Plans for second railway across Tibet confirmed: likely to have even greater impact

Railroad map
The Chinese government has confirmed plans to accelerate construction of a new railway line to Tibet from Chengdu, running east from Lhasa close to India’s border, and an extension of the railway to the border with Nepal.

The official confirmation of the new route to Chengdu – described by an official as “like the largest rollercoaster in the world” – and to Kyirong on the border with Nepal was announced at the China’s National People’s Congress in Beijing this month and during earlier official meetings in Lhasa.

The new route to Chengdu traverses some of the most culturally significant areas of Tibet, including areas that remain under a crackdown since widespread demonstrations across Tibet in 2008, and across a fragile high-altitude landscape that is warming nearly three times as fast as the rest of the earth.[1]

Matteo Mecacci, President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “In environmental, demographic and cultural terms, the impact of this new railway on Tibet’s landscape and Tibetan lives is likely to be even more significant than the link from Golmud in Qinghai to Lhasa, which opened in 2006. Traversing an area that is rich in forests and mineral resources, it will facilitate further large-scale exploitation of Tibet’s natural resources as well as enabling greater population migration into Tibet, both seasonal in terms of tourists and migrants, and permanent settlers.”

Officials confirmed that work on the Sichuan-Tibet railway would be accelerated this year in the 13th Five-Year Plan period (2016-2020),[2] beginning with work on the first stage of the route, Lhasa to Nyingtri (or Kongpo, Chinese: Linzhi) in the Tibet Autonomous Region.[3] This is close to the sensitive area of Arunachal Pradesh in India, which China claims as part of the PRC, which has created alarm in India with implications for regional security being raised by commentators in India and South Asia.

Lobsang Gyaltsen, chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region government, said during a meeting of Tibetan delegates to China’s National People’s Congress that: “We really do place a lot of emphasis on this railway.”[4] The Chinese state media said it would cut journey time from Chengdu to Lhasa from 42 hours by train and three days by road to less than 15 hours. Lin Shijin, a senior civil engineer at China Railway Corporation, was cited by China Daily as saying: “It’s like the largest rollercoaster in the world. With a designed service life of 100 years, it is believed to be one of the most difficult railway projects to build on Earth.”[5]

Together with the announcement of a raft of other major infrastructure and hydro-power projects, the Chinese National People’s Congress meeting this month also confirmed the extension of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway from Shigatse (Chinese: Rigaze) to Kyirong (Chinese: Gyirong) on the Nepal border. Earlier reports in the Chinese and Nepalese media have indicated that the construction of Tibet’s railway from the new link at Shigatse, open since mid-September (2015), to the borders of India and Nepal is scheduled for completion by 2020.[6]

The new line will connect Lhasa and Shigatse with Kyirong (Chinese: Gyirong) on the Nepal border, and Yatung (Dromo in Tibetan) in the Tibet Autonomous Region, on the border with Sikkim, India, and Bhutan. Commentators in India have described India, Bhutan and China as “part of a strategic triangle in the Eastern Himalayas with the inverted apex jutting in the form of the all important Chumbi Valley in Yadong (Yatung) county of Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).”[7]

The new lines are among several new planned routes that will either traverse or terminate on the Tibetan plateau, representing a dramatic increase in the number and capacity of linkages with the rest of the Chinese rail network.[8] The ambitious plans were mapped out by China’s Minister of Railways and his Deputy, both now serving suspended death sentences commuted to life in prison for corruption.

Massive investment in infrastructure in Tibet by the Chinese government – railways, airfields and roads – has served the dual purpose of facilitating an unprecedented tourism boom, expansion of mining Tibet’s resources and serving China’s strategic and military objectives. Although the Chinese authorities have stressed that the railway will enable more tourists and help to alleviate poverty, the Lhasa-Nyingtri Railway would provide convenient access for China’s military in a region with extremely difficult terrain and very limited road access. The prefectural capital of Nyingtri, Bayi, is known as a base for the People’s Liberation Army.

An analysis by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China on projections for the new railway from Lhasa to Chengdu concluded that the impact might “far surpass” that of the Qinghai-Lhasa railway.[9] CECC concluded that in demographic terms, the Sichuan-Tibet railway will link the TAR to a Sichuan province population that is 17 times larger than the Qinghai province population that the Qinghai-Tibet railway linked to the TAR, based on official Chinese census data for 2000.[10]

The CECC provided data showing that the new railway could facilitate significant expansion of Chinese government exploitation of Tibetan forestry resources. The Tibet Autonomous Region has the largest volume of total standing forest (2.29 billion cubic meters) of any provincial-level area in China, while Sichuan province has China’s second-largest volume of standing forest. The Sichuan-Tibet railway will cut across three prefectural-level areas that are rich in forestry resources: Ganzi (Kardze) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan and Changdu (Chamdo) and Linzhi (Kongpo) prefectures in the TAR.[11]

The expansion of infrastructure in Tibet is making a dramatic impact on the Tibetan landscape, in the context of warnings of an ‘ecosystem shift’ on the plateau due to climate change and human activities, reducing future water supply to China and South Asia. Just weeks after the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet railway in 2006, the Chinese state media announced that fissures had begun to develop in its concrete structures due to the sinking and cracking of its permafrost foundation. Now scientists have warned that warming temperatures, together with the boom in infrastructure construction and urbanization, are combining to create irreversible damage in the ecosystem, including the predicted disappearance of large areas of grasslands, alpine meadows, wetlands and permafrost on the Tibetan plateau by 2050.[12]

The new railway routes were confirmed during the National People’s Congress, China’s Parliament, which opened at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 5. Every year in March, the Chinese Communist Party holds two plenary meetings, one for its legislators, the National People’s Congress (NPC), and one for its chief political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). The meetings are known as the “two sessions” and they set out the government’s agenda for the year ahead.[13] The 12th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), began the closing meeting of its annual session today (March 14).


