World's highest railway links Tibet to rest of China

Saturday, July 1, 2006

The railway goes from Golmud to Lhasa

The first trains were flagged onto the Qinghai-Tibet Railway line, the world's highest railway line connecting the Tibetan capital Lhasa with Golmud in Qinghai, China. At its highest point in the Tanggula Pass, the railway line reaches an altitude of 5072 metres.

The line is designed for travel at speeds of 100 km/h on frozen ground to 120 km/h on non-frozen ground. The cabins are supplied with oxygen because of the thin air at the high altitudes. The windows have ultra-violet filters to keep out the sun's glare. Cooling pipes have been used to ensure the ground remains frozen.

Air trips to Tibet are expensive and road trips slow and dangerous. Three trains, each carrying 900 passengers are scheduled to run daily along the line. The basic tickets cost 389 yuan to go from Beijing to Lhasa. The trip should take just under 48 hours. According to state television the tickets for the inaugural trip sold out within 10 minutes.

Speaking at the flagging-off ceremony in front of the Golmud railway station, the Chinese President Hu Jintao said, "The project is not only a magnificent feat in China's history of railway construction, but is also a great miracle of the world's railroad history,"

The Chinese government states that it spent more than US$95 million reducing the environmental damage of this railway. Passengers will not be able to open the windows of the train to litter. There will be a rubbish train to pick up refuse from various sites along the line.

Critics claim that the railway will be used to assert control over Tibet as the line can quickly transport Chinese troops to Tibet during unrest.

They also claim that the railway will damage both the environment and the culture of Tibet. Tibet is home to many endangered species such as the Tibetan antelope.

On Friday, 3 women from the United States, Canada, and Britain were detained for displaying a banner saying "China's Tibet Railway, Designed to Destroy" at Beijing's main station.

"It's the first direct, low-cost, quick, and easy way for migrants to arrive in central Tibet. This will lead to the overwhelming of Tibetans and competition for scarce jobs. The eventual idea is the dilution of Tibetan language, culture and identity," said Lhadon Tethong, executive director of the New York-based Students for a Free Tibet.

"The railway line itself is not a cause of concern for the Tibetan people," said Thupten Samphel, spokesman for the Dalai Lama's government in exile. "How it will be used is the main concern."

"Despite the rosy economic forecasts and dire predictions of Chinese control, the train is unlikely to touch off social disaster or commercial windfall," said Andrew Fischer, an economics researcher at the London School of Economics.

"When the railroad opens the commercial service and more people move in and out of the region, I think it will be good for the outside world to know more about Tibetan culture," Zhu, the railway official, said. "No culture can develop and thrive in a closed environment."