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Why did China build Railway to Tibet ? A documentay on Building Qinghai-Tibet Railway.

June,10 2023 BY Derek Wong 0 COMMENTS

Why was the Qinghai-Tibet Railway built?  

The answer is quite simple, that is, to improve the transportation on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, and to boost development of this region. In China, there is a proverb saying that "If people want to be rich, they must first build roads." 

Before 2006, most people could only get into or out of Tibet by road. It usually took a few days. Though they could also travel by air, most people were not able to afford the one-way air ticket of over RMB 1,500. Thus, this region needed other means of transportation badly to solve these problems. The most possible way was train to Tibet

Before the construction of the railway, people coming to Tibet were amazed at the majesty of Tibet’s snowfield scenery. Cut off from the outside world, everything on the plateau - its snow-capped mountains, grassland, lamas, prayer banners, the Potala Palace, and the Tibetan people living 4,000 meters or more above sea level, had an aura of mystery.

The scenery in Tibet was so beautiful, but it lagged behind other areas of the world. Located at a remote area in south-west China with a harsh climate and geographic environment, Tibet’s inadequate transportation facilities restricted its economic development, and communication with the world. It was obvious that if Tibet was to develop and catch up with the world, there must be a railway. To build a railway in Tibet would definitely benefit its local development in many aspects.

Hence, a plan to build a railway to Tibet was made. In fact, four possible railway routes were designed. These were the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, Sichuan-Tibet Railway, Yunnan-Tibet Railway and Xinjiang-Tibet Railway. After careful study and discussing the feasibility of constructing the railways, the scientists settled on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. Because, aside from the frozen earth problem, it was by far the best choice of the four, as it avoided avalanches, desert, and marshland. It is nevertheless a project up to now unequalled in engineering cost, project duration, and transportation capacity.

On June 29, 2001, construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway started at Golmud, Qinghai Province. However, things were not that simple. Its construction experienced ups and downs which one can know from the history of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway

Milestones of Qinghai Tibet Railway Construction

 "It is impossible to build a railway to Lhasa across the Kunlun Mountain Range", It was wrote by the modern railway travel expert Mr. Paul in his book "Travel around China".  In such a complex geological conditions , It was extremely difficult to build roads and rail tracks on the snowland. But the Chinese government determined to construct Tibet Railway since the great Chinese leader Mao Zedong sent a team to the Tibetan plateau to investigate the feasibility of constructing the railway in 1955. Since then, China was facing numerous difficulties and consuming half the world , and finally to build the fantastic railway to Lhasa.  

Tibet Railway Workers

In 1956, the Ministry of Railways officially launched the primary planning of the project. In the summer of 1957, a 13-person team was dispatched to start the survey.

In September 1958,construction of the Xining-Golmud section of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway was secretly launched in Xining, and the Guanjiao Tunnel at the same time. However, the project was interrupted many times due to economic difficulties.

In 1974,, the construction of the Xining-Golmud section was resumed. At the same time, the scientific research, survey and design work of the Golmud-Lhasa Section was also restarted again.

In September 1979, the first phase of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway from Xining to Golmud was completed. And it was opened for civil use in 1984. Due to the limited technological and economic capabilities of China at that time, the construction of the railway from Golmud to Lhasa was not continued.

On June 29th, 2001, construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway officially started at Golmud, Qinghai Province.

On August 24th, 2005,On August 24th, 2005, track was laid at the railway's highest point, the Tanggula Pass, 5,072 m (16,640 feet) above sea level.


On October 12th, 2005, Lhasa-Golmud Railway was completed with rails reaching the Lhasa Railway Station. But, there was still a lot of work to do, like track testing and signaling work.

On July 1st, 2006 , the world famous Qinghai-Tibet Railway was put into operation. At the beginning, only three train routes ran: daily trains running from Beijing to Lhasa and on alternate days between Chengdu-Lhasa and Chongqing-Lhasa, and between Xining-Lhasa and Lanzhou-Lhasa.

As of Oct 1st, 2006 , As of Oct 1st, 2006, two more trains, from Shanghai and Guangzhou, were officially set for operation on alternate days, and both of the two trains ran every other day.


In July 2010 , the Shanghai–Lhasa service became daily, and a daily service between Xining and Lhasa was added, but the service was then suspended for the winter low season.

On September 26th 2010  the construction of Lhasa-Shigatse Railway, the first extension of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, was started. It will be finished in 2014.

The number of passengers taking the train has increased from 6.4 million in 2006, to 10 million in 2011 and 10.76 million in 2012.  

Tibet Railway Extension

Tibet Railway

Lhasa - Shigatse Railway opened to passengers on August 15, 2014. It is a extension line of Qinghai-Tibet Railway with altitudes ranging from 3,600 to 4,000 metres.

The Lhasa to Nyingchi was approved on 31 October 2014. The length of the first section of the railway from Lhasa to Bayi is 434 km (270 mi) and 32 km (20 mi) will be electrified from Lhasa to Xierong, the construction was expected to start at the beginning of 2015, and expected to open in 7 years. 

Derek Wong

About the Author - Derek Wong

Mr. Derek Wong is sales manager of Tibet Vista Tour as well as designer of Tibet Vista websites and has been providing specialized travel services to Tibet Vista travelers for years. He has continued to hone his professional expertise by completing numerous travel specialist courses to China and Tibet and Nepal and Bhutan.

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