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New railway into Tibet poses both technological and political challenge

May 23, 2016

The Economist, May 21, 2016 - “A colossal roller-coaster” is how a senior engineer described it. He was talking about the railway that China plans to build from the lowlands of the south-west, across some of the world’s most forbidding terrain, into Tibet. Of all the country’s railway-building feats in recent years, this will be the most remarkable: a 1,600-kilometre (1,000-mile) track that will pass through snow-capped mountains in a region racked by earthquakes, with nearly half of it running through tunnels or over bridges. It will also be dogged all the way by controversy.

Chinese officials have dreamed of such a railway line for a century. In 1912, shortly after he took over as China’s first president, Sun Yat-sen called for a trans-Tibetan line, not least to help prevent Tibet from falling under the sway of Britain (which had already invaded Tibet from India a decade earlier). Mao Zedong revived the idea in the 1950s. In the years since, many exploratory surveys have been carried out.

But it is only after building the world’s second-longest railway network—including, in the past few years, by far the biggest high-speed one—that China’s government has felt ready to take on the challenge. It had a warm-up with the construction of the first railway into Tibet, which opened in 2006. That line, connecting Lhasa with Golmud in Qinghai province to the north (and extended two years ago from Lhasa to Tibet’s second city, Shigatse), was proclaimed to be a huge accomplishment. It included the highest-altitude stretch in the world, parts of it across permafrost. It required ingenious heat-regulating technology to keep the track from buckling

China further honed its skills with the opening of a high-speed line across the Tibetan plateau in 2014—though in Qinghai province, rather than in Tibet proper. But neither track had anything like the natural barriers that the Sichuan-Tibet line will face. It will be just under half as long again as the existing line to Tibet, but will take three times longer to build. The second line’s estimated cost of 105 billion yuan ($16 billion) is several times more than the first one. Lhasa is about 3,200 metres (10,500 feet) higher than Chengdu, yet by the time the track goes up and down on the way there—crossing 14 mountains, two of them higher than Mont Blanc, western Europe’s highest mountain—the cumulative ascent will be 14,000 metres. The existing road from Chengdu to Lhasa that follows the proposed route into Tibet is a narrow highway notable for the wreckage of lorries that have careered off it. Some Chinese drivers regard the navigation of Highway 318 as the ultimate proof of their vehicles’, and their own, endurance.

Work on easier stretches of the railway line, closest to Lhasa and Chengdu respectively, began in 2014. Now the government appears to be getting ready for the tougher parts. A national three-year “plan of action”, adopted in March for major transport-infrastructure projects, mentions the most difficult stretch: a 1,000km link between Kangding in Sichuan and the Tibetan prefecture of Linzhi (Nyingchi in Tibetan). The plan says this should be “pushed forward” by 2018. It will involve 16 bridges to carry the track over the Yarlung Tsangpo river, known downstream as the Brahmaputra. Dai Bin of Southwest Jiaotong University in Chengdu says the Chengdu-Lhasa line could be finished by around 2030.

In Litang, a town high up in Sichuan on that difficult stretch, a Tibetan monk speaks approvingly of the project, which will bring more tourists to the remote community and its 16th-century monastery (rebuilt since the Chinese air force bombed it in 1956 to crush an uprising). But the impact on Tibet of the Golmud-Lhasa line still reverberates. It fuelled a tourism boom in Lhasa that attracted waves of ethnic Han Chinese from other parts of China to work in industries such as catering and transport. The resentment it created among Tibetans, who felt excluded from the new jobs, was a big cause of rioting in Lhasa in 2008 that ignited protests across the plateau. The new line will cut through some of the most restive areas. Since 2011 more than 110 Tibetans are reported to have killed themselves by setting themselves on fire in protest at China’s crackdown after the unrest. Some of the self-immolations have happened in Tibetan-inhabited parts of Sichuan, including near Litang.

With spectacular views, the new line is sure to be a big draw. It is also sure to attract many migrant workers from Sichuan, a province of 80m people, to cash in on Tibet’s tourism. The journey time from Chengdu to Lhasa is a gruelling three days by road, or more than 40 hours by train through Qinghai. The new line will reduce it to a mere 15 hours.

Officials see other benefits. The route will cross a region rich in natural resources, from timber to copper. It will also, to India’s consternation, pass close to the contested border between the two countries. (China says India occupies “south Tibet”, and launched a brief invasion of India there in 1962.) A Chinese government website, China Tibet News, said in 2014 that building the Sichuan-Tibet railway had become “extremely urgent”, not just for developing Tibet but also to meet “the needs of national-defence-building”.

Communist party officials in Tibet hope that the new line will be just the start of a railway-building spree in the once-isolated region. On May 16th Tibet Daily, the government mouthpiece in Tibet, said that work would start in the coming five years on around 2,000km of track. It would include a line from Shigatse to Yadong (or Dromo), near the border with India and Bhutan, and another one to Jilong (or Gyirong), near the border with Nepal. China’s railway chief talks of “the extreme importance of railway-building for Tibet’s development and stability”. The region’s recent history offers scant evidence. 

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