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There is something about the idea of a rail journey between different countries that sings to the soul of the traveller. The Orient Express may no longer exist as a time-tabled service, but the ghost of this connection between Paris and Istanbul still rattles along the tracks of the imagination, dashing across Europe in a blur of pre-aviation glamour.
The Trans-Siberian Railway - still very much in action - is the prime example of a great odyssey by train. And while familiarity has perhaps dimmed the allure of the Eurostar a little, it should not be forgotten that the tunnel that was carved out beneath the Channel between 1988 and 1994 was - and is - a remarkable feat of engineering.
So rumblings about a new project that would make it possible for globe-trotters to travel all the way from London to Tokyo by train is sure to pique a few interests. Not least because Tokyo, like London, is on an island. And where the Channel Tunnel - as already mentioned - has linked the British capital to continental Europe for almost three decades, no such connection between Japan and mainland Asia currently exists.
It is only 45 kilometres between Japan's northernmost island Hokkaido and Russia's Far Eastern outcrop Sakhalin (pictured). Photo: AlamyBut the crucial gap in the track - between Japan and Russia - is smaller than you think. Specifically, it is 45 kilometres - between Japan's northernmost island Hokkaido and Russia's Far Eastern outcrop Sakhalin. These two neighbours have long been close. Indeed, Japan regarded Sakhalin as its own territory for much of the 19th century (before surrendering its claim to Russia in 1875) - yet there has never been an attempt to span the Sōya Strait which divides them with anything more permanent than a ferry.
Until recently. In the last two years, there have been significant mutterings from Moscow about constructing a bridge or a tunnel that would tie the two islands together - and plug Japan's rail network into its European counterpart. Two summers ago, at the Eastern Economic Forum - a pow-wow held every year in Vladivostok which attempts to encourage foreign investment in the Russian Far East - Russia's then-First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov raised the issue as a point of international conversation.
"We are seriously offering Japanese partners [the chance] to consider the construction of a mixed road and railway passage from Hokkaido to [the] southern part of Sakhalin," he stated. "At the same time, we are close to starting our part of the job, which is extending the railway to the Pacific shore and the construction of [a] passage of the same complexity from [the Russian] mainland to Sakhalin."
This article first appeared on www.traveller.com.au
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