A 1,142 -kilometer railway between and Lhasa and Golmund in Qinghai Province — which is connected to the national rail system — opened in July 2006. The highest railway in the world, it reaches an elevation of 5,072 meters, surpassing Peru’s Lima-Huancayo line which reached 4,800 meters, and cost $4.2 billion to make. About 960 kilometers of tracks run 4,000 meters above sea level. During these sections, oxygen is released into the carriages to ease the passengers' altitude sickness. About 550 km is also on frozen earth, the longest distance of any plateau railway.
Reducing the journey from Golmund to Lhasa from three days to 15 hours, the new Tibetan train features specially-designed cars, pressurized like aircraft, with filtered, sealed windows to protect passengers from ultraviolet rays and oxygen supplies to prevent passengers from getting altitude sickness and help them with the thin air. Former Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji called it “an unprecedented project in the history of mankind.”
The first section of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway - from the capital Xining to Golmud in the west of the province - was opened in 1984, with the second section - Golmud to Lhasa - started in 2001 and completed in 2006. An extension from Lhasa to Tibet's Xigaze prefecture is already under construction, while work on an additional link to Nyingchi prefecture in southeast Tibet started during the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015). "When all extensions are finished, the railway network will be the first in Tibet and will really improve Tibetan people's lives," a Chinese official told the China Daily.
The railroad has been on the drawing boards for some time. Mao ordered feasability studied in the 1950s but the plans to build it were scrubbed due to engineering problems, lack of money and unrest in Tibet. A new rail line reached Golmud, the gateway to Tibet in 1984, but was prevented from continuing further because of permafrost and extreme cold.
Construction began in 2001 after methods for tunneling through ice and laying track on permafrost were worked out. The first 120-kilometer leg was complected in 2003. Once the operation was in full gear track was laid at a rate of about one kilometer a day. The first cargo trains went into operation on a limited basis in 2004. The railway is now being extended to Shigatse. China plans to extend it to the border of Nepal by 2013
The railway was opened with great fanfare with a nationally-televised ceremony featuring Chinese President Hu Jintao cutting a giant red ribbon at Golmud. Musicians in traditional Chinese and Tibetan costumes banged drums and cymbals as the 16-car train pulled out. “This is a magnificent feat by the Chinese people, and also a miracle in world railway history,” Hu said. Few Tibetans ride on the train. The ticket prices are too high for them.
Engineering Challenges and the Tibetan Railway
The railway posed great engineering challenges. Landslides and workers and machines that had difficulty working in the cold and in the high altitude were problems that had to be addressed. Four-fifths of the railway is above 4,000 meters and over half the tracks is laid on ground that is frozen much of the year, with 345 miles on permafrost. Parts of it climb through an earthquake zone in the Kunlun mountains. The highest pass traversed by the train is 5,072 meters (16,737 feet).
Special technology was developed to prevent the tracks from buckling when temperatures drop to -37̊C and keep bridges and tracks stable as the ground shifts when it freezes and thaws. The entire length of track is placed an average of 25 feet above the permafrost, separating it from the areas that freeze and thaw daily and preventing damaging warps, buckles and strains.
Much of the track is raised on causeways or cooled with pipes that circulate liquid nitrogen and cool air beneath the rails and keep them frozen throughout the year. Some sections have metal sunshades that that deflect the sun. In tunnels the earth is frozen artificially with refrigeration devices. In some places cooling agents are pumped through pipes deep in the ground.
Because temperatures are warming quicker than anticipated the rails have already begun sinking in the permafrost. Thawing could cause the tracks to bend and slump and bridges to crack. In August 2006, a dining car derailed 250 mile north of Lhasa.
The train is pulled by three diesel-powered, 3,800-horsepower engines made by General Electric in Eire Pennsylvania. They have been adapted to carry 15 carriages and a generator cars to altitudes of more than 5,000 meters, where the locomotive only achieve 60 percent of their usual power because of thin air. The carriages have eco-friendly waste-water storage systems; underbellies that protect the wiring from sand and dust storms, and complex ventilation systems that draw in air and release nitrogen while oxygen is pumped in the compartments.
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Working on the Tibetan Railway
A work force of 100,000 people toiled for fiver years building the Tibetan railway. Most of them were Chinese. One foreman told the Times of London they didn’t hire Tibetans because “they always quarrel.” Many of the Chinese laborers worked with missionary zeal in the belief they were bringing progress to Tibet. They worked around the clock in shifts, working under lights at night, from April to October (much of the work stopped between October to April because it was too cold). Most of the workers earned about $200 a moth, double what they could earn back home, and lived in dirty tents with stove pipes sticking out the sides
Laborers — many of whom are from coastal areas — had bottled oxygen on hand in case they had trouble breathing. Explaining how they system worked, one worker told the Times of London, “You take a bag filled with oxygen in your left hand like this and squeeze. At the same time, you feed a tube attached to the bag into one nostril with your hand. Then breath and rejoice.”
