IV. Building an Ecology-Friendly Railway Line — the Qinghai-Tibet Railway

There was no highway in Tibet before its peaceful liberation. Economic and social contacts in Tibet and its contacts with the outside world depended solely on human power and draft animals, as well as post roads. Now, a transportation network consisting of 24,000 km of highways, a dozen air routes and more than 1,000 km of pipelines has been completed. Still, Tibet remains the only autonomous region (province) in China inaccessible by rail. Transportation has long been a bottleneck holding back the economic and social development of Tibet and hindering the improvement of the people’s living standards. Building the Qinghai-Tibet Railway has been the long-cherished wish of people of all ethnic groups in Tibet. It is not only essential for strengthening links between Tibet and the hinterland, accelerating the economic and social development of Tibet and improving the local people’s material and cultural well-being, but is also of great significance for enhancing ethnic unity and common prosperity.

On June 29, 2001, with the approval of the Central Government, construction of the section between Golmud and Lhasa began as part of the second phase of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway project. This railway line will be 1,142 km long, and will involve an investment of 26.21 billion yuan. It will take six years to complete. Making the Qinghai-Tibet Railway an ecology-friendly railway line was the goal set at the time the project was appraised.

— During the initial research period, an appraisal of the impact of the railway line on the environment was carefully conducted. In the initial period of the project, relevant departments chose several aspects that would affect the ecological environment, and conducted intensive research. On the basis of this research and with arrangement by the Chinese government, specialists from various fields carried out in-depth on-the-spot investigations, and conducted a sound scientific appraisal of the impact of the railway building on Tibet’s ecology and environment in light of the requirements of the environmental protection, water and soil conservation, and wild animals protection laws, and those of the “National Plan for Eco-environmental Improvement,” and the “National Program for Eco-environmental Protection.” They compiled a report and some other documents, offering their appraisals of the environmental impacts, together with proposals for protection of the ecological environment. In light of the requirements of the appraisal, a guideline for the construction of the project was worked out, i.e., “giving priority to prevention and protection and attaching equal importance to both development and protection.” The result of the appraisal of the ecological environment was used to guide the designing and construction of the railway line and its environmental management. Some 1.2 billion yuan will be spent on environmental protection facilities for the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, a record sum in this aspect for rail construction in China.

— At the design stage of this railway line, protection of the ecological environment was the deciding factor in the plan for the project. Protection of the ecological environment has been an essential concern in the design of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. The routes were selected so that they would keep away from the major habitats of wild animals. The original design of the railway would have it passing through the black-necked crane nature reserve on the middle reaches of the Yarlungzangbo River. After many discussions, the designers decided to select a circuitous route via Yangbajain, to avoid disturbing the birds. But if avoidance was impossible, such as the section cutting through the Hohxil, Qumar and Soga nature reserves, the planners would compare several designs, and put forward protection measures to minimize disturbance to the nature reserves. Based on the investigations and studies of the habits and migration patterns of the wildlife along the railway line, the planners established 25 passageways for wild creatures at different sections of the line. In designing bridges and tunnels, the designers gave full consideration to the needs of wildlife crossing the railway line. At many spots, special bridges were planned to provide passageways for migrating wildlife so that the normal life of these animals would be guaranteed as far as possible. Hohxil is one of the habitats of the Tibetan antelope, which faces the danger of extinction and is under the State’s first-grade protection. In June and July each year, they form groups and travel long distances to Zhoine and Taiyang lakes to breed. The builders of the railway line stopped work for four days, withdrew workers and equipment from the construction site and removed the colored flags that would alert and frighten the Tibetan antelopes. The animals eventually passed through the construction site without being disturbed. To prevent damage to grasslands and wetlands, the planners designed many special bridges. The total length of bridges built for this railway line in Tibet alone would reach 13 km.

