
the states. We need non-traditional private companies, that don't think
like existing railroad companies. One of the biggest impediments we have,
is the "decline and cut" mentality of railroad managements,
which very much parallels so many other businesses in this country; which
is why we've seen such economic decline, in my opinion.
"Decline and cut"?
Yes. Or, "decrease and cut." In other words, to reduce:
continuing reductions in cost, continuing reductions in service,
continuing reductions in networks. That's been the policy of railroad
managers in this country, since World War II. They've thrown away their
base-rate business—it now goes by truck; that, they should have never
You've travelled all about the world, and back and forth to Alaska, on
projects. Would you say something about the shifts you see, that could
take place politically, for people to change their thinking and revive an
orientation for the public good?
This next week, there's going to be a conference on the Alaska-Canada rail
corridor, between Fairbanks and the Lower-48 states, that will be
sponsored under the aegis of the Alaska Legislature, and several of the
businesses in the Fairbanks area.
what we really need to be thinking about is that we have to—in terms of
Alaska, there has been somewhat of a political battle up there between the
people who want economic development—and which, of course, is focussed,
at least initially, on oil and gas development—as compared to those
people who are associated with the environmental community, who don't want
there to be any economic development at all. Up until very recently, the
people involved with the environmental outlook, have been very much
predominant; and of course, that completely needs to change, because we
see the environmentalist movement, going from a very positive force to a
very negative force in the recent past. And I think especially in view of
the situation that occurred down in the Klamath River Basin in southern
Oregon this past Summer, with water.
certainly a mentality that needs to change. The fact that this effort is
being made in Alaska is a very good indicator that it is beginning to
On waterborne transportation, the fact is that only six major U.S. ports
have high security, and you have a whole system that's underfunded.
Financing has been cut to replace dams on inland channels, such as the
tributaries of the Ohio—the Monongahela. Do you want to say something on
I certainly think so. We've been fighting this battle out here in the
Pacific Northwest, where, as you are probably aware, our Seattle City
Council passed a resolution to take out the dams on the Snake River.
There's been this mentality of, let's protect the salmon, and let's forget
about the economies in these rural areas. What we've had is nothing less
than rural-cleansing. Of course, the idea about removing dams is just a
small part of that. I think we need to go completely in the other
direction. We need to get on with the building program, rather than the
"taking out" program.
Recently in Vienna was the World Rail Congress. Among many giving reports
there, was Vyacheslav Petrenko, Deputy General Director of the Russian
Ministry of Rail Transport, who spoke about—given Russia's location,
they are looking for building up their own system to handle volume between
Asia and Europe, especially north-south connections to India. Do you want
to comment about these kinds of shifts taking place?
Russia has always been a country that's relied on its railroad system.
Based on my having been in that country five times, and having kept up
with what's going on, my assessment is that that's a decision that's basic
to their economic survival. In fact, in my opinion, it's one of the
reasons that country stayed together during the last ten years—was the
fact that it has a good railroad system run by good people.
of course, is pushing for connections to India, by way of Iran and
Azerbaijan. They are also planning to greatly expand infrastructure to and
with China, and also into Korea. There have been proposals to rebuild the
railroad on Sakhalin Island, connected at both the north end, at the Tatar
Strait, and the south end, at La Perouse Strait, with the Japanese system.
are some gauge change issues that have to be dealt with. A Spanish
company, Talgo, which manufactures rail cars that are used in the Pacific
Northwest, has a system that can be used for interchanging the gauges of
the cars without having to change the wheels. That certainly helps. But I
think it would help, at some point in the future, if we all were on the
same gauge. Then it would be very suitable. But Russia has an extensive
system already that operates on its own gauge. That's certainly some
problem that can be worked around.
is really pushing to develop more extensive rail. It was announced at the
end of last year from Moscow, that they have done a feasibility study of
building the connecting rail to the Bering Strait. Their indication is
that that project is economically feasible. It would have a lot of
benefits in improving freight transport from the interior of Asia to the
interior of the United States.
The Bering Strait tunnel. What are the engineering issues, for the layman?
Well, the Bering Strait is 53 miles wide. The deepest water is about 180
feet deep. There are two islands, Big Diomede and Little Diomede, out in
the channel, which make it easier to build. The longest underwater
crossing is 22 miles. Actually, it has better soil conditions than the
English Channel, where they have already built a rail tunnel. With the
English Channel Tunnel being completed, that indicates that the project to
build a tunnel under the Bering Strait is certainly a feasible one. It
could be readily built.
Turning to some problems in the current rail system: Besides not
completing many routes, what about the fact that the lack of maintenance
and underdeveloped infrastructure, such as continuation of grade-level
crossings—where the rail and highway are on same level—causes
problems? Higher rates of accidents, and so on?
Certainly the fact that we have not properly invested in our rail system,
and in the highway systems that interface with the
railroads—specifically the grade crossings, and grade separations—has
helped create the safety problems we've had. Some people have said that
deregulation may have put too many cost pressures on railroads, and they
haven't made the investments. I know there was a concern over CSX and the
Northeast Corridor runs several years ago on that issue.
we're going to need to do, is build a large number of grade separations,
which is going to require lots of steel and concrete, and keep lots of
people employed; along with the fact, we need to double-track and
triple-track the railroads, and electrify them.
think the conference in Alaska next week is going to be very important, in
terms of what has to happen in the redevelopment of our North American
rail system. The fact that there is now a bill in Congress for $71 billion
to upgrade freight and passenger railroads, is certainly a good start. But
there has to be a real push from the Federal government to do that.
also think that we need to have some organization, other than the present
management of Amtrak, running things. We need to take a completely
growth-oriented national focus, rather than a strictly Northeast Corridor
status-quo focus. I think that there's going to be lots and lots of
also think, that we are probably seeing a period now, where we are not
ever going to see airline travel as dominant as it has been in the past.
And we also are going to need to find some way of getting trucks put on
we are going to need a magnetic levitation system network across this
country, in conjunction with the railroads, as a replacement for at least
some of the airlines service that we have in this country today. Because
it doesn't have to use oil, and we can use energy resources, including
nuclear and coal, that we already have in this country.
If you are phasing in these routes, what is the principle governing this?
I think the smartest thing that can be done with magnetic levitation, is
to build on these projects that were already proposed in the recent
solicitation by the Federal Railroad Administration, where they were
proposing projects that would go from downtowns to airports. There's one
in the Washington, D.C. area—Washington to Baltimore—one in
Pittsburgh, that I understand were recommended for funding; but those need
to go ahead, as well as other ones, in Southern California, and in
Atlanta, and so forth—that would be very good.
some respects, these are going to replace the need for expanding airports;
that's becoming increasingly difficult to do. Of course, here in Seattle,
they're going ahead with expanding their airport, with the very likely
possibility that there's not going to be the traffic there in the future.
We need to be thinking in different ways than we have in the past.
So you say, just get along with the job. Get some experience, and then
build the other lines.
Exactly. Because then it will just build on itself. I see it, for
long-distance travel across the country, as complementing, as a
replacement for at least some of the airlines service we have today.
So it would be an inter-mix, at the beginning, of upgraded, pre-existing
rail, and then, the introduction of maglev.
Exactly. I don't see maglev replacing the present rail. I see it