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Development

A Railway to The Roof of The World

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 00/10/25; October 25, 2000.]

By CALUM MacLEOD

BEIJING, Oct. 24 (UPI) --The nation that built the Great Wall has set its engineers another mission impossible -- lay a railway line to the Tibetan capital Lhasa, high on the roof of the world.

China's Vice Minister of Railways Sun Yongfu confirmed on Sunday that during the coming Tenth Five-Year Plan period (2001-2005), China aims to conquer 1,000 kilometers of icy plateau to "promote the economic development of the Tibet Autonomous Region and to strengthen national defense."

Sun made the announcement on the last day of the Western Forum of China, a government meeting of Cabinet ministers and western executives in Chengdu in Sichuan province.

The rail expansion plans were among the most ambitious of many bold promises made at the forum.

Besides the Tibetan dream, another plan to boost the infrastructure of western China involves laying tracks along the ancient Silk Road from the Southern Xinjiang Railway, across fearsome desert and mountain, to the states of former Soviet Central Asia. Another rail plan would run parallel to the Mekong River, twisting from Kunming through southern Yunnan, and into IndoChina, then linking with existing networks to create a pan-Asian railway right down to Singapore.

Sun's mention of defense concerns is a reminder that China's borders with India, the former Soviet Union and Vietnam have been troubled by skirmishes and full-blown war over the past three decades. Better rail links will facilitate swifter access for military personnel and equipment, which may also be targeted against the country's occasionally restive minorities.

The starting date for construction of the multi-billion dollar Tibetan rail project will be announced by the end of the year. Tibetan officials have suggested construction may begin in 2002, with four years the optimistic estimate for completion. Preparatory work to link Lhasa with the closest railhead -- Golmud in Qinghai province -- is said to be complete.

Golmud marks the current terminus of the Qinghai-Tibet railway from Xining in 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. China claims the 816 kilometer Xining-Golmud route is the highest railroad in the world -- at an average of more than 3,000 meters above sea level -- but the next 1,000 km to Lhasa will be closer to 4,000 meters above sea level. Sun's ministry promised $89.5 million to complete the renovation of the Xining-Golmud line by October 2001.

The project would bind Tibet closer to China, and opposition is likely from Tibetan exile groups who fear the increasing numbers of Chinese immigrants threaten indigenous culture, while Beijing's exploitation of natural resources disturbs the plateau's unique environment.

Developments elsewhere in China show the country's railway system, transport of choice in the planned economy, fighting to survive in the competitive "socialist market economy." In the late 1990s, price rises and the development of air, bus and boat networks, saw passenger journeys drop to the levels of the early 1990s, about 900 million people a year. But this year, reports suggest the industry will post a modest profit after many years in the red.

In 2000, Chinese trains were expected to carry 1.3 billion passengers and 1.58 billion tons of cargo. The government is well aware that further economic growth must be matched by improvements to the nation's infrastructure, notably its railways. For China relies heavily on its railway system to feed the economy: about 70 percent of goods are transported by freight wagon, compared to 15 percent in European Union countries.

In the Tenth Five year Plan, some RMB 250 billion will be spent on the railways, and 40 percent of the funds would go to China's western regions. By 2005, expects that the additional 18,000-kilometer-long trunk network of railways would "basically relieve" the bottleneck situation of transportation in southwest and northwest China.

Besides the Tibetan plan, China has begun its first cross-strait railroad linking the mainland to Hainan Island, along the country's first train ferry. Double-tracking and electrification continue, while more double decker trains are serving popular tourist routes. Shanghai residents will soon enjoy China's first elevated railway, and some two dozen mainland cities have submitted plans to construct subways. The Ministry of Railways is also working to increase train speeds and build a high-speed network linking major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.


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