Qinghai-Tibet Railway History Of The “Snow-Covered Plateau“ Construction
The Qinghai-Tibet Railway, often heralded as an engineering marvel, is a high-altitude railway that extends from Xining in Qinghai Province to Lhasa in the Tibet Autonomous Region. Spanning over 1,956 kilometers (1,215 miles), it is the world's highest railway, with sections running over 5,000 meters above sea level. The railway is also known as the “sky road” due to its high elevation and the vast, sky-touching plateaus it traverses.
This railway is not just a triumph of engineering but also a symbol of national pride and development. It has significantly reduced travel time between Qinghai and Tibet, from several days to just a few hours, thereby opening new economic, cultural, and social exchanges. The railway's construction is seen as a testament to human determination and ingenuity, overcoming some of the harshest and most challenging environments on Earth.
Geographical and Cultural Context
The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, often referred to as the “Roof of the World” or the “Third Pole,” presents a unique and delicate environment. It's characterized by its high altitude, rugged mountainous terrain, and extreme climate. The plateau is also a region of significant cultural and spiritual importance, home to diverse communities including the Tibetans, known for their rich cultural heritage and Buddhist traditions.
The Qinghai-Tibet Railway traverses this vast and complex landscape, affecting not only the physical environment but also the socio-cultural fabric of the region. It passes through incredible natural scenery, including the Kunlun and Tanggula mountain ranges, vast grasslands, and the Changtang Plateau, offering passengers a view into one of the most breathtaking and remote parts of the world.
Initial Challenges: Altitude, Terrain, and Climate
The planning and design of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway faced unprecedented challenges primarily due to the extreme conditions of the region. The high altitude means lower oxygen levels, which not only affects the workers' health but also the performance of machinery. The terrain is a mix of rugged mountains and vast, open plateaus, making it difficult to lay tracks and build infrastructure. The climate poses its own set of challenges with freezing temperatures, strong winds, and a thin atmosphere, all of which impact construction and maintenance.
Engineering Solutions for Permafrost, Seismic Activity, and Environmental Protection
One of the most significant challenges was building on permafrost - ground that remains completely frozen for two or more years. Traditional construction methods could cause the ground to thaw, leading to instability and potential railway damage. Engineers designed elevated tracks and special foundations to ensure stability and minimize heat impact. The region is also prone to seismic activity, requiring the railway to be designed with flexible structures that can withstand earthquakes.
Environmental protection was a paramount concern. The plateau is home to fragile ecosystems and rare wildlife. Measures were taken to ensure the least possible disruption, including building wildlife passages and strict protocols to prevent pollution and damage to the sensitive environment.
Route Selection and Key Construction Milestones
Selecting the route for the railway was a complex process that involved extensive surveys and considerations of geographical, climatic, and environmental factors. The chosen route had to balance the shortest possible distance, minimal environmental impact, and feasible construction and maintenance. It also needed to connect key population centers and resources.
This construction is divided into three parts: The first part reflects the highway construction, the second part reflects railway construction from Xining (capital of Qinghai Province) to Golmud and the third part reflects the Golmud to Lhasa (capital of Tibet Autonomous Region) railway construction.
In 1953, The People's Liberation Army battalion commander Xiaojian Fei was appointed to build a highway to Tibet under the leadership of Mushengzhong. Previous Kuomintang Major General He Wenbo was one of the construction workers. Xieyu Chen who returned to China after studying railway technology overseas was designated as the project engineer. Almost all of the construction workers can not bear leaving their homes while thrown into such a harsh environment. Even Xieyuchen escaped once because what he dreamed of was to build a railway but first, they had to complete the highway to Tibet due to other difficulties and hardships.
Only after the highways were completed did the chance to build the Qinghai to Tibet train arrive. During the construction of the first phase of the project, they were plauged with a series of natural disasters plus a famine. As a result, the project was stopped after they had built some of the first part of the Qinghai-Tibet train. It was put into operation in 1984. The first part railway refers to Xining to Golamad section which is 846 km long with an average altitude 3,000 m traversing the mountains, the desert grasslands, and salt marshes.
With the national economic development and accelerating development of the west, the railway's transport capacity well way short of the required demand. A large scale of expansion began. The sone from the first geneartion continuted the hard work with the Railway corps that was left incomplete. Through new and old hardships, they built the train track to Golmud. The first partion was now offically completed. The vast majority of goods exported to Tibet for its development are going from this route. So this railway was renowned by the surrounding people as a united line, transportation line, happy line and lifeline.
However, due to permafrost, high altitude sickness, and ecological fragility, 60,000 troops had to stop their advancing work near the foot of the Kunlun Mountain. While Xiao Jianfei’s son was at Fenghuo Moutnain (5010 m) to study the change of weather in order to find a solution to the permafrost problem. All of his family people didn’t understand him and thought he was a nut.
After 20 years’ of his perseverance and research Xie Shangfeng’s (Xieyuchen’s son) effortd where successful and won valuable research results.
This allowed for the the third generation to continue their dream by putting their research results into practice. Building the second part of Qinghai-Tibet Railway started on on June 29, 2001, that is the construction on the Golmud-Lhasa section. They found many means to resolve the problem of frozen earth. One of them is to build high bridges to support the train track, so that the frozen earth will not affect the train, regardless of the temperature changes.
The problem of setting the highest speed of 100 km per hour in the permafrost region, achieving zero emissions, and supplying oxygen from Xining station also came to them, but they challenged and won. The whole rail line was officially put into operation on July 1, 2006. The Qinghai-Tibet train became a world-class snow-covered railway which is the highest and longest plateau railway. It was the first railway to connect Tibet with the rest of China.
When the road was finished, the mysterious Tibet with many beautiful legends and ancient faiths became known to outside people.
The Qinghai-Tibet Railway is an extraordinary feat of engineering, overcoming immense geographical and climatic challenges to connect the remote Qinghai-Tibet Plateau with the rest of China. It stands as a symbol of human ingenuity and determination, significantly impacting the region's socio-economic development and cultural integration while navigating complex environmental concerns. This railway not only represents a technical triumph but also a new era of connectivity and progress for the communities it serves.