Scores of workers were hospitalized due to exhaustion and altitude sickness. Others suffered from frostbite while working in the winter. One worker told the Times of London, “Lots of workers have died. They work regardless of whether the feel bad because they want the money, and then suddenly they collapse when it’s too late to help them.” All workers were supposed to have access to oxygen but supplies often ran out.
While the Tibetan railway was being constructed cement mills were built and truck stops opened to service the more than 6,000 trucks used every day. In some places small shanty towns sprung up with makeshift bars, restaurants and prostitutes, con artists and gamblers just as eager to make money as the workers. The Times of London described one nightclub where only men did ballroom dances to Cantonese pop. Except for maybe that the atmosphere of the shanty towns was not unlike the towns that sprang up while the railroad was being built in the American West in the 19th century.
Benefits of the Tibetan Railway
The Tibetan railway has been used for moving people and transporting minerals out of Tibet. Proponents assert it has helped the Tibetan economy, significantly reduce the cost of moving products in and out of Tibet, and bring development and prosperity to the region. Clearly it has help the Chinese government exploit copper and iron ore deposits and other minerals in Tibet. Some the first passengers on the train were gold prospectors and oil men.
The new train cuts transportation costs to Lhasa by a third and is expected to bring 4,000 additional visitors to Lhasa a day. As completion neared the price of Tibet-related mining, tourism and construction stocks sold on the Chinese stock markets rose. The train was projected to double tourism revenues by 2010 and reduce transport costs for goods by 75 percent. In 2006, it helped boost growth in Tibet to 13.2 percent. A Tibetan student told the Times of London. “There’s no doubt that this will deal a blow to Tibetan culture. But we can’t remain backward forever and change will come sooner or later.”
Official data shows the Qinghai-Tibet Railway has played an important part, having transported more than 7 million passengers between 2006 and 2010, as well as carried 7 million tons of cargo, including food, coal, steel, and fuel. "The railway has helped Tibet's economy boom by providing more resources, jobs and business opportunities," said Liu Zengyi, a senior official at Lhasa Railway Station, who explained the railway saves shipping companies 500 yuan ($80) for each ton compared with highways. [Source: Dachong and Peng Yining, China Daily, September 12, 2011]
Problems with the Tibetan Railway
Critics claim the project has: 1) helped Chinese mining companies more than Tibetans; 2) helped the Chinese government exert more control over Tibetans; and 3) led to even more Han Chinese moving into Tibet. The trucking industry — which has traditionally moved goods in and out of Tibet and the garages, hotels and other business that support the truckers — have been hurt by the railroad. Conservationist worry about the environmental impact. The Dalai Lama said, “Cultural genocide is taking place. A railway link is very useful in order to develop but not when politically-motivated to bring about demographic change.”
Critics of the railway, including exiled Tibetans and rights groups, say it has spurred an influx of long-term migrants who threaten Tibetans' cultural integrity Tibetans have gotten few jobs as a result of the Tibetan railway. Of the 38,000 people hired for jobs, only 6,000 were Tibetans. Most of the jobs Tibetans have gotten are low-level menial labor jobs, paying $6 to $8 a day. None of the 2,700 managers, supervisors or workers who operate the heavy equipment are Tibetans. Most Chinese workers earn between $700 and $2,500 a month.
Even so many Tibetans are happy to have a link to the outside world, an end to their isolation and are happy to have lower prices for things like vegetables and oil that used to be brought in by road.
Impact of the Tibetan Railway on Ordinary Tibetans
The China Daily reported: As the train's engine burst into life, thousands of Tibetans stared in anticipation from the platform of Lhasa Railway Station, while many more outside pressed against windows in the hope of witnessing an historic moment. The day was July 1, 2006, and the train was about to embark on the first full journey on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, a route that has opened the Tibet autonomous region to the rest of China.[Source: Dachong and Peng Yining, China Daily, September 12, 2011]
"For most people there (that day) it was the first time they had ever seen a train," said Sonam Drolma, 30, a ticket inspector at Lhasa station. "Everyone was so excited. My 60-year-old mother burst into tears when she later got on the train to go to Beijing." Drolma recalled that in the 1990s it took 10 days traveling 1,067 kilometers on bumpy, mountain roads just to reach Lhasa, the regional capital, from their hometown in Zogang county."The new railway offered me a job, and it has changed many people's lives in the past five years," she added.