Footnotes:
[1] See ICT’s report on Tibet’s environment, ‘Blue Gold from the Highest Plateau: Tibet’s water and global climate change’, http://www.savetibet.org/new-report-reveals-global-significance-of-tibet/

[2] See Chinese state media report: http://www.zhikunedu.com/ZhengFuGZBG/479623.html A report by the Chinese state media network China Tibet Online on November 4, 2014 stated: “Lhasa-Nyingchi Railway, running 433 kilometers and covering 34 stations, including nine major ones, will build 402 kilometers new lines, which are designed to have an average speed of 160 kilometers per hour. Expected to be finished within seven years, the Lhasa-Nyingchi Railway will largely reduce the travel time. It will take less than one hour to travel from Lhasa to Lhoka Prefecture, and take two hours to arrive at Nyingchi Prefecture.” Early state media reports had indicated optimistically that work could start as early as 2013, although others noted that as of February 2011, a final decision had not been made on either a southern or northern route from Lhasa into Bayi, the small town which serves as the capital of Nyingtri Prefecture, and which is mainly known for its military garrisons. Commentator Claude Arpi cited the official Chinese media saying that in addition, “Beijing announced its plans to invest 278 million yuan ($45 million) for expanding the Mainling (Nyingtri) airport, just north of the McMahon line. China Tibet Online says: “The abundant tourism resources and many famous scenic spots in the region attract more and more tourists to Nyingtri as their first stop for Tibet. In the first half year of 2014, Nyingtri totally received 836,200 tourists from home and aboard.” The project has a vital military angle as Bayi, the main Chinese garrison in Southern Tibet, is located close by.” Daily Pioneer, India, November 6, 2014, ‘Good for the goose, good for the gander’, http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/edit/good-for-the-goose-good-for-the-gander.html – See more at ICT report: http://www.savetibet.org/new-strategic-rail-network-to-tibets-borders-endangers-environment-raises-regional-security-concerns/

[3] China Daily in English, February 2, 2016. It was also reported by Lobsang Gyaltsen, chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region government, at the fourth session of the 10th People’s Congress of Tibet in Lhasa earlier in February, and confirmed by Yin Li, acting governor of Sichuan, in the fourth session of the 12th People’s Congress of Sichuan in Chengdu.

[4] Reported by Associated Press following a news conference on the sidelines of the meeting, March 7, 2016

[5] China Daily, February 2, 2016, http://english.chinatibetnews.com/ly/lyxw/201602/t20160201_1064992.html

[6] Chinese official Yang Yulin was cited by the Chinese state media publication Global Times that during the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) period, the construction of a railway connecting Shigatse with Gyirong county, which has a checkpoint connecting Nepal and with Yatung county, a trade center bordering India and Bhutan, will start. ‘”Sky rail” to run from Lhasa to south Tibet’, Global Times, July 24, 2014. Kyirong is one of the four counties that comprise the Qomolangma (Everest) National Nature preserve, together with Dinggye, Nyalam and Tingri. – See more at: http://www.savetibet.org/new-strategic-rail-network-to-tibets-borders-endangers-environment-raises-regional-security-concerns/

[7] ‘India-Bhutan-China Strategic Triangle: Analysis’ by By Rahul Bhonsle (an Indian army veteran, Eurasia Review, July 18, 2012 (http://www.eurasiareview.com/18072012-india-bhutan-china-strategic-triangle-analysis/) – See more at: http://www.savetibet.org/new-strategic-rail-network-to-tibets-borders-endangers-environment-raises-regional-security-concerns/

[8] See ICT report, ‘New strategic rail network to Tibet’s borders endangers environment, raises regional security concerns’, November 12, 2014: http://www.savetibet.org/new-strategic-rail-network-to-tibets-borders-endangers-environment-raises-regional-security-concerns/

[9] For details on the route from Golmud to Lhasa, see ICT’s earlier report, ‘Tracking the Steel Dragon’, http://www.savetibet.org/tracking-the-steel-dragon/

[10] Sichuan-Tibet Railway Work To Start, Impact May Far Surpass Qinghai-Tibet Railway’, CECC, October 30, 2009, http://www.cecc.gov/publications/commission-analysis/sichuan-tibet-railway-work-to-start-impact-may-far-surpass-qinghai

[11] CECC reported that a low-resolution, Chinese-language map reprinted in a September 1, 2009, state-run media report shows that five of the seven principal stops between Chengdu and Lhasa cities are in Ganzi, Changdu, and Linzhi prefectures. Commission staff analysis shows that approximately three-quarters of the length of the railway will be within the three timber-rich prefectures. CECC Special Topic Paper on Tibet, 2008-9, http://www.cecc.gov/publications/issue-papers/cecc-special-topic-paper-tibet-2008-2009#389

[12] Beth Walker, ‘Tibetan plateau faces massive “ecosystem shift”’, October 23, 2014: http://www.thethirdpole.net/tibetan-plateau-faces-significant-ecosystem-shift/ – See more at: and ‘Building ecosystem resilience for climate change adaptation in the Asian highlands’ by Jianchu Xu and R. Edward Grumbine, August 28, 2014, http://wires.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WiresArticle/wisId-WCC302.html

[13] ICT will present analysis of the plans outlined in further reports.

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