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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 24 New Delhi June 4, 2016

Work Starts on Second Tibet Rail Line

Monday 6 June 2016, by Harish Chandola

China has started work on its second rail line in Tibet, which will ultimately reach close to India-Bhutan border town of Yatung (Yadong) when completed in 2030. Its first Tibet rail line from Golmud in Qinghi province to Lhasa was completed in 2006, has been bringing in much tourist traffic. Two years ago, it was extended from Lhasa to Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest city and the home of Panchen Lama. It will be further extended to Yatung (Yadong), and will reach the Nepal border after that.

China’s railway chief described these rail lines of extreme importance for China’s development and stability.

Efforts are being made to complete the second line before 2030. It will later be extended westwards to Jilong (or Gyirong in Nepalese language), passing close to the Bhutanese border. This second line will be 1600 kilometres long and will be a bigger construction marvel than the first, which climbs to the highest altitude of the world. The second will pass through snow-capped mountains in a region racked by earthquakes. Half of it will run through tunnels or overbridges, in a very difficult terrain of permafrost, requiring ingenious heat regulating technology to keep the track from buckling.

I had travelled on this first rail line in 2006, soon after it was completed. Because of the heights it touches around Golmud, oxygen along its Tibetan part is rare and one finds breathing difficult. Good lungs are needed to journey on it. The train, which starts from Peking, carries its piped oxygen supply in Tibet for all passengers. The train has sleepers and sitting accommodation. It has a dining car and a shop to buy food. It was packed full when I travelled and had doctors on board to take care of passengers who may fall ill. Medical checks were conducted to see if passengers were fit for the journey through Tibet’s high altitude region. The journey provided spectacular views of high mountains, grasslands with wildlife and the Brahmaputra river. There were few habitations on the way, most of them of tents of shepherds and of railway workers maintaining the line. Announcements were made as one passed through landmarks like high peaks, nature reserves with wild animal herds, salt plains and high altitude sports centres. In the sleeper class I travelled, each berth had its own individual oxygen supply.

There is already a narrow but very dangerous motor road connecting Chengdu in Sichuan province to Lhasa, on which it takes three grueling days to reach Lhasa. The rail line will reduce the journey to 15 hours.

China has said building of the railway had become “extremely urgent” not just for developing Tibet but also to meet “the needs of national defense building”. The only country next to that region is India, with which it has a territorial dispute towards south, in an area it calls South Tibet, which India calls its Arunachal Pradesh State.

Chinese leaders had dreamed of such a railway line for a century. In 1912, after he became China’s first President, Sun Yat-sen, wanted a trans-Tibetan line, to prevent Tibet from coming in control of Britain, which had already invaded Tibet from India a decade ago. Mao Zedong revived the idea in the 1950s. In years since, many exploratory surveys have been carried out to build a rail line in Tibet.

China now has the world’s second largest railway network and the biggest high speed one. The success of its first railway to Lhasa in Tibet, opened in 2006, was claimed to be a major accomplishment. The second rail line, under construction in Tibet, is estimated to cost 16 billion US dollars. It will cross 14 mountains, two of them higher than Mont Blanc in Europe. It will have 16 bridges, one over the Brahma-putra River.

The author is a veteran journalist.