Which way will the Tibet-Nepal railway go?

Dozens of trucks carrying imported Chinese goods cross the Bhote Kosi into Nepal this week. The Nepali border town of Rasuwa Gadi (pictured below) on the Bhote Kosi river. Photos: NABIN BARAL

Till not too long ago, a trans-Himalayan railway sounded like science fiction. Now, with the proposed 100km long tunnel under Langtang National park, it sounds even more futuristic.

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A pre-feasibility study of a railway into Nepal from Tibet carried out by a Chinese team in 2018 suggests that it would be an engineering feat and very expensive, but not an impossible task.

“Technically this will be one of the world’s toughest railways to construct,” says Paribesh Parajuli, the only train engineer at Nepal’s Department of Railways, who was educated in China and is a consultant for the study.

Despite Nepali politicians making wild promises about the imminent arrival of a Tibet train and ensuing public anticipation, because of the technical and cost factors the Chinese have sought to dampen some of the enthusiasm.

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The feasibility study has not yet been made public, but is said to list ‘six extremes’ that will be challenging: topography, weather, hydrology, tectonics, and cost.

And despite speculation that the railway alignment will follow the Bhote Kosi River across the Himalaya to Nuwakot, the study actually lays out a much more adventurous course under Langtang National Park, below Gosainkunda and Shivapuri National Park to enter Kathmandu Valley at Tokha. Stations will be located at bridge points where the tunnels emerge at Langtang Khola and Pati Bhanjyang.

The gradient required to descend from 4,000m on the Tibetan Plateau to 1,400m above Kathmandu is so steep that engineers have proposed drilling through the mountains with 98% of the tracks on the Nepal side inside tunnels.

Says Parajuli: “If the railroad follows the proposed tunnel route under the mountains, the towns along the existing highway to Rasuwa will not even be seeing trains.”

Although drilling under the mountains will minimise environmental impact in two national parks, the tunnels will traverse the Main Central Thrust faultline of the Himalaya. Mitigating earthquake risk will push the total cost even higher than a normal tunnel project.

Preliminary estimates put the cost of just the 170km Kerung to Kathmandu section of the railway at 38 billion yuan ($5.5 billion). Even though only 30% of the length from Menbu to Kathmandu is in Nepal, it will account for almost half the cost of the project because of the required tunneling.

Despite these challenges, Nepal’s railway dream moved closer to reality after the project was listed as one of the 64 to be considered under China’s BRI during the second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in April.

Nepal is now seeking a grant from China to construct the railway, but Beijing is reticent, hence recent comments by Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi urging Nepalis not to jump the gun.

The Nepal government has not allocated any money for the Tibet railway in this year’s budget. But officials at Nepal’s Infrastructure and Transport ministry say just a detailed engineering study for the Kerung-Kathmandu section of the railway will cost an estimated five times the Nepal’s total railway budget for next year.

Even so, Finance Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada seems upbeat. He has even announced the date of the start of construction: “We will complete the detailed project report and feasibility study and start construction work on the Kerung-Kathmandu railway in the next two years.”

The Chinese do not seem to be in such a rush. The Qinghai-Tibet railway reached Xigatse in Tibet in 2014. At the pace of construction, it was  scheduled to arrive on the border in Kerung by 2020, but the Chinese have reportedly pushed that back to 2025.

Both the Chinese and Nepal governments have denied that loan financing for the project will push Nepal into a debt trap, as the Americans have been warning.

“The main thing is how projects are selected, whether that is done on the possible rate of return, and the pay back plan,” says Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali.

While the minister could not answer questions about what Nepal would export to China by train, Prime Minister K P Oli once speculated it could be mineral water, for which he was widely ridiculed. Mineral water is already a multi-billion dollar industry in Tibet, so it would be like coals to Newcastle.

Economic analysts say the railway makes sense only if Nepal can fill the wagons with its goods for the return trip. While imports from China increased by about 40% in 2018, exports from Nepal to China fell by 30%, with the country’s trade deficit reaching about US$12 billion last year – equal to nearly half of the country’s total GDP.

Ambassador Hou has tried to allay fears. “The BRI is not a ‘debt trap’ that some countries may fall into, but an ‘economic pie’ that benefits the local population,” she wrote in a recent opinion piece in the Nagarik newspaper.

The real question is not just who will pay for the railway, but also whether it will pay for itself. The tunnel alignment will push up costs, and because it misses all major urban areas along the way like Trisuli and Syabrubesi, it is unlikely to benefit local populations.

Narayan Das Dongol, 76, plays with his granddaughter in Tokha village on the northern rim of Kathmandu Valley. His house will be near the proposed terminal of the Kerung-Kathmandu railway, and he has heard rumours about a train coming. There is still confusion about the exact route the tracks will take, but land prices here have already soared six-fold to Rs3 million for a 32 sq m patch in anticipation.

In Bidur of Nuwakot, Mayor Sanju Pandit insists the train should go through his town, adding: “I have heard that the railway will cross our town, but we have not been consulted or informed about it at all.”

One worry is that regular cargo trains between China and Nepal will increase wildlife trafficking not just of endangered species from Nepal, but also India. Nepal would be even more of a transit for contraband like tiger skins, rhinos horns, pangolins, sandalwood.

On the Nepal side, there are zero preparations in place for the Tibet railroad, but even the proposed east-west Tarai railway does not seem to be going anywhere. In the decade since it was set up, Nepal’s Department of Railways has yet to hire a fulltime railway engineer.

The new 34km railway from Bihar to Nepal is supposed to start operations next month with a hired train and driver from India. But you cannot fault Nepal for dreaming big: the government plans to construct 4,000km of railways in the next two decades.

This article was originally published by The Third Pole.

Timeline: Nepal’s BRI railway

2017 – Nepal and China sign MoU on the BRI in Beijing.

2018 – Nepal forms two committees headed by the foreign secretary and finance secretary to propose projects for China to fund under BRI.

2018 – Nepal’s prime minister, K.P Oli, visits China and signs on 14 projects including in cooperation in railways.

2018 – Pre-feasibility study for the Kerung- Kathmandu rail by a Chinese team.

2019 – The Nepal-China railway listed as part of the Trans-Himalayan connectivity network at the second BRI Forum in Beijing in April.

2019 – In budget speech, government declares construction will start in two years without allocating appropriate budget for a detailed study.