The Qinghai-Tibet Railway (青藏铁路) is a symbolic project in China's West Development Strategy and will play a significant role in accelerating the social and economic development of Qinghai Province and Tibet Autonomous Region. It’s envisaged that the rail link will help build up ethnic solidarity and benefit people of many ethnic groups. The construction of the line was a strategic decision taken by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the State Council at the outset of the 21st century.
The 1956-kilometer railway link begins in Xining, capital city of Qinghai Province and goes to Lhasa, capital city of Tibet Autonomous Region. The 814 kilometer-long stretch from Xining to Golmud was built in 1979 and started operation in 1984. The 1142 kilometer stretch between Golmud and Lhasa runs south along the Qinghai-Tibet Highway and was constructed by rebuilding the original 32-kilometer-long line from Golmud to Nanshankou and laying 1110 kilometers of new track.
The railway construction was complex and highly demanding for those involved. They confronted a range of challenges including perennial frozen ground, severe cold, a lack of oxygen because of the altitude and care had to be taken with the fragile ecology which was all round the construction work.
Work started on June 29, 2001. Up to March 25, 2006 investment in the project stood at 28.5 billion yuan (about US$3.6 billion) – 1.2 billion yuan (US$150 million) of which was spent on environmental protection projects. Trial operations will begin on July 1, 2006 with a total investment of 6.5 billion yuan (US$812 million) being made in this part of the project.
The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau has long been described as "the Roof of the World" and the third polar region. It's the starting point of many of China's rivers. In building the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, great care has been taken to protect the unique, fragile and sensitive geographical environment of this plateau.
The highest point on the line is 5,072 meters above sea level. The railway covers 960-kilometers at an altitude of more than 4000 meters and over 550 kilometers within the "frozen earth" area.
To effectively protect the ecological environment was an extremely important part of the railway's construction and is the focus of attention from both home and abroad. The Chinese authorities attached significant importance to this issue.
May 1984: The railroad between Xining and Golmud was completed and opened to traffic.
December 2000: The official project proposal for the Qinghai-Tibet Railway was handed to the State Council.
February 8, 2001: The Qinghai-Tibet Railway project was approved and initiated.
June 29, 2001: Central government agrees to invest 26.21 billion yuan (US$3.27 billion) to build Qinghai-Tibet Railway. Construction of the line starts at Golmud, Qinghai Province. Ceremonies to mark the beginning of work are held simultaneously in Golmud and Lhasa, capital city of Tibet Autonomous Region.
May 2002: Tests begin on frozen soil.
March 2003: Track laying for Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which passes through the Kunlun Mountain Tunnel, is completed.
June 2003: Construction begins on the world’s highest railway station -- Tanggula Mountain Station
August 2003: Bridgework for Qinghai-Tibet Railway finished passing through the Hoh Xil Nature Reserve.
July 2004: 450 kilometers of track work completed.
August 24, 2005: Track laying work through Tanggula Mountain area completed
August 2005: Work finished on roadbed, tunnel, bridge and culvert.
October 12, 2005: Track laying for the whole line completed.
March 1, 2006: Trial operation of freight train on the line.
May 1, 2006: Trial operation of non-passenger train on the line.
July 1 2006: Trial operation of the whole line.
The Golmud-Lhasa section of Qinghai-Tibet railway line is 1,142 kilometers long, with 960 kilometers of it sitting at 4,000 meters above sea level. The protection of the fragile ecosystem, the lack of oxygen at high-altitude and the perennial frozen ground were three of the challenges met in the construction of the line.
Plateau ecosystem not markedly affected
The Tibetan Plateau is the source of many rivers and home to many species of plants not found anywhere else in the world. The plateau ecosystem is primeval, peculiar and fragile. Before the start of the project experts from the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), Ministry of Land and Resources and Ministry of Railways conducted a thorough investigation into the ecosystem along the length of the line and worked out detailed environmental protection measures. One billion yuan was earmarked to protect the ecosystem as construction work progressed.
Cai Fan, deputy Party secretary of the Headquarters for Qinghai-Tibet Railway construction, said that the "fragile ecosystem" was taken into consideration even in the early planning stages. The design was drawn up to avoid locations that would affect the environment of nature reserves. Construction sites were selected and designed to ensure that vegetation was not destroyed. Construction firms signed "responsibility contracts" with environmental protection authorities in Qinghai Province and Tibet Autonomous Region accepting their authority.
