The Construction of the Railway to Tibet

Chinese name: Qing Zang Tie Lu.

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Last update Oct 2006.

This railway line was opened to traffic on July 1st, 2006. This page tells about the construction, history, geography, technical data etc.

Links for travellers:

Links to other sites

Technical data Locomotives Environment protection
Discussions before construction
Peopledaily Newspaper Chinadaily Newspaper
China Daily Newspaper Environmental and other impact by the building of the line
Report by the International Campaign for Tibet, 
"Crossing the Line, China's Railway to Lhasa, Tibet"
Some info including an altitude profile is on


The Qinghai to Tibet railway line has been planned for long time. Already Sun Yat Sen included railway lines to Lhasa in his project to construct a Chinese railway network. In 1958, Mao Ze Dong and Chou En Lai mentioned the importance of this project. However, the technical and economical difficulties have stopped this project. The railway from Xining to Golmud was commenced in 1958, construction ended in 1960, was resumed in 1962 and completed in 1979. Much of the construction work was done by prisoners. The plan was to continue further, but in 1977, the project was stopped due to difficulties to assure the health of the construction staff, as well as difficulties with the permafrost. The railway Xining to Golmud (Tibetan language: Gormo, Chinese Ge'ermu) was used exclusively by the army until 1984, but then opened to the public. On Oct 7, 1994, the Chinese government ordered a feasibility study. Surveying was done in the second half of the 1990s. The party leader Jiang Zemin asked for accelerating the project in November 2000. In February 2001, the project was given green light by the State Planning Commision. Thus, on June 29, 2001, construction  started. This was actually a surprise to the planners. But construction was started, at least at both ends, Golmud and Lhasa. During the years before, the railway line from Xining to Golmud had been upgraded, and its capacity was increased. Construc tion starts from the end of the existing line near nanshankou, south of Golmud. Thus, transportation to the construction sites should be a good possibility.

The line runs from Golmud, roughly south-south-west, through Nanshankou, Kunlun Mountains, Tanggula Montains passes in Yushu and Haixi (Tibetan: Tsonub), Tuotuo Heyan, then over the Qinghai/Tibet border southwards to Anduo (Tibetan: Amdo), Nagqu, Damxung, Yangpachen. After that, the line turns southeast into Lhasa, ending just outside town.

The Railway has two main junctions (Golmud and Lhasa), eight stations and 20 other crossing points. Three
stations (Lungdho, Wutaolen, Thogthen River) are in Yushu/Kyegudo Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, two (Amdo and Nagchu) in Nagchu Prefecture and three (Damshung, Yangpachen and Zechu) in the
Lhasa District. Of the 20 crossing points, 15 are in Qinghai and the remainders in the Tibet Autonomous Region. The 15 small stations in Qinghai are Khunu Bridge, Donglung, Wonkhu, Nagri, Chunak-kha, Chumar, Mugsei Soglam, Luma Chu, Artao-lung, U-li, Thongthen River, Dichu-toe, Toema, Tang gu la, and U-nyok Chu. The five crossing points in Tibet are Thoe-gyu La, Lenthung Tsangpo, Gacha, Yuru, Sulu, U-ma Thang, and Dhachu-go.
The line crosses over the five major passes of Kunlun, Hoh-Xil, Fung-ho, Tang gu la (highest railway point in the world, 5072 meters) and Nyenchen Thangla.
It passes through eight basins, such as Shingta-Then, Chumar, Thogthen, Chutsen, Nagchu, Damshung, Yangpachen, and Lhasa.
According to Chinese Government sources, the project involved the permanent employment of 67,000 Chinese technicians and workers and another 16,000 workers seasonally employed locally. The work was given to contractors who brought their own work force into the area. Only "a handful" lost their life due to accidents in constrution work.

There are about 30 kilometers of tunnels and 286 bridges.

The 800 northmost kilometers have nearly no inhabitants. But the line runs more or less along the Golmud to Lhasa highway, pipeline and optical fiber cable.

594 km are in Qinghai, 548km in Tibet.

Map of Qinghai to Tibet Railway

For China, this line is interesting both economically and politically. It makes it possible to transport mineral resources from Tibet to the Chinese mainland. It will make economic development of Tibet easier, as transportation was limited to trucks on not-too-good streets.The railway vastly increases transport capacity and speed, as well as comfort for passengers. Politically speaking, the railway will make it easier to deploy Chinese troups into Tibet, and it will make it easier to keep control over this country. Tibetans fear an increased influx of Chinese population into Tibet. Addressing the Western Forum in Chengdu on October 22, 2000, Sun Yonfu, China's Vice Minister of Railways, said that China would build a railway to Lhasa "to promote the economic development of the Tibet Autonomous Region and to strengthen national defense".

