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Partners in China's Railway to The Sky

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 05/03/20; March 20, 2005.]

March 16, 2005
The Globe and Mail

Beijing -- A controversial new roof-of-the-world railway, branded as a threat to Tibet's cultural survival, will begin operation next year with heavy participation from two major Canadian companies.

Nortel Networks Corp. and Bombardier Inc. have been awarded contracts to provide key elements for the spectacular mountaintop railway that could carry up to 100,000 Chinese migrants into Tibet every month.

The Canadian firms are confident their technology can endure the harsh conditions on the railway line -- including subzero temperatures, low oxygen, sandstorms, permafrost and some of the most forbidding mountains in the world.

Montreal-based Bombardier will provide the railway with hundreds of special high-tech train cars with enriched oxygen systems and extra protection against ultraviolet rays, while Nortel will supply its wireless communication system.

The Chinese project, the highest-altitude railway in the world, is gaining fame for its extraordinary construction methods in blasting through ice and laying tracks above the permafrost on mountains up to 5,000 metres high.

But it is also provoking fears that it will pave the way for the cultural assimilation and political colonization of the two million Tibetans who live in the region.

The railway line is so far above sea level that its trains will have to be sealed and pressurized like aircraft cabins. Altitude sickness is a daily threat to the 100,000 construction workers who are toiling on the project. The railway tracks will be elevated to keep them above the permafrost as it thaws and buckles on summer days.

The $3.2-billion (U.S.) railway line, due to begin operating in June of 2006, will stretch more than 1,140 kilometres from the city of Golmud, in western China, to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. The project has been a dream of Chinese rulers since the early years of the last century, although it was long thought to be impossible to build.

Nortel announced Wednesday that the Chinese Railways Ministry has selected the Brampton, Ont.-based firm to provide the digital wireless communications network for the Tibet railway. It will be the first Chinese commercial use of the wireless technology, known as GSM for Railways, and it will be the first in China to operate without a traditional analog system for backup.

"As a landmark project for China to develop its western region, Nortel is pleased to provide the communications system that will help ignite and power the region's economic growth," Robert Mao, president of Nortel's China operations, said in a statement Wednesday.

He said Nortel was awarded the contract after passing all required tests during a year-long trial of its technology on a 186-kilometre stretch of track at altitudes up to 4,780 metres.

A consortium led by Bombardier has been awarded a $281-million contract to produce 361 rail cars for the Tibet line, including 308 standard cars and 53 special tourist cars. Bombardier's share of the contract is worth $78-million.

The tourist cars will include luxury sleeping rooms with individual showers and cars with panoramic views and luxury dining and entertainment. China expects that 900,000 tourists will travel on the Tibet railway every year.

"This project represents a very important technology challenge," Zhang Jianwei, the chief Bombardier representative in China, said in a statement late last month.

Human rights activists are worried the two Canadian companies could be helping China to swamp the Tibetan culture and assimilate the population into China's ethnic Han majority. They note that relatively few Tibetans have been included among the 100,000 construction workers on the project.

"There have been serious concerns raised by Tibetan groups regarding the negative impact of the railroad itself and also about discriminatory hiring practices in its construction," said Carole Samdup, a program officer at Rights & Democracy, a human rights organization in Montreal that was created by the Canadian Parliament. "Canadian companies who participate in this initiative may find themselves accused of complicity in a variety of human rights violations."

In a detailed report on the railway project in 2003, the International Campaign for Tibet concluded the railway will further militarize the Tibetan Plateau, jeopardize its environment, and trigger a population influx that represents "a significant threat to the livelihoods and culture of the Tibetan people, as well as to their prospect for achieving genuine political autonomy."

The Canadian firms rejected the criticism of their role.

"Nortel categorically rejects in the strongest possible terms that it would participate in repressing the human rights or democratic rights of any individuals," said Marion MacKenzie, vice-president of corporate communications at Nortel.

Helene Gagnon, a spokeswoman for Bombardier, said the firm cannot comment on any political questions about the Tibet railway. "Any political issues in Tibet are between the citizens and their government."

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