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Tibet’s Railway Vision: Unlocking the Roof of the World

The Grand Plan for Tibet’s Borders

When most people think of Tibet’s railways, the Qinghai-Tibet and Sichuan-Tibet lines often come to mind first. These major arteries provide critical access to and from Tibet. However, those more familiar with Tibet’s railway development might also think of other external connections like the Yunnan-Tibet, Xinjiang-Tibet, and China-Nepal railways. Generally, public interest in Tibet’s railway plans tends to focus on external routes, with less attention given to internal regional development. Yet, Tibet’s internal railway network is an essential part of its overall railway infrastructure and deserves recognition.

Overcoming Challenges

Tibet’s railway construction has faced delays due to harsh natural environments and technical challenges. Despite these projects being characterized by significant engineering difficulties, high investment costs, low transport capacity, and economic challenges, they play a crucial role in boosting regional economic development, securing borders, strengthening national defence, and promoting national unity and social stability.

The Public Good Takes Center Stage

The focus on economic returns often overshadows the projects’ public benefits. In July 2006, the completion of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway ended Tibet’s history of inaccessibility by train. The Lhasa-Shigatse Railway followed in August 2014. By June 2021, the completion of the Sichuan-Tibet Railway’s Lhasa-Nyingchi section marked the end of railway inaccessibility in southeastern Tibet. Together, these railways form a “T”-shaped network, connecting five of Tibet’s seven prefecture-level regions by rail. Despite progress, Tibet’s railway network still faces challenges in coverage, external connectivity, and technical standards.

railway line project 2021
Railway line project 2021

Key Challenges and Future Directions

  1. Network Size and Coverage: The current network is small and unevenly distributed, leaving significant areas without rail access.
  2. External Connectivity: Enhancing construction on border railway ports and routes into and out of Tibet is urgent.
  3. Technical Standards: There’s a need to improve the network’s quality and service levels. The Qinghai-Tibet Railway, a vital northward route out of Tibet, is nearing capacity, highlighting the need for upgrades and electrification to ease transportation bottlenecks.

Looking Ahead

The Lhasa-Shigatse Railway, an extension of the Qinghai-Tibet line and a crucial east-west corridor within Tibet, will see upgrades and electrification based on growing transport demands.

Embracing the Future

Tibet’s railway vision represents a significant leap toward integrating this remote region more closely with the rest of China and its neighbours. By addressing the current challenges and expanding its railway network, Tibet is set to unlock new possibilities for development, connectivity, and cultural exchange. The future of Tibet’s railways is not just about enhancing transport, but about opening new pathways to economic growth and regional integration.

Tibet’s Railway Expansion: Bridging Borders and Boosting Connectivity

Launching the Future of Tibet’s Railways

On November 8, 2020, the Yarlung Zangbo section of the Sichuan-Tibet Railway began construction, marking Tibet’s first dual-track railway, designed for speeds up to 200 km/h. To address the capacity bottleneck expected with the opening of the Yarlung Zangbo and Yunnan-Tibet sections, national plans during the “14th Five-Year Plan” period include doubling the Lhasa-Linzi segment of the Sichuan-Tibet Railway to enhance throughput capabilities, with synchronous operation across the entire line upon completion.

Strategic Development Along Tibet’s Borders

Beyond the Sichuan-Tibet Railway, comprehensive initiatives are set to launch for border railway development, accelerating the preparatory work for the new Xinjiang-Tibet and Yunnan-Tibet railways. These efforts aim to build a border railway corridor linking Xinjiang, Tibet, and Yunnan, enhancing connectivity across these strategic regions.

Tibet, located at the strategic high point of China’s southwestern border and a front-line buffer zone in territorial disputes, plays a crucial role in national security. Accelerating border railway construction will boost transportation security and resource deployment capabilities in border areas.

railway map
Railway map

Phased Construction for Broader Connectivity

The Xinjiang-Tibet and Yunnan-Tibet railways are not being built all at once but in stages, prioritizing segments based on strategic and operational needs. This approach allows for focused development and quicker realization of key sections.

International Gateways and “Belt and Road” Integration

Tibet’s unique geographical position, bordering countries like India, Nepal, Myanmar, and Bhutan, places it at the heart of the “Belt and Road” initiative, serving as a vital gateway between China and South Asia.

Upon completion, the Xinjiang-Tibet Railway will enable direct travel from Lhasa to Hotan, illustrating Tibet’s role not just in domestic but also in international connectivity. To meet both domestic and international strategic demands, China plans to orderly advance the construction of border port railways, gradually establishing a rail link towards South Asia.

Towards a Cross-Border Vision

In line with the Xinjiang-Tibet Railway construction, efforts will also focus on building the Peiku Tso to Gyirong Port railway (China-Nepal Railway), setting up a railway port station in Gyirong Town and paving the way for future extension towards Kathmandu, Nepal.

The feasibility of railways heading towards India, such as the Yadong and Purang ports, will be assessed in line with the Xinjiang-Tibet Railway’s progress and regional economic and social development needs, with construction to commence when opportune.

Navigating International Dynamics

The construction of transnational railways requires careful consideration of the international situation, ensuring that these ambitious projects not only enhance connectivity but also contribute to regional stability and development.

Tibet’s railway expansion represents a bold step forward in integrating this historically isolated region with the broader national and international community, fostering economic growth, cultural exchange, and strategic security.

Tibet’s Railway Expansion by 2025: Paving New Paths

Transforming Travel and Trade in Tibet

By 2025, significant strides in Tibet’s railway infrastructure are set to revolutionize connectivity within and beyond the region. The ambitious plan includes the implementation of key railway sections and upgrades that will enhance both internal and external transportation links.

