Roman Mars [00:00:02] Reboot your credit card with Apple Card. Apple Card is the credit card created by Apple. It gives you unlimited cash back every day on every purchase–up to 3%. And you can use that cash right away. No waiting and waiting for rewards. Just daily cash you can use right away on anything. Apply now in the wallet app on your iPhone and start using it right away. Subject to credit approval, daily cash is available via an apple cash card or as a statement credit. See Apple Card Customer Agreement for terms and conditions. Apple Cash Card is issued by Green Dot Bank Number FDIC. Squarespace is the all-in-one platform for building your brand and growing your business online. Nothing is too niche for Squarespace, so you can share your thing, whatever it may be. Squarespace’s insight can help you grow your business. You can even build a marketing strategy based on your top keywords or most popular products and content thanks to Squarespace Analytics. With Squarespace email campaigns, you’ll stand out in any inbox. Start with an email template and customize it by applying your brand ingredients like your site colors and your logo. Head to squarespace.com/invisible for a free trial. And when you’re ready to launch, use the promo code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. Earlier this year Kurt Kohlstedt produced an episode about trains, only trains, and nothing but trains, featuring strange and amazing rail cars and routes from around the world. But he ran into a little bit of a problem.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:01:41] Fortunately, it was the good kind of problem. I had way too many train stories for a single episode–and not just my ideas but also ideas sent in by fans.
Roman Mars [00:01:51] And it was pretty clear from all the tweets and emails that you beautiful nerds would be down for a second round of train stories. So, here it is. Train Set: Track Two. All aboard.
Conductor [00:02:09] Greetings, passengers. This is your conductor speaking. Our first stop today will be Wellington, New Zealand.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:02:18] This story starts not with a train but with a photo of the train. When I was working on our previous episode about trains, I found this wonderful picture of this cable car in Wellington, and I decided to use it as a lead image on our website when we released that episode.
Roman Mars [00:02:33] Yes, I remember that one. It’s this really lovely shot. It’s a red funicular, climbing up a hill in a city with mountains in the background. You know, the funny thing was, we didn’t actually talk about that funicular, did we?
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:02:45] No. No, we didn’t. I was just looking for, you know, the ultimate train picture. Plus, I figured it’s a funicular–that’s something you would enjoy.
Roman Mars [00:02:54] Yeah, of course.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:02:55] You know who didn’t enjoy it? New Zealanders. They were very polite about it, but it was clear that seeing an image had gotten more than a few Wellingtonians excited about their city being featured on the show. So, I started chatting with a friend who lives in Wellington and, well, I’ll just let her set the scene.
Pepper Raccoon [00:03:12] One of the first things you notice when you move to Wellington is these funny little rails going up the hill as you drive along, and you’re like, “What the heck is that? Is that an elevator?”
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:03:22] That’s my friend and de facto New Zealand correspondent, Pepper.
Pepper Raccoon [00:03:25] I’m Pepper Raccoon and I’m an artist from Wellington, New Zealand.
Roman Mars [00:03:29] Her name is “Pepper Raccoon?” That is outstanding. I can see why you guys hit it off.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:03:34] And those rails that she’s talking about–they’re not just for that one main cable car. There are a bunch of smaller, private trains around the city, too.
Pepper Raccoon [00:03:43] I think, honestly, Wellington is the best place to come for a tour of the best funiculars. Yeah, it’s a smorgasbord, really. There are so many different ones, and they all look completely different.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:03:53] And she explained to me that there are actually hundreds of local funiculars in Wellington.
Pepper Raccoon [00:03:58] They range from, like, a fiberglass bucket on a single rail to, like, effectively a beautiful, little room elevator that mimics the style of your home on a dual rail that gives it a much smoother and stabler ride.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:04:11] Whoa.
Pepper Raccoon [00:04:12] Yeah, you can go real fancy.
Roman Mars [00:04:15] So, Wellington is now becoming the first city of my heart because it has tons of funiculars, which–as we all know–are the greatest form of transportation.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:04:22] Oh, yes.
