China’s new rail network, already the world’s longest, will soon stretch considerably farther
Record-breaking milestones have become routine in the breathtaking development of high-speed railways in China, known as gaotie. In just five years, since the first one connected Beijing with the nearby port of Tianjin in 2008, high-speed track in service has reached 10,000 kilometres (6,200 miles), more than in all of Europe. The network has expanded to link more than 100 cities. In December the last section was opened on the world’s longest gaotie line, stretching 2,400km from Beijing to Shenzhen, on the border with Hong Kong (see map). The network has confounded some sceptics who believed there would not be enough demand. High-speed trains carry almost 2m people daily, which is about one-third of the total number of rail passengers.
Officials have given the project the ponderous name of the Lanxin Railway Second Double-Tracked Line. This is to distinguish it from a conventional line from Lanzhou to Xinjiang (the first syllables of which form the name Lanxin) that was completed in 1962. Oddly, however, it does not follow the same route. Instead of heading north from Lanzhou along the old Silk Road through Gansu, it detours into adjacent Qinghai province on the Tibetan plateau and opts for a far tougher route through the snowy Qilian Mountains before re-entering Gansu 480km later and picking up the old trail into Xinjiang.
Reports in the official media about the new Lanxin line are for the most part silent about the reasons for this diversion. There is little economic pull between Qinghai and Xinjiang. Just one flight a day takes off from Xining, the capital of Qinghai, to Urumqi. There are as many as eight a day from Lanzhou. In 2011 China Daily, an English-language newspaper in Beijing, quoted an unnamed researcher from the China Academy of Railway Sciences as saying it would be difficult to make any money from the line. “It’s more of a political thing,” he said. “It’s more about national defence and ethnic unity.” State-controlled media sometimes refer to it as “a political line, an economic line and a line of happiness”. The order is important.
Officials often talk of the line’s intended role in promoting ethnic harmony. But it appears to be more about knitting the country together. Tibetan exiles regard Qinghai as part of historical Tibetan territory. Some Uighurs want to make Xinjiang an independent “East Turkestan”. Officials say terrorist threats have been directed at the Xinjiang leg, and a recent incident in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square has been blamed on Uighur “terrorists” (see article). When the gaotie line opens, which is expected in late 2014, it will incorporate into the network three provinces covering about 30% of China’s land area. It will be a grand statement of the network’s, and the government’s, reach. Within a few years, Tibet is likely to be the only province without a high-speed line. But this is because even the government appears to reckon that a bullet train to Lhasa would be too costly. Tibet was connected to the conventional network only in 2006 after a remarkable feat of engineering involving track laid on permafrost.
Even some residents of Qinghai and Xinjiang seem unclear about the new rail line, most of which looks almost complete. East of Xining in Hongya village, where the Dalai Lama was born, a farmer describing himself as a relative of the exiled Tibetan leader says he believes the elevated track at the bottom of the valley 40 minutes’ drive away leads to Lhasa. In Xinjiang some residents seem unaware that the track will go through Qinghai. Few talk of the possible delights of sitting on a bullet train for eight hours between Urumqi and Lanzhou. Even though it will cut the journey time from 22 hours, it will still be far quicker to fly. Only one large city—Xining—lies between. Other stops are mostly remote towns.
One obvious benefit for Qinghai, or at least its image-obsessed officials, is an excuse to spend lots of money on the construction of business parks and apartment blocks around lavish new railway stations. The county surrounding the Dalai Lama’s ancestral home is engaged in an orgy of construction in what it calls a “high-speed rail new district”. Another benefit will be easier access for tourists to vast fields of rape that bloom in July in an explosion of photogenic yellow in Menyuan county north of Xining. Menyuan’s new station will disgorge passengers into the middle of such a field that is tended by inmates of a nearby prison (its function disguised by the name “Haomen farm”).
In the Qilian Mountains in the north of Menyuan 2,000 workers are toiling in plummeting temperatures on a 16km-stretch of tunnels, joined by a bridge, at an altitude of more than 3,600 metres (nearly 12,000 feet), the highest point of any high-speed track in the world. The official media have called this the most difficult tunnel project in Chinese railway history, owing to the area’s unstable geology. In September a 5.1-magnitude earthquake suspended work for a day. Construction of this segment is due to finish in early 2014 after more than three years. Beyond the mountains, on the fringe of the Gobi desert, workers face another problem: winds so strong that they derailed a train on the existing railway line in 2007. China Daily said gusts hurled grit so violently that it shattered the windows of engineers’ cars when they inspected the area three years ago. In one stretch, affected by gale-force winds 250 days of the year, the bullet train will pass through a concrete tunnel built to protect it.
Of the three provinces traversed by the line, Xinjiang has the most reason to celebrate, its excitement evident in the building of a colossal airport-style bullet-train station just outside Urumqi, with a vast new development zone around it. The province has 40% of the country’s reserves of coal. Bottlenecks on the conventional Lanxin line have frustrated efforts to exploit huge demand for coal in the east. Once the bullet trains are running, the plan is to dedicate the old line to freight. Zhao Jian of Beijing Jiaotong University is sceptical. “It’s preposterous”, he says. “Why not just build a new freight line?” To China’s rail planners, ever in pursuit of grandiose modernity, that would be too simple.