The China-Nepal Cross-Border Railway, a project that promises to reshape regional connectivity and trade dynamics, is making significant progress. As we delve into the details of this ambitious endeavour, we witness the unfolding chapters of a transformative railway network that aims to connect China’s heartland with Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu.
All Aboard the China-Nepal Cross-Border Railway
This cross-border railway will offer an alternative trade route from China to South Asia, enhancing connectivity and facilitating trade. It has the potential to influence the economic dynamics of the region significantly.
Charting the Course: The Railway’s Journey
Coordinated Efforts and Cargo
This railway project is a joint effort between Lanzhou International Port Multimodal Transport Co., Ltd., China Railway Special Cargo Logistics Co., Ltd., and Sanyangma (Chongqing) Logistics Co., Ltd. The project’s inaugural run saw 230 Chinese-manufactured vehicles being transported to Nepal. Specifically, it utilizes the JSQ railway transport vehicle designed for carrying automobiles, with each railcar having the capacity to carry up to 10 vehicles.
The Route: Unveiling the Cross-Border Journey
The China-Nepal Cross-Border Railway utilizes a multi-modal transport approach, integrating rail and road travel. The route begins with a railway journey from Lanzhou, Gansu to Shigatse, Tibet, after which the cargo is transferred to road transport for the final leg of the journey. The vehicles will exit through the Gyirong and Zhangmu border ports and ultimately reach Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu. This challenging and scenic journey spans a distance of approximately 3,053 kilometres and takes around 9 to 10 days to complete.
A Familiar Trail: The China-Nepal Connection
This is not Lanzhou’s first foray into sending cargo trains to Nepal. In May 2016, the inaugural “South Asia Multimodal Transport Train” successfully ran from Lanzhou to Kathmandu via Shigatse. The China-Nepal Cross-Border Railway can be divided into three segments:
- Lanzhou to Lhasa: Approximately 2,431 kilometres of rail transport.
- Shigatse to Gyirong Border: Approximately 564 kilometres of road transport.
- Gyirong Border to Kathmandu: Approximately 158 kilometres of road transport.
The China-Nepal Connection Deepens
The collaboration between China and Nepal has grown in recent years. Nepal officially joined China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) during the first Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in May 2017. This move further strengthened economic and infrastructural ties between the two countries.
A Corridor of Possibilities: China-Nepal-India Economic Corridor
In April 2018, during a visit by Nepal’s foreign minister to China, discussions about the “China-Nepal-India Economic Corridor” took centre stage. This proposed economic corridor is akin to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and includes a series of projects that, when realized, will establish a vital land route for goods from China to India, passing through Nepal.
In fact, the “China-Nepal-India Economic Corridor” was proposed as early as May 2015 when India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, visited China. At the time, China presented the proposal, and Modi suggested forming a joint study group to explore this initiative.
Unlocking Landlocked Nepal: A Game-Changer
In September 2018, China and Nepal signed a transport agreement in Kathmandu. This agreement allowed Nepal to use four Chinese seaports (Tianjin, Lianyungang, Shenzhen, and Zhanjiang) and three land ports (Shigatse, Lhasa, and Lanzhou) for trade, ending Nepal’s status as a landlocked country. Nepal is now poised to become a “land-linked” nation.
Nepal has laid out an ambitious railway plan for the next two decades, encompassing projects like the East-West railway and its five connecting lines to India, the Kathmandu-Bokara-Lumbini railway, and the Nepal segment of the China-Nepal railway. However, this vision faces two significant hurdles: a lack of funding and a shortage of technical expertise.
Paving the Railway Routes
Among these planned railway routes, the East-West railway and its connecting lines are in low-lying plains, presenting relatively manageable construction challenges. However, even these seemingly straightforward projects remain unfeasible without external assistance. To address this, Nepal has embarked on a cooperative journey with India, with the hope of achieving preliminary railway connectivity between the two countries within a set timeframe.
Collaborations and Modernization
India’s Railway Assistance
Historically, Nepal had narrow-gauge railways during the British India period, but modernization efforts have been limited. The Jaynagar-Kurtha Railway line, India’s flagship project in Nepal, offers a glimpse of international cooperation. This project, which commenced in 2014 and became operational in April 2022, spans a mere 35 kilometres, with design speeds of 100 km/h for passenger trains and 65 km/h for freight. India provided financial aid of 87.7 million INR (approximately 7.68 million CNY) for its construction, including 1600-horsepower DEMU passenger trains. This initiative involved collaborative efforts, with an Indian train driver and additional operational personnel.
The Mythical China-Nepal Railway
The much-anticipated China-Nepal railway, with its proposed route through the Gyirong border, offers an interesting narrative from locals. Crossing over to Rasuwagadhi, facing Gyirong’s Chinese customs and immigration building, their sentiments are palpable. The modern infrastructure on the Chinese side is in stark contrast to the rudimentary facilities on the Nepalese side. Since the earthquake in 2015, the customs and border officials on the Nepalese side have been operating out of small, zinc-roofed shacks, lacking even basic metal detectors.
The cumbersome road conditions within Nepal mean that long queues of vehicles can spend days waiting to proceed into China. Given these realities, the China-Nepal railway project has been humorously labelled as a “paper railway” and a “dream railway” by the locals, who contend that improving road infrastructure would be more practical than building a railway.
A Step Toward Realization: Feasibility Studies and Expert Collaborations
In March and August 2022, the foreign ministers of China and Nepal met in Kathmandu and Qingdao, marking significant milestones in the “Cross-Himalayan Three-Dimensional Interconnected Network” cooperation between the two countries. As part of this cooperation, China provides financial support for the feasibility study of the China-Nepal Cross-Border Railway.
Toward the end of last year, a group of Chinese experts arrived in Kathmandu as part of China’s assistance for the China-Nepal Cross-Border Railway’s technical studies. Nepal’s Department of Railways disclosed that the feasibility study is expected to take 42 months, with a potential completion date in June 2026.
The China-Nepal Cross-Border Railway is a remarkable initiative that promises to substantially change regional trade dynamics, economic cooperation, and infrastructural development. With the joint efforts of both nations, this project is well on its way to becoming a transformative trade route that will significantly impact the landscape of South Asia. As this ambitious railway project gathers steam, the opportunities it presents are sure to shape the future of the region.