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China: Working on the Railroad

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 03/01/04; January 4, 2003.]

BEIJING, China Friday, January 3, 2003 (AP) --They're laying track to Tibet, creating the region's first railway. In Shanghai, they've constructed 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 part 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 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 earlier this month at a news conference about the Tibet railway project, which began last year.

Nationwide, plans call for laying 4,400 miles of track in areas that currently have none and adding lines in areas with heavy traffic. The projected cost to Beijing is $31 billion, plus billions more from local governments and possibly from private investors.

Developing the Economy

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

Activists worry that 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.

But 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.

A Technology Leader

Meanwhile, China is aiming to be a leader in railway technology, having built the first magnetic levitation, or maglev, train as an airport shuttle in prosperous Shanghai. Powerful magnets hold the cars a fraction of an inch above the rails and propel them at speeds up to 260 mph.

Railway officials also are planning a "bullet train" that would cover the 1,200 miles between Shanghai and Beijing in as little as five hours. Despite such a frenzy of building, 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.

But the railroad's opening could come as the Railway Ministry begins a long-promised overhaul that could put some services in private hands. 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.

Nonetheless, 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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