Roman Mars [00:04:22] But the question still remains: Why are there so many funiculars in Wellington?
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:04:27] Right. It’s not so much that the city itself–as a public entity–needs them. It’s that all of these homeowners do because Wellington is this small coastal city that’s crammed in between the water and all of these craggy hills.
Pepper Raccoon [00:04:40] In terms of the topography, it’s just a nightmare of, like, crumbling cliffs. So, it makes sense that we ran out of space. And so, houses kind of ended up on cliffs and on very steep hills. Yeah, it’s good. It’s also an insane place, though, because of the topography. So, a lot of things don’t make sense here. Or rather they make sense here but sound weird to everybody else.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:05:04] And so, Wellington is actually one of the most densely populated cities in New Zealand because there’s so little flat land to build on–and people have decided to move up and out of the densely packed city and live on these steep slopes, which otherwise might not get built on. And this approach has upsides, and it has downsides.
Pepper Raccoon [00:05:21] So, those homes on the coast have incredible views. But unfortunately, moving into them means you have to hire a helicopter. So, heaven forbid you buy a new sofa. I couldn’t imagine buying new furniture after having moved in and being like, “Well, I guess we have to call the helicopter again.” Like, that sucks.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:05:39] But because most people, of course, can’t hire a helicopter every time they want to go to the supermarket…
Pepper Raccoon [00:05:44] And the only way to get up to some of those houses was a set of stairs, if you’re lucky. And for some houses it’s literally just the funicular.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:05:52] So, you could get stuck there. Your funicular can break down, and you can just not be able to go anywhere.
Pepper Raccoon [00:05:57] And they do! Yeah. And they do break down. And they can be dangerous. Someone did die due to a funicular-related accident before there was regulations around them. And so, the government had to institute a warrant of fitness on funiculars. But it’s really expensive when the maintenance costs are so expensive, and you have to keep the piles, you know, stable, and hire inspectors, and all that stuff.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:06:25] And so, that cost becomes a pretty big deal because these trains aren’t being run by the city. They’re owned, operated, and maintained by individuals or small groups of homeowners.
Pepper Raccoon [00:06:34] Some people have teamed up, so there’ll be three or four houses on the same funicular track, and so you just share it. And that seems really sensible.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:06:43] And so, a lot of people don’t get fancy with their funiculars either. They just need something to get them to and from home safely–something they can afford. But even the safety part is a little bit optional.
Pepper Raccoon [00:06:55] New Zealanders also have this really dangerous and kind of entertaining–seems whimsical but also kind of terrible–philosophy called “She’ll be right,” which is “Just build something. Don’t worry too much about it. She’ll be right. It’s fine.” And unfortunately, I think a lot of the funiculars that existed before the war in fitness might have been on that kind of spectrum.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:07:17] Because it’s all funiculars and games until someone gets hurt. But, despite them being janky and unpredictable, she absolutely wants to ride on a private funicular.
Pepper Raccoon [00:07:27] Okay, I’ve been on a cable car. I have never been on a personal funicular. And the one person that I talked to that was willing to let me ride on their funicular–their funicular was broken, which I have been told is very common.
Conductor [00:07:51] Next stop will be Goat Canyon, California. Please be advised that the track beyond this point is abandoned.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:08:01] Goat Canyon is situated in a beautiful stretch of desert east of San Diego, California. And it’s a great place to ride the rails.
Roman Mars [00:08:27] Okay. So, what am I looking at here?
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:08:31] Basically, like, a really low-tech go-cart that runs on rails instead of roads. So, it’s this barebones plywood platform with four wheels attached, and a couple of bucket seats, and a motor, and–beyond that–just a cooler strapped between them for beers, and sandwiches, and whatnot. And in this particular video, you’ve got two brothers who are out there–one who built the thing and one who’s recording their adventure. And they’re just taking to these abandoned rails.
Brother [00:08:56] I cannot believe we’re doing this.
