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New Railway Construction in Qinghai

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 02/01/15; January 15, 2002.]

Tibet Information Network (TIN)

London, 15 Jan (TIN)- TIN has received a detailed eyewitness report of a single-track railway currently under construction heading south from Huangyuan county town towards Tsolho (Chinese: Hainan) Tibet Autonomous Prefecture (TAP) in Qinghai province. There appears to be no reference to the railway in official Chinese press reports. A railway leading into Tsolho TAP would have a major impact on the opening up and development of the area - a significant proportion of its population is already made up of Chinese settlers.

The eyewitness report refers to the construction of tunnels alongside the highway running south from Huangyuan (Tib: Tongkor) county town and into Tsolho prefecture. This highway follows the riverbed of a tributary of the Xichuan River (a branch of the Yellow River) before entering Tsolho prefecture where it divides at Daotanghe, about 40km north of Chabcha county town (Ch: Gonghe/Qiabuqia). One branch heads west as National Highway 109 to Golmud and then Lhasa and the other (National Highway 214) heads south to Chabcha and Chamdo. The railway tunnels were seen in a gorge-like section of the river valley south of Huangyuan county town. (A map of the area can be viewed on TIN's website at: http://www.tibetinfo.net/reports/trecon/qinghaimap_1.htm

According to the report, work on the railway is still at an early stage, compared to the more advanced work that has been carried out on the construction of the province's new expressway - a four-lane road that will ultimately link Lanzhou (capital of Gansu province) to Lhasa, via Xining and Golmud. The eyewitness account of infrastructure construction distinguishes between the construction of rail tunnels and tunnels built for road traffic, commenting on the difference in the width and height of the tunnel mouths, roof shape and also the elevation on which they are built (rail tracks cannot change direction or gradient as quickly as roads). One of the observers said: "The width of the highway bed compared to the much narrower opening for rail tunnels emphasised that the tunnels were not part of highway construction."

No reference to the railway construction south of Huangyuan has been made in official public sources as far as TIN can ascertain and the final destination of the line is not known. The route may be a short branch line from the Xining-Golmud railway into Tsolho prefecture to stimulate industrial development in the prefecture (facilitating the transportation of raw materials, goods and people). There are three such branch lines already marked on provincial maps (Xining-Datong; Ha'ergai-Reshui coal mine; and Chahanruo-Chaka [Tib: Tsakha] salt lake). If the railway runs as far as Chabcha, which is likely, it will be near the course of the Machu (Huanghe; Yellow River), upon which the large-scale, state-funded Lijiaxia and Longyangxia dams and hydropower stations are built. Lijiaxia and Longyangxia areas have been separated from their local county administration and designated as special "administrative committees". Lijiaxia, in the east of Tsolho bordering Malho (Ch: Huangnan) TAP and Haidong (Tib: Tsoshar) prefectures, comes under the direct jurisdiction of the province, while Longyangxia, near Chabcha, is a county-level unit (Qinghai Statistical Yearbook, 2000). Both areas are of key regional importance for industrial development. (A map showing the possible route of a railway to Lijiaxia can be viewed on TIN's website at http://www.tibetinfo.net/reports/trecon/qinghaimap_2.htm

The tunnel construction south of Huangyuan could also be the beginning of a second railway linking Xining to Tsakha salt lake, running parallel to National Highway 109 south of Lake Kokonor (Qinghai Hu) through Tsolho and up to the main line of the Xining-Golmud railway at Chahanruo, or an alternative route all the way to Golmud, cutting across Tsonub (Ch: Haixi) prefecture. The current railway to Golmud runs to the north of the lake, west to Terlenkha (Ch: Delingha) and then southwest to Golmud. The availability of a second railway, creating a loop-line to either Tsakha or Golmud, would greatly enhance the potential for movement of materials and people, including military personnel and equipment, in the region.

Whichever route the railway takes, it will have a major impact on Tsolho TAP. Tsolho has the largest population of all TAPs in Qinghai and has already been more affected by immigration and development than most of the province due its close proximity and relatively easy access from Xining and Haidong. The land available for cultivation in the northern part of the prefecture has turned Tsolho into an important wheat producing area, while its water and mineral resources are being developed in line with state plans for resource extraction and industrialisation. According to the PRC 1990 Census, 54 per cent of Tsolho's population was Tibetan. Enhanced infrastructure, combined with state plans to extract resources and develop urban centres, will almost certainly involve further immigration of Chinese workers to the area.

The same observers reported on work being carried out on the new four-lane expressway linking Lanzhou to Xining and Golmud. The section between Xining and Golmud will follow the route of the current road (#109), south of Kokonor Lake, via Tulan (Ch: Dulan) county, but will be able to handle significantly higher traffic volumes at greater speed. Some of the construction, including the stretch south of Huangyuan, is new, while in other sections the existing road is being widened and paved. The new highway from Huangyuan south as far as Daotanghe in Tsolho is due to be completed this year (Qinghai Daily, 27 November 2001), although this could be an optimistic target as, according to the eyewitness report, there is still "a tremendous amount of work left to do". The first section of the Xining-Lanzhou expressway, running between Xining and Ping'an (Tib: Tsongkhakhar) county, was officially "opened to traffic" in July 2001 (tibetinfor.com, 4 July 2001), but does not yet appear to be in full use.

Infrastructure construction in Tibetan areas of the People's Republic of China is seen as crucial to the fulfilment of state plans to develop the western regions of China. The Chinese authorities are pushing forward with the construction of the Golmud-Lhasa railway, which will effectively link the Tibetan capital to the Chinese hinterland via Lanzhou city in Gansu province. Deputy minister for railways Sun Yongfu has said that the first section of track, from Golmud to Wangkun (about 150km), will be laid by the end of 2002. By the end of 2005 track will be laid from Wangkun to Amdo (Ch: Anduo) county town in Nagchu (Ch: Naqu) prefecture, TAR (roughly 550km), reportedly the most difficult section of the railway due to altitude and permafrost. The track from Amdo to Lhasa (approx. 440km) will be laid by November 2006 and "a completed system will be in place by the end of June 2007" (People's Railway News, 20 November 2001).

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