China-Nepal Railway: Fantasy or Reality?

China-Nepal Railway: Fantasy or Reality?
The Third Pole

China-Nepal Railway: Fantasy or Reality?

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Tashi Sherpa runs the only teashop in Rasuwa Gadhi on the Nepal-China border, 170 kilometres north of Nepal’s capital Kathmandu. About 50 metres away, a group of Chinese workers is busy building a bridge that will link the two countries, but none of them has ever come to her teashop.

“A truck brings food every few hours from that large building on the other side [of the border]. The Chinese do two things – eat and work. They eat a lot of meat,” Sherpa said with a big smile.

Hundreds of trucks and jeeps trundle each day down the bumpy road and over a temporary bridge, carrying goods and tourists from China. While they wait to enter Tibet or take passengers to Kathmandu, the drivers sip tea and eat snacks in Sherpa’s teashop.

Trucks enter Nepal from China at Rasuwa Gadhi inland port. The Chinese Customs and Immigration office is in the background / Credit: Nabin Baral

The border here only opened after the devastating Nepal earthquake in 2015 led China to close the badly damaged Kodari route. It is also where the new railway – proposed as part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – will enter Nepal from Tibet.

On its side of the border, China has built a well-equipped customs and immigration office, which looks like a shopping mall. But the infrastructure on the Nepalese side is a complete mess. In 2017, when this reporter visited the area, police officers were checking visitors in a hut with a zinc roof. Two years later, conditions have not improved.

“We don’t even have a metal detector, so we have to ask each person to open their luggage and backpacks, and then check manually. A railway is beyond our imagination,” said Dilip Chhetri, the police inspector on duty at the border the day The Third Pole visited.

Since tourists visiting Mount Kailash in Tibet have started to flock through this land route, owners of newly built hotels are expecting more business in the future. The railway will be a further boost, they hope.

Not everyone has such high expectations. The 2015 earthquake destroyed Nepal’s local revenue office, but the construction of a multi-storey replacement that began in 2017 has been delayed due to a dispute with the contracting company.

“How can a country which hasn’t managed to construct a building for its officers in two years construct tunnels through these mountains and run trains? It’s no more than a fantasy,” said Finjo Lopchan, owner of Potala guesthouse in Ghattekhola, one kilometre south of the border.

“To be honest, my head spins when people talk about railways. Look at the roads here. Shameless government,” he added.

How near is Nepal's BRI railway?

The proposed BRI railway will link Kerung City in southern Tibet to Kathmandu, entering Nepal in Rasuwa district and eventually going on to India. But locals have dubbed the project kagat ko rail (paper railway) and sapana ko rail (dream railway).

BRI railway map
The Kerung-Kathmandu railway is part of more ambitious plans to link China and India by rail / Source: The Conversation

People who have suffered for years along bumpy roads in the northern border region of the country laugh at the idea.

“I don’t feel excited when you talk about railways, I feel disappointed. Every day we have to drive along this scary road in our trucks and we hear news time and again about railways. I don’t understand,” said Balaram Rimal, a truck driver who regularly carries goods across the border from Kerung.

China prepared a pre-feasibility study of the railway for Nepal in late 2018. The study suggested it was an extremely hard project, but not impossible.

“Technically this will be one of the world’s toughest railways to construct,” said Paribesh Parajuli, the only railway engineer at Nepal’s railway department, who will leave once his short-term consultancy contract expires.

The Chinese study has not been made public despite intense debate over what’s happening. But Parajuli shared the findings of the report with The Third Pole. It lists “six extremes,” including topography, weather, hydrology and tectonics that, Parajuli says, will make the project hugely challenging.

About 98% of the railway on the Nepal side will be in tunnels and on bridges according to the report, with about five stopovers. Tracks will need to be built on steep terrain, as the railway climbs from an altitude of 1,400 metres in Kathmandu to about 4,000 metres in Tibet.

The proposed route also cuts through the mountains near a major fault line – where the Indian plate meets the Eurasian plate to form the Himalayas – making the area very susceptible to earthquakes.

Mitigating these risks means the project will cost far more than normal railways, Parajuli explained.


Underprepared, Overwhelmed

In Nepal, there are almost no preparations in place for the rail line. Consultants are currently studying another railway, the east-west railway planned in the southern plains near to India. But the state lacks people capable of reviewing their reports, much less anybody to actually lead the construction. In the decade since it was set up, Nepal’s railway department is yet to hire a single permanent railway engineer, but it hopes to construct 4,000 kilometres of rail in the next two decades.

A new 34-kilometre railway from the Indian state of Bihar to Nepal is due to start running in a few months, but the government will have to hire a train driver from India and other technicians to operate its first modern rail, according to local media reports.

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