When completed, the stations along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway will use environment-friendly energy sources such as electricity, solar energy and wind energy for heating. Garbage at the stations will be collected for batch treatment. Domestic sewage, after being treated to meet the State’s discharge standard, will be used, whenever possible, to water green spaces. The passenger cars will be sealed. Garbage on the trains will be collected in plastic bags which will be handed over to stations along the plateau for batch treatment. To suit the characteristics of the plateau, the central station management mode will be adopted, with seven central stations established along the line. Each of these stations will be totally responsible for the trains’ running and maintenance in an area within a radius of 80 km. Wherever possible, remote automatic control and mechanized maintenance will be adopted to reduce the number of both the organizations and their staff on the plateau, thereby giving maximum protection to the natural eco-environment of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

— Reducing the adverse impact of the railway construction on the ecological environment to the minimum. To achieve this goal, all the construction units have signed a responsibility pledge for eco-environmental protection with the Qinghai-Tibet Railway Construction Planning Office. The Office also requires all construction units to formulate or improve rules and regulations for protecting the ecological environment, and establish environmental protection sections run by full-time or part-time administrators. It is also imperative for the construction units to take specific scientific measures to protect the ecological environment; and their construction plans must meet the requirements for environmental protection. Competent governmental administration departments of land, environmental protection and water conservancy and relevant units responsible for design, supervision and construction must work together to decide on the sites for taking and discharging dirt and placing building materials such as sand and stone. They should determine, according to the availability of sunlight and hardness of ice, the appropriate distance between those sites and the railway roadbeds, as well as the traffic routes for workers and vehicles. Construction and relevant activities should be done within the designated areas to keep the permafrost stable. The headwaters and wetlands along the railway line are to be specially protected to avoid desertification in the headwaters areas, shrinkage of wetlands, deterioration of grasslands and water pollution that might be caused by the construction. Attention is to be paid to the protection and regeneration of ground vegetation. In places difficult for plants to grow and on the construction sites and transportation routes, the turf should be preserved and replanted in other places section by section, to be moved back to cover the slopes of the roadbeds and construction sites, so as to minimize the loss of ground vegetation. Where natural conditions are relatively good, grass seeds suitable for plateau areas should be carefully selected and planted with appropriate means of cultivation to restore as much as possible the ground vegetation that existed before the railway construction. Where the natural conditions are good enough, turf to be cultivated by manpower should be tried out, supported by the techniques of spray sowing and plastic film mulching. In the Tuotuo River area, where the Yangtze River originates, test-planting of grass on plateau roadbeds has been successful in the first stage. The railway builders will take all measures to meet the environmental requirements of the railway construction.

A key point in building the Qinghai-Tibet Railway is to protect the ecological environment along the railway line. All units involved in the construction are making great efforts in this respect. The China Railway No. 14 Engineering Bureau, for instance, has 13 key technical problems now undergoing scientific research, of which half concern environmental protection. There are six supervisors in this bureau who are in charge of eco-environmental protection on the railway construction sites. They are responsible for ensuring that the camp sites, work-site access roads and passageways, quarries, and sites for supplying dirt and digging trenches take up as little space as possible. They are also responsible for supervising accommodation facilities to ensure that the delicate plateau vegetation is properly protected.

— Taking effective measures to minimize the pollution that the railway construction might cause to the plateau’s ecological environment. To achieve this goal, the construction units have tried to use high-efficiency, low-noise and low-pollution equipment. They have tried to adopt more mechanized ways of construction and use as few administrators and workers as possible on the work sites. Whenever possible, prefabricated concrete components are carried to the construction sites and assembled there. In order to avoid the pollution caused by slurry around bridge-building sites, they use dry-boring by rotary drills where possible. The Office requires that all waste water from construction and camp sites be processed to meet the corresponding sewage treatment standard before discharge. Solid waste from construction sites and trash from camp sites must be sorted out and recycled whenever possible. Waste and trash that cannot be degraded should be moved to appropriate places for batch treatment.

— Strengthening supervision and inspection of environmental protection to meet the protection requirements. An environmental protection supervision system for a whole railway line was first adopted for the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. The Office entrusted a third party to supervise the environmental protection work all along the line during the whole period of the railway construction. To strengthen such supervision and inspection work, the State Environmental Protection Administration and the Ministry of Railways jointly issued the “Notification on Strengthening the Supervision and Management of the Eco-environment in the Building of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway,” setting out specific requirements for the environmental protection and supervision work during the construction period. The State Environmental Protection Administration, the Ministry of Railways and other government departments concerned have repeatedly sent inspection groups to supervise the implementation of these environmental protection measures. Any violation of the environmental protection regulations is severely punished.

With the concerted efforts of all concerned it is justifiable to believe that the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, as a plateau railway up to the environmental protection standard, will truly benefit the people of all ethnic groups in Tibet.