According to official Chinese surveys, Tibet has proven deposits of 126 minerals, with a significant share of the world's reserves of uranium, lithium, chromite, copper, borax, and iron. Over the past four decades, the PRC government has steadily escalated its mining activities on the plateau. During Mao's Great Leap Forward, thousands of prisoners and forced immigrants were dispatched to mining camps in Tibet and Qinghai province. Mineral reserves are distributed throughout the plateau. More than 50 salt and chemical plants have been built around the Tsaidam Basin, whose products are exported to the Middle East and Europe. Near the start of the line south of Golmud, there have been found mineral resources: Copper, cobolt and gold. There is an oil refinery and a potassium products plant at Golmud. The railway will make transportation cheaper and more accessible, probably leading to new mines being opened.

Technically, building this line was very difficult. Part of the trouble is altitude. Much of the line is between 4000 and 5000 meters altitude, reducing human work capacity and endangering workers. Thus the work day was six hours only during construction. 160 km are from 4000 to 4500 m, 780 km from 4500 to 5000 m, 20 km above 5000 m. Highest point at Tanggula pass at 5072m and Tangula station at 5068 m. This is where the Yangzi river originates. Mountain climbers fear altitude sickness. It affects construction workers and railway employees as well as passengers just as much. Even in top physical condition people get tired fast. Many Chinese newspaper reports emphasize the need for good medical support. Along the line, there were medical stations, making it possible to help workers within two hours. Medical staff is employed to follow the passenger trains and is stationed at major stations for first aid.

The other problem is permafrost. Permafrost means frozen soil, frozen to a large depth. However, during summer the uppermost layer will thaw, and the soil will collapse when ice turns into water. Thus, anything constructed on top of it will be moving around. This makes such soil unsuitable for a railway. At some places, the ground moves up and down one meter during the year. There are also numerous landslides. Ways to work around this problem is to remove topsoil with water content, cool down the soil below the railway, insulate it from summer heat, or build the railway on bridges fundamented deeply below the thawing layer. Part of the story is that vegetation helps to isolate the soil and prevent deep thawing, hence a strong emphasis on environment protection. The authorities say more than 1 billion RMB were used for environment protection measures. From Xidatan (quite far north) to Anduo, 550 km is permafrost terrain. 90 km south of Anduo there is sporadic permafrost. Otherwise there is seasonal frozen ground 3-5 meters deep. Russian experts are being consulted, as the Russians have permafrost along the BAM railway and other places. They have also built a lot of the railway on landfills, and got the rocks for this from quite far distances. Cutting is the most dangerous thing to do in permafrost-affected soil. However, permafrost in Tibet is different from permafrost in the high northern altitude: Sun radiation in Tibet is intense in summer, resulting in more surface thawing, and that effect is hitherto not well researched. Reports tell that there are already cracks forming in construction elements of the railway.

The weather on the high plateau is quite extreme, too: About 100 days per year there are storms, i.e. wind stronger than strength 8, about 200 days per year there are sub-zero temperatures. There are also often thunderstorms, affecting the reliability of electric lines and signalling.

Another difficulty is the general lack of vegetation, leading to sand and dust storms. Again, planting vegetation may help here.

About 50% of the line in areas often having earthquakes, part of them at a level of 7 to 9 on the Richter scale.

In winter the construction work ceased altogether.

There are a few very long bridges in order to allow wild animals to pass under the line (and probably because bridges can be fundamented easier in permafrost terrain).

The trains use pressurized passenger cars and special locomotives. Diesel locomotives suffer from lack of oxygen at altitudes, thus three locomotives have only the power of two ones at lower altitudes. China Railways Magazine reports that special locomotives have been developed in 2002, on the basis of the DF8B engine. However, the final engines use improted parts from the US.

Technical specifications of the line:
Substructures to be of class 1 quality (i.e. national main lines), even if traffic volume will be low. Ruling grade 20 per thousand, curve radius min. 600 m, on long plateau stretches min. 800 m or even more. Speed 100 km/h, diesel traction with possibility of electrification. Speed may be increased in the future.

Project leader was Zhao Xingyu. The whole project was estimated to be finished in 2007 but was completed one year ahead of time in summer 2006. Trial operation even started in October 2005.

Construction of the line finished

China daily reports on October 15, 2005, that the line itself is finished and a ceremony to celebrate this held this day in Lhasa. It was expected that testing would require another 15 months.