The Qinghai-Tibet Railway travels through two state-level nature reserves – Hoh Xil and Qiangtang. To protect wildlife, 25 migration passages were built beside the railway. According to electronic monitoring in June 2005, a group of Tibetan Antelopes migrated freely through the passages. Investigations by SEPA and other authorities show that frozen soil, vegetation, wetlands, water quality in rivers along the railway have been effectively protected and the plateau ecosystem was not markedly affected.
No deaths from high-altitude oxygen deficiency
About 85 percent of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway is located in places where the altitude is over 4,000 meters, the annual average temperature is below zero and the air oxygen content is only 50 to 60 percent of that in lowland areas. These locations were described as the "forbidden zone" for human life due to the lack of oxygen, the incredible sandstorms, strong ultraviolet radiation and the regular outbreak of diseases.
To tackle health problems, a medical insurance system was put in place, according to Cai. A total of 115 medical facilities were set up along the railway, staffed with more than 600 medical professionals. Workers had access to rapid and effective medical treatment as well as regular health checks. They also enjoyed regular breaks from work to rest in low-altitude areas.
When working in the Kunlun Mountain Tunnel – 4,600 meters above seal level – workers have to carry a 5-kg oxygen cylinder to help with their breathing. Around 120,000 cylinders of oxygen were used in just one year's construction. China Railway 17th Group Co Ltd installed oxygen-supply pipelines in workers' dormitories. During the construction in Fenghuo Mountain Tunnel – 4,905 meters above sea level – China Railway 12th Group Co Ltd built an oxygen-producing station to "feed" the tunnel. The oxygen content in the tunnel reached 80 percent. Seventeen such stations were built along the railway line equipped with 25 high-pressure oxygen cabins which provide at least two hours of oxygen for each worker.
A total of 453,000 cases of sickness were reported during the construction period, including 427 cases of hydrocephalus and 841 cases of pulmonary edema, but no deaths were recorded.
"Museum" for frozen soil engineering
The volume of soil expands while freezing and reduces when thawing out in the summer. Affected repeatedly by this phenomena cracks can be seen in roads and houses. With low and high altitude, strong sunlight and frequent geological movements, the frozen ground on the Tibetan Plateau is extremely complex.
Borrowing ideas from research findings and successful experiences of other countries, Chinese experts adopted creative measures to deal with frozen soil engineering difficulties. Areas of frozen soil where geological structures are complicate were avoided. Bridges were built instead of roads in areas where the ground conditions were unstable.
Twenty other frozen earth engineering problems were solved during the construction by taking creative measures.
Zhang Luxin, leader of the project's expert consultancy team, said the possibility of large scale damage to the railway resulting from the frozen ground is remote. Trains operating on the line can travel at 100 kilometers per hour and it will be operational all the year round.
1. The highest railway in the world. About 960 kilometers of it are at an altitude of 4,000 meters and more with the highest point being 5,072 meters above sea level.
2. The longest plateau railway in the world. From Golmud of Qinghai Province to Lhasa, capital of Tibet Autonomous Region, the rail link crosses deserts, gobi, marshes, wetland, snow capped mountains and meadow with a total length of 1,142 kilometers.
3. The longest railway crossing on frozen-earth plateau with 550 kilometers built on a foundation of perennial and continually frozen ground.
4. The highest-altitude railway station in the world – Tanggula Railway Station, 5,068 meters above sea level, and covering an area of 77,000 square meters.
5. The highest frozen-earth plateau tunnel – Fenghuoshan Tunnel, 1,338 meters long on Fenghuo Mountain, 4,905 meters above sea level.
6. The longest frozen-earth plateau tunnel in the world – Kunlun Mountain Tunnel, 1,686 meters long, at an average altitude of 4,600 meters and with temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius. The oxygen content of the air is half that in plain areas.
7. The highest railway construction base – Amdo work site sits at an altitude of 4,704 meters.
8. The longest railway bridge on the line – Qingshuihe Bridge, 11.7 kilometers in length crossing Hoh Xil Nature Reserve at an average altitude of 4,600 meters.
9. The highest speed of any train on a plateau frozen-earth railway anywhere in the world. The Qinghai-Tibet train can reach speeds of 100 kilometers per hour on frozen-earth sections and up to 120 kilometers on other parts of the line.