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ON THE HORIZON: Bohai Straight Tunnel
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Bohai Straight Tunnel

By Richard J. Cook

BT 201504 06 On the horizon undersea tunnel 2In this months edition we shift our focus from the 'under construction' to the 'conceptualization' of local/regional projects. As the rapid transport industry gets a kick and the tail of two China's becomes ever closer through infrastructure developments, we cast our eyes onto what could be a world feat of engineering. On Tianjin's doorstep is the inlet of the Bohai Sea. The Bohai Basin has lay witness to one of the most rapidly developing shipping lanes in the world. Tianjin is at the apex of this shipping lane, constituting the primary port for China's capital, Beijing. To each side of the basin is a major port facility. To the north is Dalian, an age-old geopolitical and economic door to northern China's resource rich land. To the south is the bustling consumer population of central China. The Bohai Sea itself is but a nuisance, a cut into the mainland that requires navigation via major infrastructure such as roads and rail to go around. To go around the bay will consume 1,400km and unprecedented amount of time. It is not hard to see that this is a logistical constraint for further economic development. The movement of heavy goods and materials from the natural resource rich areas in the north is vital to the vast industrial machine of China. Manufacturing metropolises around China need a way to overcome this restraint.

The proposal to overcome the Bohai Strait is to construct the largest underwater tunnel in the world, from Dalian on the Laiodong Peninsula to Yantai on the Shangdong Peninsula. The tunnel itself will be designed to facilitate high-speed rail links between the north and south of the Bohai Strait, significantly reducing the time it takes to bypass the Bohai Basin. Stretching for roughly 123km, 90km of which is submerged, the tunnel will exceed the combined lengths of the British-French Channel Tunnel and the Japanese Seikan Tunnel, highlight just how big of an undertaking this will be. This unparalleled feat is likely to take the best part of around 10 years, if not longer to complete. The cost of the project is ranged, as economic commentators and central government figures mismatch. The mean cost made by creditable observes suggests between 30 billion USD and 40 billion USD, but even these figures are questionable. Acquiring the funds for this venture has also been subject to debate. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) have been referencing financial models for raising the projects funds. BOS, basically meaning, build-operate-sell, could see a private venture pay for the project itself, if policy makers approve. Also, reviewing the English-French Channel Tunnel experience, a private/public ownership model has been suggested.

BT 201504 07 On the horizon undersea tunnel master 340x400The tunnel, once completed, will take 40 minutes to navigate and is expected to be incorporated into the east-coast rail network, stretching from as far north as Harbin, to as far south as Shenzhen. With China Railway Engineering Corporation expected to be the operators, an east-cost heavy rail network featuring this colossal structure will result in a newfound ability for Chinese raw material industry to maintain desired growth. Not only that, it will be able to expand operations considering the newfound efficiency of rail freight distribution that this project could facilitate. For the freight industry and its users, it could mean lower fuel consumption, easing of congestion on the existing east coast rail network, meaning better distribution of services for Beijing and westward networks. The Bohai Rim is one of China's most encompassing economic regions. The aforementioned shipping lanes that pass into the region symbolize this. With over 150 cities and a population of 300 million the development of this project could provide a successful long-standing investment. Concerning the potential usage, the NDRC suggest 30,000 vehicles could use the tunnel and its car carrying carriages, generating 13 billionn CNY annually. This would aid the BOT - build-operate-sell - notion when it comes to acquiring project funding. Already established is a cross straight ferry since 2007, however with the increasing size of Tianjin as an international port and regional heavyweight in terms of trade, clogging up the straight with more ferries is simply not a practical option. Surely doing such a thing would hamper the economic growth of the region. This is not the first time the idea of a Bohai Straight Tunnel has been raised. In fact, last November saw the NDRC responded to a fifth submission of a potential cross straight project. Thus, there is clear interest in this scheme from a number of economic actors.

As for an international perspective, the tunnel has been considered as a bargaining chip by China. In the summer last year, China was open to deliberation with several British firms, who had expressed interest in the construction of the tunnel. It is thought that in exchange for British firms being involved in the construction of the Bohai Straight Tunnel, the British would open the door further to the prospect of Chinese involvement in the construction of their new generation of rail infrastructure in the UK, known as HS2. Unlike their British counterparts, the Chines rail industry has significant knowledge and experience in high-speed rail construction. Thus, should the British be interested, the project may work well both ways. Not to mention that infrastructure deals between the two nations are already in existence, primarily in the energy sector.

BT 201504 08 On the horizon 1Whether you have just arrived in Tianjin or you have been here for several years, you have probably heard about this project. The fundamental question is feasibility. With the Chinese economy slowing down, realists and optimists realize the dangers of undertaking symbolic projects like the Bohai Straight Tunnel. From an engineering prospective, the tunnel is completely constructible and plenty of Chinese and international firms have displayed signs of interest for involvement. However, the willingness to truly execute the plan remains gloomy. Doing nothing soon will span long-term problems. Therefore, in 2016 it is expected that the new Five Year Plan will incorporate the Bohai Straight Tunnel as a regional priority for infrastructure development. Within the coming year, the conceptualization of this project may finally give way to the genesis of this great engineering feat.


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