(China Daily November 8, 2001):

Fu Zhihuan, minister of railways, said his ministry is building four trial projects along frozen areas in Tibet which will provide them with first-hand information ahead of large-scale construction next year. "With those live tests and thorough geographic research conducted in the plateau over past decades, we are confident we will finish the huge railway project with high quality and on time," Fu said at a news conference held by the Information Office under the State Council Wednesday. His ministry has organized a construction team of 11,000 workers to lay the track along the roof of the world with some local people also involved in the project. After professional training, they will lay the track close to their home towns. The ministry has dispatched fully-equipped professional medical teams to ensure workers' health and safety at high altitudes where the air is thin. Fifty people who suffered altitude sickness were taken to hospitals at lower elevation while the rest adapted to the plateau environment. The ministry had invested a total of 770 million yuan (US$93 million) in the project by October, starting the construction of 55 bridges and three tunnels. Fu said his ministry attached great importance to the environment protection of the plateau, and protective measures to preserve vegetation and wildlife had been detailed to construction units. Wang Yuqing, vice-director of the State Environmental Protection Administration, said his administration has kept close eye on the impact the railway project is having on local ecology, and was satisfied with the work so far.
Responding to questions about the investment in the railway , Zhang Guobao, vice-minister of the State Development Planning Commission , said the central government would foot the entire 26.2 billion yuan (US$3.2 billion) investment, and no foreign loans or special treasury bonds would be required.

My comment: Initial cost estimates had been as low as 14 billion Yuan, later revised to 26 billion. The price per kilometer (23 million Yuan) seems quite low, especially when considering that construction will be on high altitude and in difficult terrain. Average price per kilometer for railways built in 1996 to 2000 was 39 million per km. The Baikal-Amur railway (BAM) in Russia cost about two to three times that amount. It is also difficult to see that this investment will pay of. Today's transportation along the highlway is less than 300.000 tons per year.

From Peopledaily, April 5, 2001: The first 100 km of the line to be finished in 2001:

The 100-kilometer section from Golmud to Wangkun of the Qinghai to Tibet railway will be built this year, a government official of northwest China's Qinghai Province disclosed Thursday. Track laying is to start from Nanshankou on July 1, 2002. (Nanshankou is 32 km south of Golmud, the existing railway to there is being upgraded). China Daily reported on July 2, 2002 that rail laying actually has started on June 29, 2002. Ministry of Railways reoports that on July 30, 2002, 40.4 km of track and 62 km of ties had been laid.

The official told Xinhua that a railway section connecting Xining, capital of Qinghai Province, and Golmud, which was built 10 years ago, had suffered "illnesses" compounded by frozen earth on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. "Chinese railway experts have successfully cured the 'illnesses' in three years' efforts," he added.

Su predicted that the railway will extend to Tibet's border within two years.

Environment protection

In some parts of the railway, designers have set aside areas for building special passages for wild animals. However, as the animal migration pattern is mostly unknown, their effect will be doubtful. It is also difficult to predict if paching will increase due to easier access, and if destruction of grasslands will increase after ihnflux of Chinese immigrants into Tibet.

Excerpts from Peopledaily, June 30, 2001: Construction starts

China began construction on Friday 29 June 2001. Opening ceremonies were held respectively at the railway's starting point, Golmud in Qinghai Province, and the terminal, Lhasa in Tibet, Friday morning.

 The two sites for the opening ceremony were decorated with auspicious Tibetan designs, colorful buntings, flags and balloons. The sound of gongs and drums resounded in the air. Tens of thousands of people of Han, Tibetan and other ethnic groups cheered and clapped.

Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji announced the start of construction project at a ceremony held in Golmud, Qinghai Province.

The railway starts at Golmud in Qinghai Province and terminates at Lhasa in Tibet with a total length of 1,118 km. It will be the longest and most elevated railway built on highlands in the world. It will be the first railway in Tibet.

As early as the 1950s, late CPC chairman Mao Zedong and other senior Chinese leaders endorsed the construction of the Qinghai- Tibet Railway. The central government of China officially approved the gigantic project in western China early this year.

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway is a key project in China's Tenth Five-Year Plan (2001-2005) period and one of the four major projects to be built in western China.

Representatives of the 10 construction teams, selected from 32 bidders, also attended the ceremony in Golmud.

Xia Xianfang, a senior engineer of the No.1 Survey and Designing Institute under the Ministry of Railways , said, "We are capable of reducing the effects of construction on the local environment to the minimum. Every inch of grass will be protected. "  (My addition: Other sources doubt this. It is expected that the railway may well have a very detrimental effect, due to increased immigration, increased poaching and leasier transport of forest products out of Tibet.)

