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Decks Being Cleared for World's Highest Railway

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/06/20; June 20, 2001.]

The Times of India News Service
20 June 2001

HONG KONG: Construction of the railway through Tibet to Lhasa will officially begin on June 29, as China plans to put additional efforts into expanding its overall railway network. According to reports on Tuesday in the English-language China Daily "ceremonies marking the beginning of the gargantuan effort to bring the isolated Tibet Autonomous Region into the train age will be held simultaneously on June 29 in Beijing, Lhasa and Golmud in Qinghai province".

The railway into Tibet has long been a Chinese objective but previous efforts only pushed the line westward from Xining, the provincial capital in eastern Qinghai, to Golmud, in western Qinghai. The 838 km Xining-Golmud section was completed way back in 1984. The Golmud to Lhasa section will be an estimated 1,118 km in length.

The report that construction will soon start comes as something of a surprise since reports in the Hong Kong press had earlier said that the start of construction would be put back to early in 2002 due to numerous technical difficulties.

Also, a Hong Kong television team recently visited Golmud where the railhead there did not appear to be a hive of activity as one would expect if construction was about to start. But the team reported that already workers were arriving from other parts of China in the expectation of construction jobs. The daily revealed that a feasibility report on the Golmud-Lhasa railway line had been handed to the government in Beijing at the end of April "after over 1,700 engineers had performed a survey along the railway line".

Additionally it reports that the Ministry of Railways has hired "10 domestic contractors to build the wholly State-funded project and they are moving their work forces and equipment to the mountainous work sites" to start construction.

The project "is expected to take six years to complete", but this seems altogether too optimistic an estimate given the enormous hazards of building what will undoubtedly be the highest railway in the world, with much of its track being at heights of over 12,000 feet.

Apart from anything else the railway to Tibet will have to solve the intricate problem of laying railway lines on frozen ground, and making sure the line is still stable when the ice melts. A similar problem bedevilled the former Soviet Union's effort to build a second Trans-Siberian railway, the Baikal-Amur line, and in fact that BAM line has never been wholly completed as a result, even though it was officially opened with great fanfare in the 1980s.

Estimated expenditure on the Tibet Railway is currently set at 100 billion yuan (US$12 billion) during the current five year plan period 2001-2005 and so will take a little under one-third of China's investment in railway expansion during that period. The railway plan aims to increase the national network by 7,000 km so that by end of 2005 China will have 75,000 km of track. Also during the plan period 14,000 km of rail will be either built or renovated to permit higher speeds, while US$9.6 billion will be spent on new more comfortable trains or the renovation of older ones.

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