Ngawang Dradul is one of those people. The 25-year-old procurator from Shannan prefecture in southeast Tibet admits his lifestyle would have been very different had it not been for the rail link."I probably would have given up on education without the line and become a farmer, like my father," he said, as he sat in a sleeping berth on his way to Beijing for a training course. "The railway connected me with the outside world."Dradul studied in the Chinese capital for four years and, thanks to the railway, was spared the ordeal of traveling to school every semester over bumpy roads by horseback and by bus. Pointing to his khata, a traditional white Tibetan silk scarf, he added: "My mother gave this to me to bless me for a safe journey. For her, this is a trip beyond her imagination, but the railway really makes it a comfortable two-day tour."
In 2007, the year after Qinghai-Tibet train opened, Drakpa Yonten, a herder in the Gyaidar Village in the Damxung County, opened a restaurant. According to to Xinhua: He set up three big tents and several smaller ones on the grassland, where people could taste traditional Tibetan dishes. The railway brought more tourists to Tibet. Drakpa Yonten found that many tourists stopped on the grassland, having a stroll or taking photos of the trains and snow-capped mountains in the distance. Summer is the best season for business for the Tibetan herder. "We receive 30 to 40 tourists a day and the monthly income can reach 1,000 yuan." "We have been herders for generations and never did business before," Drakpa Yonten said. "It's the railway that gave us the opportunity." [Source: Xinhua, July 18, 2011]
Riding the Tibetan Railway
The train service from Beijing to Lhasa takes 48 hours. Hard seats tickets go for as little as $46. The journey takes passengers from one of the most densely populated areas of the world to one of the most remote and lightly populated areas, passing through vast sweeps of farmland, rocky deserts and Himalayan foothills along the way. The train windows frame blue skies and gleaming snow peaks, according to the China Daily, and lucky passengers can sometimes see chiru, rare Tibetan antelopes, jumping or grazing as the train flies above on overpasses.
Five-thousand-and-seventy-two-meter-high Tanggula Pass is not only the highest railway pass in the world it is the home of the highest station in the world. To reach this height the train climbs steadily at a grade of one in 50. It crosses the pass at speeds up to 100 kph.
Describing the approach to 5,072-meter-high Tanggula Pass, Jane Macartney wrote in the Times of London: “As the train climbed towards the highest railway pass on Earth, funny things began to happen. Pens leaked. Air-tight bags of crisps and peanuts burst open. Laptops crashed and MP3 players stopped playing. Passengers began feeling sick and some reached for their oxygen masks. A few vomited.”
The carriages are manufactured by Canada’s Bombardier Inc, which makes small planes. Most are sealed like airplanes with double-pane windows and have oxygen pumped into them. Passengers in the cheap seats have to put oxygen tubes up their nose. Rice is cooked in special pressure cookers. A sign reads: “Please drink liquids but be careful and just sip slowly or you may feel ill.”
The train was glorified by song called "Road to Heaven" by a half- Tibetan pop star named Han Hong. The song was played around the clock on radio and television for an entre year before the train arrived in Lhasa in 2004. The lyrics of the song assert that the arrival of the train has “made barley and butter tea taste sweeter” and bring “warmth of the motherland to the frontier.”
$2.2 Billion Leg of Tibet-to-India Railway Opens in 2014
In August 2014, China officially opened a $2-billion extension of the Tibetan railway between Lhasa and Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest city and a key Buddhist site. Associated Press reported: “The new 13.28 billion yuan ($2.2 billion) extension goes to Shigatse, the traditional seat of Tibetan Buddhism's second-highest figure, the Panchen Lama, and reduces travel time from Lhasa to around two hours from four hours by road now, the official Xinhua news agency said. At a cost of 50,000 yuan per meter (ft), the railway lines is the most expensive ever built in China, because of the harsh terrain it traverses, making it necessary to build numerous bridges and tunnels, the agency said.[Source: Associated Press, August 15, 2014]
China plans further extensions of the railway line, to the borders of India, Nepal and Bhutan, by 2020. China had long mooted the plan, but its efforts were slowed by the difficulty and expense of building in such a rugged and remote region. Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “The planned lengthening was criticized by Tibet advocates who said it would bring too many ethnic Han migrants to Lhasa and other Tibetan areas. A report in People’s Daily cited Yang Yulin, deputy head of the railways administration in Tibet, saying that two additional rail lines would be added from Shigatse — one to Yadong, a point near the Indian and Bhutan borders, and one to Jilong, an area near the border with Nepal. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 25, 2014]
“China and India have a long-running dispute over their Himalayan border. Two areas are in contention: one in the Aksai Chin area of China, which abuts the Ladakh region of India, in the western Himalayas; and the other in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, in the east. Of the two, the dispute over Arunachal Pradesh is more contentious.”