Roman Mars [00:09:02] So, clearly this is an abandoned set of tracks. So, where are they going?
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:09:05] They’re heading up to see the Goat Canyon Trestle Bridge, which was built nearly 100 years ago. And it’s the largest wooden trestle bridge in the world.
Brother [00:09:13] Largest curved, wood trestle.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:09:20] So, it’s this massive and daunting structure that’s around 750 feet long and 200 feet high.
Roman Mars [00:09:27] But, like, if you’re on rails, and you’re going 20 miles an hour, and it’s an abandoned track, and maybe some other daredevil is also going 20 miles an hour hopefully in the same direction–maybe not in the same direction–I mean, like, what happens?
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:09:46] Right. So, the good thing is these carts don’t weigh a lot. So, they don’t have a ton of mass, which means they can stop relatively quickly if you see an obstacle. Plus, people who regularly ride these stretches–they know more or less what to expect. People like Gabe Emerson, a tinkerer from Alaska who has built a few rail carts over the years.
Gabe Emerson [00:10:05] In this video, I’m going to try to make a railroad speeder or homemade rail cart. Now, I’ve had a couple of these in the past. If you’ve seen my prior videos, you may have seen the horrible antique metal one, and you’ve probably seen my horrible plastic one that kept derailing constantly. My hope here is to make one that actually stays on the track and that I can take out to some abandoned railroads for a bit of fun.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:10:28] And true to the title of this video channel, Saveitforparts, Gabe is using pieces he’s recycling from these previous builds–like a pedal powered rail bike that he built and a speeder that was kind of like this one. But this time, he added a new motor and a gas pedal. And of course, he doesn’t need a steering wheel because it’s on train tracks with no turns. And in the end, this creation works more or less.
Gabe Emerson [00:10:53] My chain keeps jumping off. I need, like, a tensioner or something on here. I actually lost a nut from my finely, finely engineered gearing system. So, that’s why the chain keeps popping off. Oh, geez. Here come the Parkies.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:11:07] So, what he’s referring to here are these park cops who happen to be passing by. And apparently driving a little, weird DIY vehicle at slow speeds down an abandoned set of railroad tracks isn’t something they’re used to ticketing. In any case, after that, Gabe reflected on his work and called it a day.
Gabe Emerson [00:11:26] This thing may not be fast, but at least it’s ugly.
Roman Mars [00:11:29] Are you allowed to do that?
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:11:30] Oh, no. No, definitely not. In general, yeah, no. But there are some legal DIY rail-riding options for people who want to, you know, stay above board or just don’t want to build their own carts.
Roman Mars [00:11:43] Okay, so, like what?
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:11:44] Well, there’s this place up in Northern California, for example, near Fort Bragg called Rail Bikes. And they rent out four-wheeled, two-seat vehicles that use a combination of electricity and pedal power. For a long time, there was this 40-mile active rail line that ran between Fort Bragg and Willits. But then about a decade ago, this key tunnel along the route collapsed and basically cut the line in two. So, people on both sides decided to split these shorter rail options like this to make the best of a bad situation.
Roman Mars [00:12:12] Huh. Well, that makes sense. I mean, they’re there. Why not use them if they can’t be used by trains? Let’s use them for something else.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:12:19] Right. So, where the collapse happened–it’s all rubble-covered, useless train tracks. But on the other side of that fairly narrow crisis point are tracks that were actively maintained until quite recently, making for a safer ride. And there’s all this existing rail infrastructure already in place–stuff like crossing gates, and bells, and signals from where the rails intersect the roads. And that infrastructure is now used to stop traffic, so rail bikes can cross.
Rail Bikes Spectator [00:12:47] It’s kind of funny when you go through the railroad crossings, and all the gates come down, and these rail bikes go past with us waving at the people in the cars.
Roman Mars [00:12:58] That sounds amazing.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:13:00] Yeah. And of course, they vary in terms of legality–some being a little less legal than others. But honestly, I would ride any of them.