Xinhua news agency, Beijing, December 12, 2002

Construction of the most difficult section of the... railway across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau will begin next year.

... 190 km of track will be laid through the Dangla Mountains in the east of Tibet in 2003. The highest spot on the railway will be 5,072 metres above the sea level.
The track to be built will run through a 550-km stretch of permafrost...

Zeng Peiyan, minister in charge of the State Development Planning Commission, said the government would invest 5.6bn yuan (677m US dollars) in the construction of the Qinghai-Tibet railway next year.

The government invested 5.3bn yuan in building the railway in 2002, completing 121 km of track.

China Daily 13 Oct 2003

Construction on the 3,345-meter Yangbajain No. 1 tunnel on the Qinghai-Tibet railway was completed Sunday in the Tibet Autonomous Region in southwest China. The tunnel is 4,264 meters above sea level, located 80 kilometers away from the regional capital Lhasa. It is the longest tunnel built in areas with an elevation of over 4,000 meters in China,

Completion of the Yangbajain tunnel marks the completion of all the seven tunnels on the Qinghai-Tibet railway.

According to the Headquaters of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway Construction, by Oct. 11, a total of 12.3 billion yuan (1.49 billion US dollars), (out of 26 billion Yuan estimated project cost) had been used until now in tracklaying on the rail route.

Technical Data (from Ministry of Railways, June 30, 2001):

Total length is 1142 kilometers, 1110 kilometers of newly-built line among them. (Peopledaily reports 1118 km).

Total investment to be 26.2 billion Yuan. (Later reports speak of 36 billion Yuan).
965 kilometers above 4000 meters altitude. Golmud is at 3080 meters. Peak near the mountain "Tanggula"at the Qinghai-Tibet border 5072 meters above sea level. Totally 7 percent of the line will be on bridges or in tunnels, the longest tunnel being 1720 m long.

The 846-kilometre-long Xining-Golmud part of the line was completed in 1979 and opened for public traffic in 1984. Upgrading of the section, with 740 million Yuan (US$89.16 million) in funding from the Central government, was started at the beginning of 2000 and finished by October 2001. This line has diesel traction (DF4B).

Planned line capacity is 8 pairs of passenger trains and a one-way flow of goods of 5 million tons.

In Autumn 2001, the work force came up to 67000 people. Workers from all over China come to Golmud to try to get a job. The pay is double of the normal construction workers pay, about 4000 Yuan. However, because of high altitude, the typical work done in a day corresponds only to two hours work in low altitudes. Many workers have to leave after a short period, because they cannot acclimatize to high altitudes.

The altitude profile of the railway:

Golmud (Qinghai Province) 3080 m

Kunlun pass 4722 m

Dangla (Tanggula) pass 5000 m

Tanggula Shan 5072 m (highest point)

Lhasa 3590 m

The highest larger station will be 2 km west of the town of Nagqu, 4500 meters above sea level. ("Station" here means something larger than just a passing loop). However, from photos it looks like the highest station at all, Tanggula at 5068 m, has four tracks.

286 bridges and 10 tunnels must be constructed.

AFAIKwind power plants as well as solar panels are used to generate the necessary electricity for stations along the line. Cables must be specially protected against thunderstorms.

The passenger trains will have pressurized cars, and doctors and nurses will be on board to cater for passengers getting altitude problems. Oxygen will be available.

There are large oil reservoirs along the line near Lhuenpola basin (4700 m) as well as near Jangtang and Kyegudo.

As of now the only connection between Golmud and Lhasa is a bumpy and undercapacity, congested road. The trip takes three days. With trains, this can be reduced to 24 hours for freight and 18 hours for passenger trains. (These numbers were the plan, actuall running time for passenger trains in 2006 was 12 hours only).

The new station at Lhasa will be ready in 2003.

In the 1970s construction was started on a line from Qinghai, the cheapest of the alternatives, but then stopped in 1984 once it proved too difficult and costly.

Budget data are varying, between first, 14 billion Yuan was mentioned, then 19, and then 26.2 billion Yuan.

Highest railway tunnel in the world

There is a tunnel near the summit at 5000 meters above sea level: Feng Huo Shan tunnel, 1338 meters long. China Railways Ministry News reports several times in August 2002 about progress in its building.


Some more info, from BBC News

Peopledaily October 21, 2002 is an update on the Tibet railway, stating that the summit tunnel, called Feng huo shan, has been completed on October 19, at an elevation of 4,905 meters elevation. Its length is 1,338 meters. This would seem to indicate excellent progress towards the 2007 completion date.

In 2002, the first 116 km of the line were finished.

