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Workin' on the Railroad: China Expands Railways to Aid Poor, Unite Country

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 02/12/13; December 13, 2002.]

Canadian Press

Sunday, December 29, 2002

BEIJING (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 magnetic cushion. Next, China's railway builders want to link the country's commercial capital to Beijing by bullet train.

Those exploits are part of a railway binge in China, an effort whose scale and ambition mirror the herculean drives that - separately - pulled together the United States and Canada by binding those countries with steel rails.

Railway officials plan to lay 13,700 kilometres of track countrywide 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 minority areas to the ethnic Chinese mainstream.

"It will unite the ethnic groups," Sun Yongfu, the deputy railway minister, said recently at a news conference about the Tibet railway project, which began last year.

Nationally, plans call for laying 7,000 kilometres of track in areas that have none and adding lines in areas with heavy traffic. The projected cost to Beijing is $31 billion US, plus billions more from local governments and possibly from private investors.

Pressure to expand has been building for years from travellers 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 per cent of China's domestic trade - more than in 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 neighbouring Qinghai province, "building the railway already has played a role in developing the economy" as construction crews hire workers and buy materials, Sun said.

On the Tibet line, China's railway builders wear oxygen masks to cope with thin air at altitudes up to 4,800 metres and they blast 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 labourers building the Tibet railway, and more than 1,000 are in training to be managers.

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 just above the rails and propel them at speeds up to 420 kilometres an hour.

Railway officials are also planning a "bullet train" that would cover the 1,900 kilometres 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 makes 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.

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