Conductor [00:13:23] Attention, passengers. For those interested in taking home a train of their own, there are model trains in our onboard gift shop.
Roman Mars [00:14:02] Neil Young is best known for his music, but he also has a lesser-known passion–model train sets. He got his first one at age five, and throughout his years touring as a world-famous musician, he built up a collection of vintage Lionel model train sets. Neil’s two sons–Zeke and Ben–were both born with cerebral palsy. In Ben’s case, it rendered him quadriplegic and non-verbal. Neil’s then-wife, Peggy–struggling to find good schools for children with disabilities–founded the Bridge School in 1986. And Neil found a unique way to engage with Ben through trains.
Neil Young [00:14:37] When I started building the railroad, I built it so that my son and I could have something to do together.
Roman Mars [00:14:44] Neil extensively modified his vintage trains, adapting the controls to suit Ben’s abilities.
Neil Young [00:14:49] I developed a model train control system for Lionel and the sound systems because I basically made this for my kid–so he could do it with this little switch.
David Letterman [00:14:58] You’re some kind of a mechanical, electronic–in addition to being musically–
Neil Young [00:15:03] I’m very nerdy, I think.
Roman Mars [00:15:05] He holds seven patents for his train innovations, including remote control and more realistic sounds. He worked closely with Lionel in the early 1990s, and they incorporated his designs into the Trainmaster Command Control. Around the same time, Lionel faced bankruptcy, and Neill led a group of investors to bail them out. Ben frequently accompanies his dad on tour and these days–with the help of modern speech communication devices–runs a successful organic egg farm. In recent years, Neill has begun to sell off his vast model train collection. In part, he wants others to find joy and connection through these vintage sets. But he’s also doing it for a good cause. He’s donating the proceeds to the Bridge School to help other kids like Ben.
Conductor [00:16:16] Our next stop will be Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Please note this route is only operational until the end of the week.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:16:26] So, there’s this train line that for one week a year has the highest reported capacity of any metro system in the entire world. But there’s a caveat. It only operates for one week a year.
Roman Mars [00:16:40] Okay, I’m hooked. So, why build a train that runs only one week a year?
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:16:46] The network is based in Mecca, and the reason it only operates for this short annual period is that it’s designed for a single purpose: moving Muslims around the region during the Hajj.
Roman Mars [00:16:57] Okay, that makes sense. So, pilgrims are traveling to Mecca, they need to get between various holy sites, and it’s only a short time of the year.
Al Mashaaer Al Mugaddassah Metro line Testimonial [00:17:05] With substantial increases in the number of pilgrims and vehicles carrying them in the holy sites, the road network has become unable to accommodate pedestrians and vehicles simultaneously.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:17:23] So, the whole region is notoriously crowded during Holy Week, and people flood in during the Hajj because one of the five pillars of Islam is visiting Mecca at least once in your lifetime–at least for those who are able–and during this one narrow window of time each year.
Roman Mars [00:17:40] So, I know millions of people make the pilgrimage each year. And I’ve read that things can get pretty crowded and dangerous–even deadly–because when you have that many people, it can turn into a stampede easily.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:17:53] Yes. Absolutely. The crowding has led to some really tragic deaths in the past. But there are other health risks, too. The region gets super-hot during the Hajj, so spending a lot of time outside traveling between sites can be risky. Physical safety is definitely part of what drove this project.
Al Mashaaer Al Mugaddassah Metro line Testimonial [00:18:09] The government of The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques decided to build a railway in the southern section of the holy sites. The southern line–Al Mashaaer Al Mugaddassah Metro–will be the most effective solution to transport the largest possible number of pilgrims in the shortest possible time.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:18:34] So–as you can imagine–back in the day, these pilgrims are traveling by camel or on foot. And then when these roads came along, as any urbanist knows, they ironically led to more congestion not less, especially with the rise of personal motor vehicles. So, in 2009, they started building this rail line, and the project employed thousands of engineers and even more construction workers, who in total had to move nearly 200 million cubic meters of earth. And despite that, the whole thing was completed in just two years, which is incredibly fast if you think about the scope. And then in 2011, it carried nearly 4 million pilgrims around between these holy sites.
