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China Expanding Railways to Help the Poor

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 02/12/24; December 24, 2002.]

BEIJING, December 24, 2002 (AP): They're laying track to Tibet. In Shanghai, they're about to christen the world's most futuristic commercial train -- a no-wheels wonder that races along on a cushion of magnetism. Next, China's railway builders want to link the country's commercial capital to Beijing by bullet train.

These exploits are just the high-profile face of a railway binge in China -- an effort whose scale and ambition mirror the Herculean drive that pulled together the 19th-century United States by binding it with steel rails.

Railway officials plan to lay 13,500 kilometers (8,500 miles) of track nationwide in the five years ending in 2005. It won't just boost trade, they say; it will develop areas left out of China's two-decade-old economic boom and tie Tibet and other restive minority areas to the ethnic Chinese mainstream.

"It will unite the ethnic groups,'' Sun Yongfu, the deputy railway minister, said Friday at a news conference about the project to build Tibet's first railway, which began last year.

Nationwide, plans call for laying 7,000 kilometers (4,400 miles) of track in areas with none and adding lines in areas with heavy traffic to ease congestion. The projected cost to Beijing is 255 billion yuan (US$31 billion), plus billions more from local governments and -- if a promised market-oriented shakeup of the stodgy railway system takes hold -- possibly private investors.

Pressure to expand has been building for years from travelers and shippers who complain about congestion and local officials who want to link up with the national economy.

The expansion is especially critical because rail moves 54 percent of China's domestic trade -- more than any other major country -- and more than half of its passenger travel, according to Railway Minister Fu Zhihuan.

The plan aims to redress the huge and growing gap between the booming cities of China's east, whose ports give them ready access to export markets, and the landlocked, isolated west. Officials see rail as a key tool to spread prosperity by cutting the cost of exporting local goods and attracting investors.

Adding to the need for more opportunities in isolated areas are China's restrictive household-registration rules, which make it hard for the poor and unemployed to move in search of work. That has kept millions of jobless people waiting in the countryside, creating what Beijing fears is explosive potential for unrest.

In Tibet and neighboring Qinghai province, "building the railway already has played a role in developing the economy'' as construction crews hire workers and buy materials, Sun said.

The Tibet line has made China's railway builders modern-day John Henrys -- the steel-driving man of American railroad lore. Wearing oxygen masks to cope with thin air at altitudes up to 5,000 meters (16,000 feet), they have blasted mountain tunnels that Fu says will be among the highest in the world.

Activists worry the Tibet railway will bring a flood of migrants who will dilute the Himalayan region's unique Buddhist culture while reaping most of the economic benefits.

Chinese officials insist they are taking steps to ensure that local minorities benefit. According to Sun, some 700 Tibetans are among the 25,000 laborers building the Tibet railway, and more than 1,000 are in training to be managers.

China also is aiming at the top end of railway technology, building the first magnetic levitation, or maglev, train as an airport shuttle in prosperous Shanghai.

Powerful magnets will hold the cars a few millimeters (a fraction of an inch) above the rails and propel them at speeds up to 430 kph (260 mph). The German-designed system is due for completion this month, and Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is reported on tap to ride on its inaugural run.

Railway officials also are planning a "bullet train'' that would cover the 1,900 kilometers (1,200 miles) between Shanghai and Beijing in as little as five hours.

China also wants to move up-market to compete with Japan and Europe in high-speed rail. The official Xinhua News Agency says a Chinese-designed electric locomotive on a test track hit a speed of 321.5 kph (200.7 mph) last week in the southern city of Changsha.

Despite such a frenzy of building, which comes as the Railway Ministry begins a long-promised overhaul that could put some services in private hands, industry experts say China's railway boom holds few opportunities for foreign investors and equipment suppliers.

China finances major projects alone and manufactures its own sturdy, no-frills equipment, which it exports to Indonesia and other developing countries.

As part of its year-old membership in the World Trade Organization, China has promised to let foreigners compete in its shipping industry, which could include rail services. Nevertheless, Fu said his ministry is moving cautiously, worried about the impact of missteps on such a critically important service.

"Railway reform is the most difficult thing in the world,'' he said. "Examples of failure are easy to find. Examples of success are very rare.''

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