In October 2003, the longest tunnel, 3345 m long Yangbajain tunnel, has been completed.

On June 22, 2004, track laying began from Amdo base in Tibet, in addition to the base at Nanshankou.

On August 9, 2004, the railway reached Tongtianhe station. 421 km of track laying have been completed so far (People Daily).

Total length of track until 11 October 2004 is 618 km, see < href="">Peopledaily.

Locomotives to be used

As diesel locomotives get trouble when oxygen is scarce, new engines have to be constructed. On 15 November 2002, Qishuyang locomotve factory has unveiled the first of a new class of locomotives for the Tibet railway, DF8CJ 9001. It is called "Holy Boat on the Snow Land". It uses two 16V280ZJA diesel engines. There are various modifications of the usual DF8B engine to cope with the extreme weather conditions and altitude. The engine generates 2700 kW at 5100 m altitude and 3400 kW at 2800 m. Max speed is 100 km/h.

Picture of this engine.

However, the final engines were of a different construction, made in cooperation with General Electric.

The first construction engine has been transported to Amdo by four trucks and put into operation (Xinhua March 24, 2004). The locomotive weighs 86 tons. No type info is available. Amdo (Anduo) is situated 4704 m above sea level. (

History before construction

Some history of the preparation of the railway construction, and alternative plans.


Some more about discussions before the building began (1998): (

At an international development conference held in Xining city, Qinghai province from 21 - 24 July 1998, the feasibility and cost benefits of the proposed railway were discussed by Chinese and Western scientists. A foreign delegate who was present at the conference told TIN that Chinese scientists admitted the extension of the railway could not be justified on economic grounds, but said that there was a clear political need for the railway - particularly in order to strengthen border security following nuclear testing by India earlier this year.

A report in the Qinghai Daily on 12 September 2001 described the railway as the "political [front] line" in consolidating the south-western border defences and stabilising Tibet. The Tibet Autonomous Region five-year plan states that building a railway in Tibet "is of the utmost importance for consolidating the south-western border of the motherland, exploiting rich natural resources along the railway and establishing close economic and political ties between Tibet and other parts of the country." The proposed railway would further remove the barriers preventing the complete integration of Tibet into China in both political and economic terms.

Environment protection during construction

China Railways Magazine 2/2002 had an article describing the environment protection rules to be followed. They all sounded quite sound, typical for a construction project in a fragile area. They include that road must only be built if absolutely necessary. Cars are not allowed to drive at other places han roads. Roads and camps shall be established on rocky ground, toilet facilities for the camps, education about environment for the workers. Included are also rules for taking stone and earth, and depositing it.

The main problem is the permafrost, which, if disturbed, may result in unrecoverable damage to the area. It is no big deal if the railway is to be built on rocky ground. The trouble starts on wet ground, because it moves with freezing and thawing during the season. The Tibetan plateau is, in this way, worse than areas in Alaska, Siberia and Scandiavia, because there is more radiation during summer. The uppermost, active layer is deeper than in the far North. The frozen earth is also unstable owing to a relatively high earth temperature. The railway presents, therefore, an engineering and ecological challenge of proportions no other country has ever had to face. Reducing the amount of heat descending from the earth's surface, thereby increasing reserves of frozen earth, is the ultimate aim of construction. In order to adapt to various frozen earth characteristics, different forms of roadbed have been adopted, such as the slab-stone ventilation roadbed, pipe ventilation roadbed (PVC pipes through the bottom), a sun-shaded roadbed, and a bridge-style road. The method most widely applied on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway is the slab-stone ventilation roadbed. Zhang Luxin is the chief scientist for permafrost research and the slabstone roadbaed is his invention.

Other ways to manage this include filling with waterpermeable material, insulating the railway dams agains water getting in, all in order to keep the ground frozen in winter. The dams are typically higher than in normal terrain, in order to draw the frozen layer higher up. Some construction should be done and completed in one cold season. Sometimes bridges will be used in wet terrain, instead of dams, and extra drainage will be provided. My general impression is that the Chinese take the environment protection seriously. However, the environment in such high altitude and dry areas is generally difficult and unforgiving of any impacts, thus it is difficult to believe there will not be detrimental effects.

18 million yuan has been spent in extensive planting around the Yangpachan area which was bare.

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway traverses Hoh Xil, known as "no-man's land" and a wildlife paradise. Each year, animals migrate here to mate, and with this in mind, engineers designed a bridge-like safety channel at the Wudaoliang Basin, spreading animal dung over it to encourage wild animals to pass through. Trains crossing this zone are prohibited from blowing their whistles.

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