Roman Mars [00:19:15] Wow. I mean, that is hard to imagine. 4 million people being moved.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:19:19] Right?
Roman Mars [00:19:20] Yeah.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:19:20] And if you break it down even further, it can carry 70,000 people per hour–which I also have a hard time imagining–because it has trains leaving every two minutes. And in terms of what this offsets in terms of other traffic, they calculated that this train system replaces the need for over 50,000 service buses, which of course helps reduce that congestion.
Roman Mars [00:19:40] Yeah. You know, if they put all this effort into it, why not just keep it open year-round just because, you know?
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:19:48] You know, I wasn’t able to find a definitive, official answer for that. My somewhat educated best guess is that it just isn’t cost efficient to operate it all the time. And the route isn’t really optimized for commuters or other everyday uses, so it really, you know, only makes sense during the Hajj. And the Hajj, meanwhile, brings in so much money, it has almost certainly already offset the billions of dollars that the project cost. Just to put that in perspective.
Roman Mars [00:20:16] So, this one doesn’t run regularly, but is there one optimized for commuting? Like, is there an everyday metro system in the area?
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:20:22] Well, not yet, but they do have another network in the works that’s supposed to serve the region more regularly and broadly, which–as I understand it–won’t even link up to this one. It’ll just be a completely separate system and that’ll be for more everyday use. But this existing line is just going to continue being a once-a-year affair.
Conductor [00:20:42] Attention, passengers. Do not be alarmed as this train is about to take to the sky, reach 88 miles per hour, and take us back to ancient Rome. Enjoy the ride.
Roman Mars [00:20:57] There’s some old infrastructure lore about the reason why American rails have such specific spacing. The persistent story is that American rail gauges–as in the distance between the metal rails–can be directly traced all the way back to the wheel spacing of ancient imperial Roman chariots. And the logic goes something like this. American rails are spaced four feet, eight and a half inches apart. And that seemingly odd number comes from English spacing standards. And those standards in turn were based on wagon construction dimensions. And those had to be standardized so wagons could ride in existing ruts. And those ruts were initially formed by the Roman Empire and reinforced by other vehicles ever since. Now there is some truth to this train of thought, but the legend itself–which has persisted for over a century–is mostly fanciful. For one thing, ancient Roman roads were built more for foot traffic than for chariots. Plus, current gauges were far from inevitable. For a long time, there was no standard gauge in the United States–and a variety were used. Ultimately, the relative similarity between modern rail line gauges and ancient runways are tied more to design than history. Times may have changed, but the physical constraints of vehicles have remained relatively consistent. Axles need to span far enough to support the structure above them, but they can’t be too wide or they might snap. So, modern gauges aren’t really a product of imperial Rome. History rarely lets us trace such a direct line across such a long period of time. Still, it’s also not entirely coincidental that rail spacing tends to fall into that certain range because the overall needs and limitations of ancient chariots, and medieval wagons, and contemporary railroads are broadly more similar than they are different.
Conductor [00:22:57] Next stop, Anchorage, Alaska. If you wish to disembark before we arrive, please alert the conductor for a manual stop.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:23:06] Way up in Alaska, there’s this one particular train that works differently from probably any train you’ve ever taken. It operates on what’s known as a flag stop basis.
Roman Mars [00:23:16] Okay.
Roman Mars [00:23:17] Trains and flags. All right. I’m on board. Okay. So, what does it mean for a rail line to operate on a flag stop basis?
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:23:26] What a flag stop train is is basically a train that stops on demand when somebody needs to get off or get on. And there are some train routes that use a form of higher tech flag stop service, like they only slow down at a station if somebody has booked to take it from there in advance, right? Or in some parts of the world, there are these flag stop ferries where you have to, like, flick a light switch on and to get a boat’s attention. But this kind of classic, low-tech flag stop train, where you literally wave a flag, is very uncommon. And this route in Alaska is one of the last of its kind in North America.
