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Most Dramatic Railway In The World Gets The Green Light

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 00/11/28; November 28, 2000.]

This story appears in Jane's Intelligence Review, 001122. It is excerpted from Asian Infrastructure Monthly.

Sun Yongfu, Vice Minister of Railways, has confirmed that during the coming 10th Five-Year Plan (2001-05), China aims to finally complete a long-delayed 1,000km railway line across the savage Tibetan plateau to link the Tibetan capital of Lhasa with the rest of China. Sun made the announcement during the Western Forum, a government-backed conference of cabinet ministers and western CEOs, in late October. Despite the optimism, industry insiders are skeptical as to whether such an engineering feat will be achieved.

Politicaly, Tibet is still a contentious issue. China invaded the country in 1959 and has since been accused of bloody tactics to reduce the indigenous population and ensure it is outnumbered by the Chinese. Improving access will, or course, encourage more Chinese to the region, but it may not be welcomed by those who wish Tibet to remain Tibetan. Such a major piece of infrastructure, costing billions of dollars, is being seen more as political muscle-flexing than the result of well-reasoned economic or social necessity.

The rail expansion is part of the government's 'Go West' investment programme, and includes other plans to open up the most remote parts of the country to full economic development. Besides the Tibetan project, another proposal includes laying tracks along the ancient Silk Road from the Southern Xinjiang Railway across fearsome desert and mountains to former Soviet Central Asia.

Yet another line will parallel the Mekong River, from Kunming through southern Yunnan, and into Indochina, linking with existing networks to create a pan-Asian railway right down to Singapore.

The projects have long been discussed among the countries involved, but Sun's mention of them indicates they may be about to move off the drawing board and become reality. The starting date for construction of the multi-billion dollar Tibetan rail project is due to be announced by the end of this year. Previously, Tibetan officials have been suggesting construction might begin in 2002, with four years the optimistic estimate for completion.

Preparatory work to link Lhasa with the closest railhead, Golmud in Qinghai province, has already been completed, MOR sources said. At present, Lhasa can only be reached overland from inland China via difficult roads carved out by the army from the 1950s to consolidate the PRC's hold on the Tibetan area.

Golmud marks the current terminus of the Qinghai-Tibet railway from Xining, capital of Qinghai. The remote oil town should have been the stepping stone for the rail link to Tibet, but construction stopped in 1984, as engineers abandoned the struggle to lay rail tracks in savage conditions. Weather conditions are atrocious with frequent snow, rock and mud slides that often destroy sections of the existing road network. Many tunnels will have to be drilled through the rugged mountains that dominate the area.

The existing 816km route is the highest in the world, averaging over 3,000m above sea level, but the next 1,000km to Lhasa will be closer to 4,000m. As a first step, the Railways Ministry will allocate Yn740m ($89.5m) to renovate the Xining-Golmud line by next October. Inner Tibet is now the only Chinese region without a railway.

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