China Opens First High Speed Rail Line in Tibet

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A train leaves the Tibetan capital Lhasa on its way to Beijing at first light 02 March 2007. (Image: PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images)

On June 25, Tibet’s first bullet train became operational, with the 438-kilometer (270 miles) long Nyingchi–Lhasa rail line entering service. The project began in December 2014 and construction was completed last December.

Almost 90 percent of the route has been built more than 3,000 meters above sea level. The rail line features 121 bridges and 47 tunnels, which combined make up 75 percent of the route. 

Notable along the line is the Zangmu Railway Bridge, which at 525 meters in length is now the largest arch bridge in the world. 

Around US$5.6 billion was spent to construct the rail line that is being serviced by Fuxing series high-speed electric trains, including the bullet trains. The trains have been developed and are operated by the government-run China State Railway Group.

The rail line, which is also the first electrified railway in Tibet, cuts down the travel time between Nyingchi and Lhasa (Tibet’s capital) to 3.5 hours from the earlier five hours. The trains travel at speeds of 100 miles per hour and are equipped with oxygen supply systems that maintain oxygen levels at 23.6 percent, the proportion ideal for breathing. The windows come with a special layer of glass that is capable of withstanding high UV levels. 

Lhasa-Nyingchi rail line is part of the 1,629-kilometer (1,012 miles) long Sichuan–Tibet railway that aims to connect Lhasa with Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, a province in Southwest China. When completed, the rail line is expected to shorten travel time between the two cities from 48 hours to just 13. The rail line is being constructed in three segments.

The first segment is the 94 kilometers (60 miles) long Chengdu–Ya’an segment that was completed and began operations in December 2018. The second segment is the recently finished Lhasa-Nyingchi rail line. The third and final segment is the Ya’an–Nyingchi rail line that covers 1,011 kilometers (628 miles) and is expected to be completed by 2030.

Bolstering China’s geopolitical presence

The Tibet high speed rail line has sparked concern in India, since the city of Nyingchi is a border town close to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, a region that China claims as part of its territory and terms “South Tibet.”

Aside from civilian or commercial transport, the railway also increases the amount of military forces that Beijing can deploy in the region, as well as the speed at which troops can arrive frm other parts of the country. 

The workers are paving tracks on the Yarlung Zangbo bridge for Lalin railway projects on 26 November 2018 in Lhasa,Tibet, China.(Image: TPG/Getty Images)

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has emphasized the necessity to create villages alongside the Indian border, which would help Beijing strengthen its claims in the disputed area. 

Around 624 border villages in 21 border counties are planned to be constructed that can act as the potential starting point of a future expansion.

The Sichuan-Tibet rail line passes through the Chinese counties of Nyingchi, Lhunze, Yadong, Cona, and Medog, which not only lie close to Arunachal Pradesh but also the Indian state of Sikkim. When completed, the rail line can provide supplies to these border villages, allowing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to focus on changing the status quo along the Indian border. Chinese experts have publicly alluded to such possibilities. 

“The Sichuan-Tibet Railway is a fundamental railway project directly linked to border defense,” Zhao Jian, a professor with Beijing Jiaotong University, said in an interview with state-backed Global Times in February.

“If a crisis scenario happens at the China-India border, the railway will provide great convenience for China’s delivery of strategic materials,” Qian Feng, director of the research department at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University, told the media outlet.

Tibetan soldiers

In addition to building infrastructure close to India, China is also recruiting Tibetans into its military to employ them along the border. Most Chinese people come from the plains. As such, they are not able to perform well militarily at high altitudes. However, Tibetans, being local to the area, are better able to use the demography, weather conditions, language, terrain, etc. to their advantage. 

The PLA is also taking Tibetan military recruits to get blessings from Buddhist monks. A report by Hindustan Times cites a person familiar with such developments saying that such blessings are “likely a new strategy by the PLA to get some religious mileage from the newly-recruited Tibetan troops.”

An expert told the media outlet that PLA aims to counter the Indian Special Frontier Force (SFF) by recruiting Tibetans. SFF is composed of refugees from Tibet and played a critical role in securing the Pangong Tso range during the India-China skirmishes last year. 

“The Chinese… realize it is best for them to recruit young Tibetans who are unemployed. It is not just about targeting India but also about gaining the sympathy of unemployed young men,” the expert said.

The move is a dubious one, given the history of Communist China’s rule over Tibet. 

Tibet was invaded by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1951. Since then, the communist authorities have attempted to wipe out Tibetan culture by marginalizing Tibetan-language instruction, massacring the Buddhist clergy, and jailing dissidents. Some reports have suggested that China had sent 500,000 Tibetans into labor camps.