Key Projects and Upgrades

  • Sichuan-Tibet Railway (Yarlung Tsangbo Section): This section is crucial for connecting Tibet to Sichuan, facilitating easier travel and commerce.
  • Xinjiang-Tibet Railway (Shigatse-Peiku Tso Section) and Yunnan-Tibet Railway (Bomi-Ranwu Section) will proceed smoothly, enhancing connections from Tibet to Xinjiang and Yunnan, respectively.
  • Electrification of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway (Golmud-Lhasa Section): This upgrade is set to improve efficiency and capacity, marking a significant leap towards modernizing Tibet’s primary railway artery.
  • New Projects: The commencement of the Xinjiang-Tibet Railway (Peiku Tso-Hotan Section), the duplication of the Lhasa-Shigatse Railway, and the Gyirong Port Railway construction are in the pipeline, aiming for a start within the target timeframe.

Currently, the Lhasa-Shigatse section operates on a single track. The expansion and development of multiple railway lines, including port railways, are part of a broader plan to weave an extensive rail network across Tibet.

railway line
Railway line

Planned Additions to the Network

New routes such as the Yushu-Chamdo, Nagqu-Chamdo, and Nagqu-Ngari railways will integrate with existing lines, creating a comprehensive border-to-border network. This network will directly connect all prefecture-level regions within Tibet, facilitate easy access to neighbouring provinces, and extend Tibet’s reach across China.

The “Two Horizontal, Three Vertical” Strategy

Tibet’s mid- to long-term railway construction plan envisions a “Two Horizontal, Three Vertical” main corridor network, ensuring swift rail connections among Tibet’s seven prefecture-level regions:

  • Horizontal: Shigatse-Lhasa-Lhoka-Nyingchi-Chamdo-Chengdu and Ngari-Nakchu-Chamdo
  • Vertical: Hotan-Ngari-Shigatse-Lhasa-Lhoka-Nyingchi-Shangri-La-Lijiang, Xining-Golmud-Nagqu-Lhasa, and Xining-Yushu-Chamdo

Upon completion of the mid- to long-term projects by 2035, a rail network centered around Lhasa will emerge. This network will include new routes from Yushu to Chamdo, Nagqu to Chamdo, Nagqu to Ngari, and railways to the Yadong and Purang ports, alongside the electrification of the Lhasa-Shigatse Railway. By 2035, apart from the Nagqu-Ngari railway, other projects currently underway are expected to be operational.

Meeting Point of Innovation

The intersection of the Lhasa-Shigatse and Lhasa-Nyingchi railways at Xierong Station symbolizes the merging of traditional routes with modern innovation, marking a new era in Tibet’s transportation history.

This expansive railway development aims not only to enhance Tibet’s connectivity with China and neighboring countries but also to serve as a vital link in promoting economic growth, cultural exchange, and regional integration.

Strategic Expansion of Tibet’s Railway Network: Enhancing Connectivity and Development

Prioritizing External and Mainline Channels

Following the development of primary external and regional mainline railway connections, the focus is shifting to support Tibet’s future economic and social growth and resource development. The plan involves advancing the construction of branch railways, such as development-oriented local railways in resource-rich and densely populated areas.

Spotlight on G318 National Highway and Mozhugongka-Lhasa Section

A notable example is the famous Mozhugongka-Lhasa section along the G318 national highway, with plans to complete the Lhasa to Mozhugongka railway by 2035. Additionally, long-term projects include constructing railways from Saga to Gertse, Shigatse to Shenzha to Bangoin, Mozhugongka to Dingqing, Nedong to Cuona, Dinggyê to Kangmar to Qonggyai, Mainling to Metog to Zayü, and Chamdo to Ngawa. Except for the Chamdo to Ngawa line, these are internal railways within Tibet, aiming to expand network coverage systematically.

Transition from “13th Five-Year” to “14th Five-Year” Plans

Most of the lines mentioned in the “14th Five-Year” Tibet Autonomous Region Railway Network Plan were also featured in the previous iteration (“13th Five-Year” Plan). However, the new plan introduces several detailed adjustments, especially concerning the Sichuan-Tibet Railway’s route and the addition of a Chamdo (Chaya) to Ngawa line, potentially acting as a link between the Sichuan-Tibet Railway and the Xining-Chengdu Railway.

Evolving Routes and Plans

The routes for the Yunnan-Tibet Railway and the differences in the Xinjiang-Tibet Railway’s Shigatse to Saga section highlight the evolving nature of Tibet’s railway planning. The distinctions between the new and old plans underscore the strategic shifts and the incorporation of additional routes to enhance connectivity.

Comprehensive Coverage and Reduced Transportation Costs

Upon completion of the “14th Five-Year” plan, the railway network’s coverage will extend to 100% of the prefecture-level regions within Tibet. By 2035, the network aims to cover 74.3% of the county-level administrative regions, significantly improving regional accessibility.

The construction of Tibet’s railway network, introducing multiple access points from Sichuan, Xinjiang, Yunnan, and Qinghai, tightens the link between Tibet and the rest of China. This integration not only shortens the spatial and temporal distance between the frontier and the inland but also effectively reduces the transportation costs for goods entering and exiting Tibet, fostering a more interconnected and economically vibrant region.

About the author

The Tibetan Travel website's creator, hailing from Lhasa, is a cultural enthusiast. They promote responsible tourism, connecting the world to Tibet's beauty and heritage. Awards recognize their contribution.

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