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First Phase of Tibet Rail Project Complete

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 02/12/19; December 19, 2002.]

BEIJING, China, Friday, December 20, 2002 (AP) -- Laborers working in mountain air so thin that they breathe bottled oxygen have completed the first leg of a railway linking Tibet to the rest of China, part of multibillion-dollar efforts to develop the country's poor west, China's rail minister said Friday.

The 120-kilometer (75-mile) segment stretches south from the western Chinese city of Golmud but hasn't reached the mountainous Tibetan border yet, Fu Zhihuan said at a news conference.

The railway is controversial because activists worry that it will bring a flood of ethnic Chinese migrants who will dilute Tibet's unique Buddhist culture while reaping most of the economic benefits.

Chinese officials argue that they are trying to ensure that Tibetans benefit and protect the region's fragile ecology.

To stress the point, typically secretive officials have taken the unusual step of holding briefings like Friday's and inviting foreign reporters to visit the construction site.

"This railway is a route to happiness and prosperity," said Sun Yongfu, the deputy railway minister.

The railway, whose route crosses mountain passes up to 5,072 meters (16,737 feet) high, is meant to bind Tibet to China both politically and economically, helping Beijing to raise living standards and stifle pro-independence sentiment.

Its projected 27 billion yuan (US$3.3 billion) cost will make it Beijing's biggest investment in Tibet since communist troops marched into the region in 1950.

The railway is part of China's "Develop the West" campaign aimed at raising incomes in restive minority regions that have lagged as eastern cities such as Shanghai have boomed.

Due to be completed in 2007, the railway will stretch 1,110 kilometers (693 miles) from Golmud to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.

Railway officials say that to shield passengers from the thin air at the highest points, they are building special train cars that will be pressurized like aircraft.

Chinese officials say the railway will propel Tibet's economy by slashing the cost of exporting its goods, which currently are moved at high cost by truck over a rough, two-lane highway.

The segment built this year crosses territory so high and cold that laborers carry oxygen bottles and some of the ground is frozen year-round, Fu said. In other areas, he said, ground shifts as it freezes and thaws, forcing the railway builders to invent technology to keep bridges and track beds stable.

"Next year, we'll have even more difficult problems" as the line climbs higher onto the Tibetan plateau, Fu said.

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