Roman Mars [00:23:59] So, how does the actual flagging down work? Do people just stand alongside the tracks, like in the dead of winter in Alaska, and just wave a white cloth around or, you know, a scarf, or whatever they have on?
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:24:12] Yeah. Basically, yes. And the train operators are watching for those signals and stopping when they see them.
Roman Mars [00:24:19] So, it’s a little bit more like a bus. But even buses have bus-stops. But what I don’t get is, you know, the whole thing that makes a train great is that it efficiently moves on rails and has inertia. So, how can you stop it to do these pickups when the pickups are done, you know, kind of spontaneously?
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:24:42] Right. I mean, these things have a ton of mass. But along this particular stretch, the trains are short. They only have two locomotives, two passenger cars, and one baggage car. So, they’re small enough that they can start and stop a lot faster than a normal, you know, full-length locomotive and still achieve a maximum speed of close to 60 miles an hour.
Roman Mars [00:25:02] Wow. So, if the trains are going up to 60 miles an hour, that means that it’s a pretty rural area. So, if that’s the case, who are they stopping for?
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:25:12] Yeah, well, a lot of them are just visitors who are heading out to hike or fish in remote areas for maybe even a couple of weeks at a time. Or they’re traveling to their seasonal cabins. But the railway also provides a vital service for those brave, brave souls who live way out here in rural Alaska along this stretch.
Hurricane Turn Testimonial #1 [00:25:31] And it’s been really interesting to see how this railroad provides a lifeline for the 40 or so people who live along here. Just hang out a flag if you want the train to stop. And they stop, and they pick you up, or they drop you off wherever you ask the conductor to stop.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:25:51] So, some folks use the train to get to and from their homes in the region, and they also need this train to get supply drops. But probably my favorite service they offer is news delivery, which doesn’t actually require them to stop at all. Basically, there’s this rail worker who stands there and tosses out print newspapers for area residents from the moving train.
Hurricane Turn Testimonial #2 [00:26:14] They can even get their daily news courtesy of Harry Ross.
Harry Ross [00:26:19] The people will come out, they’ll send a dog out to come and pick up that newspaper, and the dog will bring it back to the cabin.
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Conductor [00:31:05] Next stop, Wales, Alaska. This will be our final stop of the day as the proposed tunnel that would take us to Russia has yet to be constructed.
Roman Mars [00:31:15] So, Kurt, we’re still in Alaska?
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:31:17] Oh, yes, absolutely. We’re still in Alaska. I mean, it’s a really, really big state.
Roman Mars [00:31:21] It’s a huge state. And things are pretty spread out, which makes sense that there would be trains between them.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:31:27] But in this case, it’s not a real train–or at least not yet. For over a century, there have been various proposals to connect eastern Russia and Alaska across the Bering Strait–a project that would have to span a bit over 50 miles and would tie North America to Asia in this unprecedented way. Of course, in the current political climate, it’s probably more of a pipe dream, but it would be a world changing feat of engineering.
Bering Strait Testimonial [00:31:54] Such a tunnel would have major benefits. First of all, it would physically link North and South America to the Old World. You could ride by train from San Francisco to Beijing in a day and a half and travel by land all the way from Cape Town to Miami. A tunnel would provide a safer, cheaper, and faster way to transport freight between Asia and North America.
Roman Mars [00:32:19] Of course, right now, Russia is the aggressor in a needless and horrible war. But putting geopolitics aside–at 50+ miles, this sounds like a massive undertaking. I can imagine some pretty massive economic benefits for international trade, you know, if things were to work out diplomatically. But are these just pie-in-the-sky ideas, or are people, like, really taking this seriously?
