A train runs on the Qinghai-Tibet railway, the world's highest rail line. Photo: Jan Reurink/Wikimedia
A train runs on the Qinghai-Tibet railway, the world's highest rail line. Photo: Jan Reurink/Wikimedia

Beijing wants a new quasi-high-speed rail artery being built on the world’s highest plateau to be up and running in five to eight years to make the alpine Tibet region more accessible from inland provinces.

The call to rev up construction of the Sichuan-Tibet railway was issued during a two-day Communist Party Politburo meeting on Tibet presided over by President Xi Jinping. 

The 1,742-kilometer line between Chengdu, capital of the western Sichuan province and a rail transportation hub, and the Tibetan capital Lhasa leads the pack of infrastructure projects either being planned or ready to start. 

Trains will travel along the new railway at nearly 200 kilometers per hour in rarefied air due to the elevation atop steep, rugged mountains. 

Xinhua quoted China Railway Construction Corp, the state-owned contractor of the 305 billion yuan (US$44.7 billion) project, as saying that a train ride from Chengdu to Lhasa will be equal in distance to traveling from Los Angeles to Vancouver, but at an elevation of more than 3,000 meters as Lhasa sits on a northern slope of the Himalayas, the mountain range that has many of the world’s highest peaks. 

Lhasa is about 3,200 meters higher than Chengdu, and two of the 14 mountains the new line will pass through are higher than the 4,800-meter Mont Blanc, the highest in the Alps.

Chinese paramilitary police raise a Chinese flag in front of the Potala Palace, once the residence of the Dalai Lama, in the Tibetan capital Lhasa. Photo: China News Service
Track-laying work on a bridge near the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Photo: Xinhua

The SOE contractor said the many permafrost areas, ravines, faults and escarpments between Chengdu and Lhasa must be bridged or cut through, and the project has taken decades to design to surmount all the engineering challenges.

Workers at both ends of the line are racing against time laying tracks to make the most of the warm season, before snow and the Himalayan cold currents make their jobs impossible.

Upon completion, a train journey time from Chengdu to Lhasa will be slashed from the current 36 hours to about 9 hours.

The last time Xi convened such a top-level meeting on Tibet was five years ago. The simmering tensions along Tibet’s border region, site of rounds of skirmishes between Chinese and Indian troops in recent months, are the backdrop of Beijing’s latest recommitment to the region’s infrastructure development.

While it may never be able to recoup the hefty outlay for the project that may be the most challenging and expansive of its kind, the new line may see more soldier than civilian riders when it is opened. 

This will be the same with the Qinghai-Tibet Railway opened in 2006. The world’s highest railway soon became a conduit for the Chinese military to marshal personnel and assets into Tibet.

The air is so thin that trains along the Qinghai-Tibet line are equipped with oxygen vents, and are usually limited to 100 kilometers per hour. But future trains along the new high-elevation electrified shortcut between Chengdu and Lhasa probably won’t need such special equipment for most of the journey and can be more effective for military deployment.

The main railway station in the Tibetan capital Lhasa. Photo: Wikimedia / Coolmanjackey

The Tibet Daily, mouthpiece of the Chinese autonomous region, revealed on Monday that since the start of construction in 2018, several sections between Lhasa and Chengdu had been completed and the People’s Liberation Army’s Western Theater Command, based in Chengdu, had deployed troops to guard these sections. 

Other projects being mulled will connect Lhasa with Kunming in southern Yunnan province and Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang.