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Railroad Builders Think They Can, Think They Can

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/08/16; August 16, 2001.]


August 16, 2001 GOLMUD, China It is among the most audacious railroad projects anywhere, evere Chinese government embarked last month on another attempt to build the first railway to the Tibetan capital Lhasa. That means laying 710 miles of track from this remote outpost in Qinghai province across some of the world's toughest terrain: desert, mountains, frozen ground, mostly at elevations over 13,000 feet.

"In terms of engineering and construction, I think it's the most difficult (project) in the history of railways," says Murray Hughes, editor of the trade journal Railway Gazette International.

China has tried to build the Golmud-Lhasa line before. But hampered by the harsh conditions, its previous effort ground to a halt 17 years ago at the feet of the Kunlun Mountains near here. Even if it beats the elements this time, the government will have to contend with criticism that it is despoiling the fragile environment, endangering rare animals, wrecking Tibetan culture and deliberately overwhelming the native population by bringing in Han Chinese.

For the Chinese government, the Herculean effort is worth the risk, expense and criticism.

The leadership in Beijing sees the railway as a prestige project, a symbol of what the country can do like winning the 2008 Olympics and taking on the massive Three Gorges Dam project.

Building the rail line would also more closely integrate China with Tibet, which was captured 50 years ago in what Chinese officials insist on calling the "peaceful liberation." Goods would more easily be shipped in and out of Tibet, where scarcity keeps prices high. Tourists and settlers would more easily travel to Tibet, as would troops. The Golmud-Lhasa line is part of an ambitious effort to develop China's impoverished West and narrow the gap with such bustling eastern port cities as Guangzhou, Shanghai and Qingdao.

Great march up mountains By any account, the scale of the $2.4 billion project is huge: China is building 29 train stations, 60 miles of bridges and tunnels and 3,126 railway arches on the Golmud-Lhasa route.

* Officials plan to run 16 trains every day, eight each way. Collectively, they would carry nearly8 million tons of cargo every year.

* Due to the extreme heights of the mountains, the railroad would be the world's steepest, sometimes rising at a 2% grade. Chinese railway officials say a 1.2% grade is considered typical. Nearly 600 miles of track are to be built at elevations of 13,000 feet, more than 2 miles above sea level. The highest point is 16,636 feet.

* The government is building medical clinics nearly every 12 miles to help workers and passengers cope with the high altitudes. At 13,000 feet, air has just 40% of the oxygen at sea level and 70% of the pressure. Workers from low-lying inland provinces are slowly moved into the work zone so they can acclimate to the thin air: They first spend three days in Qinghai's provincial capital, Xining, then up to a week in Golmud. They work 6 months a year, 4 to 6 hours a day. Workers 50,000 are expected at one time or another during construction are prohibited from drinking or smoking at high altitudes and must take two oxygen pills twice a day. The pills stimulate breathing.

To make up for working in uncomfortable circumstances, laborers are paid up to $360 a month, generous wages in China. The monthly per capita income is about $80.

For passengers, the railroad will offer rail cars pressurized like jetliners. The trains would go faster through oxygen-depleted stretches of track to reduce the time travelers must spend in thin air. The state-run English-language China Daily reported this year that "oxygen bars" would be available to first-class passengers, leaving it unclear how lower-class passengers would cope with the altitude. Officials here wouldn't provide details, but insisted that all passengers would have access to oxygen.

Officials are trying to meet a deadline of July 2007 for completion of the project -- just ahead of the Olympics. Complicating the project will be the 340 miles of track to be built on frozen ground. In warm weather, the ground can thaw, causing the track to buckle and sink more than 10 feet.

The Chinese say they have made a technological breakthrough. They plan to build a refrigeration system that captures wintry air and circulates it year-round through underground pipes to keep the earth frozen and stable. The technique has been used in the past to stabilize the foundations for new homes. The Chinese say they are confident. But Zhao Xiyu, director of engineering for the project, says experiments continue even though construction has begun.

Benefits and disadvantages Ethnic Tibetans and the groups that represent them abroad have mixed feelings about the project. Once the railway is built, they will no longer have to take a bus or car on 24-hour journeys through spectacular but hazardous mountain highways. Linking Lhasa to the rest of China should deliver economic benefits. Tibetan herdsmen would have a broader market for their sheep and yaks. More minerals could be shipped out of Tibet and more consumer goods shipped in, which would provide relief to Tibetans who now overpay for almost everything. Ninety percent of the goods going to Lhasa pass through Golmud by truck, bus and even beasts of burden.

Sitting in a shadowy restaurant in Golmud, several Tibetans visiting from Lhasa enjoy late-morning beers and discuss the railway, pro and con.

The increased cross-border commerce would hurt those who make money buying relatively cheap goods in Qinghai, traveling the bumpy roads to Tibet and reselling the goods for fat profits. Ciren, 28, a former trader who has returned to work as a herdsman, says traders can buy beer for 36 cents a bottle in Golmud and resell it for 72 cents. "They will suffer," Ciren says.

"Prices of goods will go down, and it will be harder for them to make money."

Numu, 28, a government worker from Lhasa, says the railroad would likely improve the quality of everyday life in Tibet. But he still worries that the railway would bring more Chinese settlers. In Lhasa, Chinese make up more than half the urban population of 230,000. Chinese seem to get the best jobs. Mandarin Chinese is slowly usurping Tibetan as the local language.

"It's a threat to traditional Tibetan culture," Numu says.

He also worries that the government will not keep its promises to protect the environment. "I hope they keep their word," he says. "If they do not do the railway properly, this could be a desert."

Chinese officials promise they can do it all: finish on time and on budget without endangering people or the environment. "Otherwise," senior engineer Zhang Xiuli says, "we would not be here."

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