Govindraj Ethiraj: China's night train to Arunachal

Last Updated: Sat, Oct 30, 2010 18:40 hrs

Will China extend its railway links from Lhasa up to Nyangtri on the other side of the Arunachal Pradesh border? The question of "if" was answered several decades ago, possibly in 1951, when the Chinese army entered Lhasa. On the question of "how", it’s worth revisiting the effort that went behind the construction of what is possibly the world's most ambitious railway project, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway (QTR) line, the mother ship of any line branching deeper into south-west China.

There are few exhaustive reports of the building of the QTR line. I am relying mostly on an excellent account, China’s Great Train, Beijing’s Drive West and The Campaign To Remake Tibet, by journalist and Fortune contributing writer Abrahm Lustgarten.

Actually, more than the "if" and "how" it’s the "when" that’s worth asking, because the Party is as notorious for fantastic projects as it is for scary deadlines. Lustgarten quotes railway coachmaker Bombardier’s general manager in China saying, "One day I get a call, and they say, ‘We changed the plan. Can you be ready a year in advance?’"

So, while international experts put the construction timeline as several years ahead, Beijing expected trains to be running to Lhasa from early 2006, 12 months ahead of the Ministry of Railways’ own "hyperoptimistic, original deadline". This, incidentally, was a project that had been on the cards since Chairman Mao’s time, but was finally dusted off the shelves only in 2000. The Tibetan infrastructure thrust began with President Jiang Zemin’s massive "Go West" campaign launched in 1999.

Work on a railway line from Lhasa to Nyangtri is yet to begin. But last month, Chinese news agency Xinhua announced work had begun to build a 253 km line from Lhasa to Xigaze, the second largest city in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). The deadline is 2014 and planning for this apparently began in 2002. The Xigaze line runs south-west from Lhasa towards Nepal, while the Nyangtri line will go around 400 km due east, and end up within breathing distance of the Arunachal border.

But Xigaze is not very far from India either. A 250-300 km drive on the existing Xigaze-Yadong Highway 204 will land you right next to Sikkim, not far from Gangtok. The distance estimate is mine and could be off. Needless to add, building railway lines and extending roads are dependent on how you blast through some of the most difficult terrain in the world.

Nyangtri is not exactly an outpost. There is an airport and good road connectivity; the Sichuan-Tibet highway cuts through here. The $100 million airport (the third civil airport in Tibet) opened in September 2006, just two months after the QTR line was inaugurated.

Now, all this is not some grand discovery, particularly for locals and tourists familiar with the region. Businessmen I know in Sikkim, for instance, watched the asphalting of the highways on "the other side" with wonderment more than a decade ago. They’ve hoped that a road or rail link with China via the Nathu La pass would accelerate trade. For Tibet, the port of Kolkata is closer than Tianjin (1,200 km versus 5,000 km).

Let’s explore another aspect of the building of the Tibet railway. Contrary to what outsiders think, Chinese projects also face bitter internal opposition. And with good reason. Half the QTR line ran over permafrost, ground where the uppermost layer thaws in summer. Experts, including researchers at China’s Academy of Sciences, argued that several more years of study were required before construction could begin on permafrost. The builders of the line, thinking the construction process would allow for that, dismissed the criticism, says Lustgarten.

Zhao Shiyun, the young structural engineer who took over as a general director of the QTR line, had apparently never managed a railway project before and knew nothing of permafrost. Nor had he been to Tibet or worked with or managed workers at high altitude. Lustgarten describes Zhao saying on his first visit to the plateau, "I had a terrible headache." He then got out of his jeep and threw up.

Eventually, Zhao leaned on his primary area of expertise, building bridges, over the permafrost, elevating the railway over 65 additional miles for a total of nearly 105 bridged miles in all. The bridge route raised the project cost by more than 50 per cent, to nearly $4.5 billion. Lives were lost in the building of the railway line. And hundreds of thousands of workers toiled in the most difficult conditions.

What motivated the Lhasa railway line and the extensions now coming up near the Indian border? Lustgarten’s view is that any south-west route (when the Lhasa line was being planned) would undoubtedly appeal to the Chinese army’s powerful Southwest Command, which though still based in Chengdu had expanded its base to Lhasa and had been locked in a power feud with the Northwest Command ever since the Long March in the mid-1930s.

Let’s look at the non-military part as well. As is the case with such endeavours, the economic logic of mining Tibet’s natural resources (copper and gas, for instance) has been strongly endorsed, as has the long-standing cultural and political effort to ‘embrace’ Tibet more tightly.

For engineers like Zhao, this was an engineering opportunity of a lifetime and an unprecedented challenge. Zhao, I am sure, couldn’t really care about the 'true' objective behind the project.

Loyal workers like him will accelerate Tibet’s infrastructure build-up, and are building spanking new high speed trains linking Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Hanzhou, among others. India has to find more Zhaos and create similar conditions for building and success. This does not just apply to India’s side of the Arunachal or Sikkim borders, where infrastructure progress has been evidently slow. We should expect it all over the country.

The views are personal

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