“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. Advertisement: Replay Ad 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.
Source: Doubling down | The Economist