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:32:43] Well, definitely some people have, including some pretty serious folks, who’ve pitched plans for over a century. For example, you have Joseph Strauss who went on to design something like 400 bridges and was the project engineer for the Golden Gate Bridge. And he did his undergrad thesis on a Bering Strait Bridge. Then in 1905, a more fully fleshed out plan was all but approved but got axed at the last minute.
Roman Mars [00:33:09] Huh. I mean, if they could build something as beautiful as the Golden Gate Bridge but 50 miles long, that would be pretty stunning, right? I mean, what was the thing that killed the project back in 1905?
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:33:20] Well, the timing–as it turned out–was terrible. The Russian Revolution was kicking off. So, you know, Czar Nicholas II had bigger fish to fry. And the next thing you know, everybody’s caught up in World War One. And then that bleeds into World War Two. And tensions were just high throughout. So, the idea kept getting shelved. And then in the 1950s, people started to ramp up and pitch various bridge and tunnel plans again, but none of them panned out in part because of feasibility concerns but also, of course, the Cold War.
Roman Mars [00:33:49] Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I could just imagine it being a tough sell because there’s the engineering challenge of doing something that massive in any climate. And then you think about where they are in the world and connecting the Bering Strait. It’s super cold, the waters are very turbulent, and there’s not a whole lot on either side of these things, you know?
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:34:11] Oh, yeah. There’s basically nothing, especially at the points that are closest to each other from these nations. And if they built a bridge, it would probably also have to be closed down for much of the year because it is so cold up there. And if they went the train route, they’d need to figure out how to reconcile these different gauges for each country. And if they went the tunnel route, well, a 50-mile tunnel would be an incredible undertaking and would set a world record.
Roman Mars [00:34:37] So, with all these obstacles and all these really logical reasons why it doesn’t exist, is there any realistic prospect of this happening?
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:34:47] I mean, I don’t know for sure, but I was kind of stunned to find that about a decade ago, the Kremlin approved a rail tunnel proposal.
Bering Strait Testimonial [00:34:55] Since 2007, the concept has advanced. In 2008, Vladimir Putin, the then-prime minister of Russia, approved the TKM link. Then in August 2011, the Russian government approved the project.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:35:11] So, honestly, it seemed like a really cool project. But, of course, this ongoing conflict between these two countries makes it really unlikely we’re going to see any progress on this project–you know, under the current Russian regime anyway. But given how persistent the idea has been to date, I would be shocked if it didn’t resurface again someday.
Roman Mars [00:35:29] I would not be shocked if it resurfaced again. And then when you lay out the fact that this is going to be a decades-long project to actually complete–it is hard to imagine political stability that would persist through the actual construction of such a project.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:35:47] It really is. It really is. Yeah. Getting that handshake to last for decades seems kind of like an impossible task given the history between our countries. Here’s hoping.
Roman Mars [00:35:56] But it would be so cool to see it, though.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:35:59] It would be amazing.
Roman Mars [00:36:00] It would be cool.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:36:00] I would drive all the way through Alaska just to get to the bridge.
Roman Mars [00:36:05] I love it. Well, thank you, Kurt. This was a great collection of trains, again.
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:36:09] Yeah. Any time, Roman. And if you’re down for round three, I’ve got more ideas where these came from.
Roman Mars [00:36:13] I know you do. It’s so good. Thanks
Kurt Kohlstedt [00:36:17] Thank you, Roman.
Conductor [00:36:22] Thank you for riding with 99% Invisible.
Roman Mars [00:36:27] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Kurt Kohlstedt, Martín Gonzalez, and Jeyca Maldonado-Medina. Chris Berube was our trusty conductor. Music by director of sound Swan Real–with Mya Byrne on guitar and lap steel. Delaney Hall is the senior editor. The rest of the team includes Vivian Le, Emmett FitzGerald, Jayson De Leon, Christopher Johnson, Lasha Madan, Joe Rosenberg, Kelly Prime, Sofia Klatzker, intern Olivia Green, and me, Roman Mars. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM Podcast Family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram, Reddit and TikTok, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love, as well as every past episode of 99PI at 99pi.org.
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