Tibetan Railway Extension to Shigatse (Xigaze)
“In 2010, China started work on a railway line that connects Xigaze to Lhasa. The 253-kilometer line climbs over a pass at 5,072 meters above sea level, making it the highest railway in the world. Nearly half of the new link runs through tunnels and over bridges. Officials plan two more extensions, including a proposed route to the Nepalese border.” [Source: Saransh Sehgal, Asia Times, October 5, 2010]
“The rail line is part of a building boom in transport infrastructure to improve links between the remote regions of Tibet and northwest Xinjiang province with mainland China. Chinese officials say the line promotes tourism and access to natural resources in the region, but it is clear that it has also ensured the speedy mobilization of troops and equipment to these occupied areas in future.”
“Critics say that the rail line allows the Han, China's majority ethnic group, to flood into Tibet, marginalizing the Tibetans in their own region. Samphel Thupten, a spokesman for the exile government in Dharamsala, India, said Tibetans had already become a minority in their own land. He pointed out that vast deposits of minerals had been found it Tibet, and that China would move more Han Chinese to Tibetan areas to exploit these riches.
“Critics also say that the rail line has led to environmental degradation in the largely pristine Tibetan region. But Chinese state planners argue that the route extension is designed to bypass pristine areas, use the least land resources and create the least pollution. “The railway detours around nature reserves and drinking water sources,” said Zhang Qingli, Tibet's Communist Party chief.”
“Other opponents of the rail link see it as a provocation of China's neighbor. “The railway line between Lhasa and Xigaze will further aggravate the tension between India and China. Both Asian giants have hugely militarized their sides of the 4,200-kilometer Himalayan border,” said Tenzin Tsundue, a Tibetan independence activist quoted by exile news portal Phayul.”
$5.6 Billion High-Speed Railroad Opens in Tibet
In July 2021, China opened up a new high-speed railroad that connects cities in Tibet with an electric bullet train allowing passengers to travel from Lhasa, to the city of Nyingchi in three and a half hours. The train — China's first fully electrified bullet train— travels at 160 kph (100 mph) down the 400-kilometers (250-mile) stretch of track on Tibet countryside . [Source: Kate Duffy, Business Insider, July 18, 2021]
The Lhasa-Nyingchi railroad runs through 47 tunnels and over 121 bridges and crosses the Brahmaputra river, known as Yarlung Zangbo, 16 times, Xinhua reported. It was built at a cost of $5.6 billion. According to Business Insider: “The "Fuxing" electric bullet trains are manufactured and operated by the state-owned China State Railway Group. It took around six years to construct, the report said.
Compared with other high-speed trains in China, which travel at around 300 km/h, the Fuxing bullet train is quite slow. It's able to transport 10 million tonnes of freight on an annual basis, Xinhua's report said. “The bullet trains are powered by both internal combustion and electric engines, and can run on non-electrified and electrified railroads, Xinhua reported. Given that 90 percent of the railroad sits 3,000 meters above sea level, the mix of engine power helps the train travel through potentially harsh weather conditions, the report said.
The Fuxing bullet train stops at nine stations, including Lhasa, Shannan and Nyingchi. Passengers will be able to take in features of the Tibetan landscape, including the Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon and Nanga Bawa Peak, as they look out of the train window, according to the report. The "Fuxing" bullet trainscut the travel time from Lhasa to Nyingchi significantly, the report said. By car, the journey takes five hours. With the new bullet train, it'll take three and a half. It'll also reduce the travel time from Shannan to Nyingchi from six hours to around two hours, Xinhua reported.
Planned Railroads for Tibet: from Sichuan and Nepal
In September 2020, Chinese official said that China was planning to spend almost $150 billion on infrastructure in Tibet that included construction of the Sichuan-Tibet Railway and a railway line between Nepal and Tibet.
Construction on the most difficult section of the Sichuan-Tibet railway — the middle part — linking Chengdu with Lhasa — began in 2020. The $38.8 billion section railway presents many challneges including rough terrain and complex geology, notably the segment linking Sichuan's Ya'an city with Nyingchi in southeastern Tibet near the border with India. Beijing also says it wants to go forward with the Tibet-Nepal Railway linking Kathmandu with Shigatse, the second-largest city in Tibet, which was among a number of bilateral deals signed in 2018 between Nepal and China, but has yet to gain much traction.
According to Reuters, ““Beijing has long aimed to build a high-speed rail network to make Tibet more accessible from China's inland provinces, and it plans to improve or extend railways being planned or constructed that connect it with other parts of China.In August 2020, China announced plans to expand the country's railway network by one-third over the next 15 years.
Image Sources: Tibet train: Seat 61 and Tibet Train.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated July 2022