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Where EAST meets the Northwest

CHINA CHOO CHOO. Opened in 2006, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway is the first rail link into the heart of Tibet. The railway runs an incredible five kilometers above sea level through some of the most remote and spectacular terrain on Earth. (Photos courtesy of Executive Program Services)

From The Asian Reporter, V17, #22 (May 29, 2007), page 20.

World’s Highest Railway

Maileen Hamto

When plans for China’s Tibet Railway were unveiled in 2001, as the country’s engineering feat for the 21st century, the world watched closely as the nation plunged headlong into a project that would ultimately connect China’s most isolated region to the rest of the country.

"The World’s Highest Railway," the final episode of the "Man Made Marvels of Asia" series airing on Oregon Public Broadcasting, showcases the immense effort involved in creating and implementing plans to build a railway along the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, one of the most forbidding terrains on the planet.

Engineers came up with ingenious, often low-tech yet innovative solutions to the problems of building a railway on permafrost. In many areas, the challenge was to cool the soil during the summer to reduce the amount of heat going into ground, so that the permafrost remains frozen. Huge embankments layered with insulation panels enveloped by a bed of crushed rocks help keep the ground cool by trapping the air.

But some icy ground along the plateau was so unstable that no amount of cooling would enable the building of a railway. The solution? Build land bridges on top of permafrost.

China’s Tibet Railway boasts 1,142 kilometers of track and has a total of 675 bridges. Foundations for the bridges consist of concrete, which is poured quickly into the permafrost. Poured concrete sets and freezes quickly, becoming part of the permafrost. In summer, even when the upper layers of permafrost sink and melt, the deep ends of the concrete pylons remain frozen.

High altitudes and below-freezing temperatures in what is known as the world’s "third pole" not only posed engineering challenges, but also yielded scores of wellness problems for hundreds of thousands of workers.

Approximately 227,000 workers were brought in to complete the project in less than six years. How did the work crew — laboring in average altitudes of 4,300 meters amid a dangerously cold and thin atmosphere — manage to stay healthy? By using oxygen, and lots of it. Never before has such large-scale use of oxygen been seen on a construction project.

Only the healthiest workers were hired for the railway project. Doctors and health-care personnel stayed onsite to staff 144 clinics with 500 beds to help anyone suffering from altitude sickness.

Workers carried oxygen bottles throughout the work site. In the tunnels, where the air was thinnest, oxygen was pumped directly into the tunnels, to spare workers from lugging heavy oxygen bottles. Shorter shifts also helped: tunnel workers labored only four hours at a time, while workers on the plateau had six-hour shifts.

Completed and opened in 2006, the train that runs through the "roof of the world" is a symbol not only of Chinese national pride, but as a testament to a nation’s engineering prowess and ingenuity.

"The World’s Highest Railway" will air on Oregon Public Broad- casting on Thursday, May 31 at 9:00pm, with repeats on June 3 at 3:00am and June 6 at 11:00pm. To learn more, or to verify show times, call (503) 293-1982 or visit <>.