The railway from the Tibetan capital of Lhasa to China’s border area. Photo: Xinhua

Tibet’s first fully electrified rail corridor extending from its capital Lhasa to the alpine region’s southwestern outpost of Nyingchi has been up and running since last week, a development that has likely contributed to an escalation of border tensions with India.

Chinese bullet trains will roar along the new link at 160 kilometers per hour less than 16 kilometers from the troubled and increasingly militarized Himalayan border region, according to a train dispatching and scheduling plan prepared by China Railway Corp (CRC) leaked over social media. 

The new line cuts through rugged snow-capped terrain and huge swathes of permafrost at an average elevation of about 3,000 meters. Beijing’s pedal-to-the-metal construction spree for Tibet also includes expanding the capacities of existing railway stations in Lhasa and Nyingchi. 

Travel times from Lhasa to the border city of Nyingchi, on the front line of the China-India military standoff and buildup, will be slashed from nine hours by road to about three hours. The rail artery runs in parallel with the Yaluzangbu River, the Chinese name of the Brahmaputra River in India that rises in Tibet.

The new line is part of the much longer, 1,101 kilometer Sichuan-Tibet railway connecting the Chinese southwestern city of Chengdu to Lhasa now taking shape on the world’s highest plateau. It is on track for completion by 2026.

The Lhasa-Nyingchi Railway may boost the PLA’s deployment and thus defense along China’s border with India but its transportation capacity is limited due to its single track design. Photo: Xinhua

Another railway from the southwestern province of Yunnan as well as its feeder lines have also been planned as Beijing sketches out an infrastructure masterplan to develop the backwater but strategically important Tibetan autonomous region.

At the same time, the line is expected to help to fortify Beijing’s border defenses against India.

The national rail operator has said bookings for train trips in July to tourist destinations along the new line are already full and that more train departures from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to Nyingchi via Lhasa will be arranged during the summer travel rush.

CRC has reportedly retrofitted its existing fleet of Fuxing locomotives and rolling stock for them to bowl up and down the mountains and gorges in Tibet. The purpose-built trains for the new line can run both on external electric lines and internal combustion engines and can switch between the two power sources on the go.

Passenger cars have also reportedly been fitted with oxygen outlets to help passengers cope with the high altitude.  

The newly built Lhasa-Nyingchi segment of the Sichuan-Tibet Railway in Jiacha county. Photo: AFP / Wang Jianfeng / Imaginechina

Precisely where the new line ends remains unknown, but a Weibo account maintained by the official Tibet Daily claimed in a post that its concrete tie foundations could be readily extended to major checkpoints and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) barracks for “swifter changeovers and better logistical support.”

These PLA camps and installations are scattered along the border area disputed with India. Last year they were the site of fistfights, scuffles and even brief exchanges of fire, resulting in causalities on both sides in a simmering face-off that subsided only when winter set in. 

Reports this week said that India has deployed an additional 50,000 troops to reinforce the 200,000 it has already amassed at the border, the latest indication that several rounds of talks have failed to de-escalate the situation.

It was not immediately clear if the surprise deployment was a response to the launch of the new Tibet rail line.  

The city of Nyingchi, in the snow-capped mountainous area shown in this satellite image, is strategically located near the Indian border.

The completion of the new railway, nominally to move tourists and trade between Tibet and neighboring provinces, will clearly also be able to move PLA troops during any future border emergencies. New Delhi has responded with its own infrastructure development programs with new roads and tunnels planned for the border region. 

The Hindustan Times cited China’s nationalistic Global Times as saying that the new line could lend the PLA a shortcut to ferry and deploy personnel and strategic assets close to the border.

Indian expert Srikanth Kondapalli, who teaches East Asian and Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said, “The fact is that if China makes inroads into the sensitive border area through road and rail links then it will come at an arm’s distance with India.”

He said the PLA’s defense perimeter would extend along with new links and other infrastructure projects being launched and completed in the region, which could be designed and built to the needs of the Chinese military. 

Indian troops patrol the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Himalayan region, between India and China. Credit: Handout.

Zhang Jiadong, director of the Shanghai Fudan University’s Center for South Asian Studies, wrote on his blog that the new rail link was built more for civil use and poverty alleviation than for the PLA, given its single-track design and its limited capacity for transporting heavy equipment.

Zhang said the PLA would more likely use the extensive road and airfield network throughout Nyingchi and other border towns if the force planned to beef up its defenses and deploy more soldiers into forward positions.

He said a railway would be a high-profile target in a war scenario, particularly one within the firing range of an adversary amassed in nearby border areas.