Nepal and China to study trans-Himalayan railway

A queue of trucks in 2017 at Timure, 3km from the Nepal-China border, waiting to get clearance to cross into Tibet. Since an earthquake in Nepal in 2015 this road has been the only functional route, and has been mostly closed since the Covid-19 pandemic. Nabin Baral

On 10 August, China announced that it will start a feasibility study for the ambitious Tibet-Nepal Railway project within a year. Beijing assured visiting Nepali foreign minister Narayan Khadka that China would also bear the $118 million cost of the study.

The proposed 170km railway, part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), will link Kerung (Gyirong) in southern Tibet to Kathmandu, entering Nepal in Rasuwa district. The plan is to eventually extend the railway to India.

The project is expected to cost $5.5 billion, and is equal to the entire annual state revenue of Nepal. And although only one-third of the total length of the tracks would fall on the Nepal side, this stretch would account for almost half of the costs due to the difficult geology and climate.

“The feasibility study will do two important things: first it will determine the route, including ground and bridge proportion. And second will be the type of railway that needs to be built -– high speed or slow,” said Paribesh Parajuli, an engineer who worked as a consultant at the Department of Railways until 2019.

Experts say the feasibility study could be a defining move for the Tibet-Nepal Railway, which has been on hold for years with Nepal reluctant to pay for the study, and China reticent about funding it.

In late 2018, China prepared a pre-feasibility study of the railway for Nepal and  estimated the total cost of the 72.5 km section in Nepal at $2.75 billion. The report, which is not yet publicly available, suggested it was an extremely difficult project because of the terrain gradient, but not impossible.

“Technically this will be one of the world’s most difficult feats of railway engineering since it needs to descend from 4,500m on the Tibetan Plateau cut through the Himalaya to Kathmandu at 1,200m.

"But China has the technological prowess it is possible, as they have already built railways at even higher altitudes in Tibet,” said Aman Chitrakar, spokesperson for Nepal’s Department of Railways.

The 2018 pre-feasibility study was carried out by a Chinese team since Nepal lacks the expertise in railway engineering, and the same is expected with the feasibility study.

“It’s their money and their expertise will be key, but we hope to be consulted during the study,” Chitrakar said.

But some worry about Nepal’s lack of ability to even review technical reports as it does not have railway engineers. The department established a decade ago is dominated by road engineers, and runs only a 52km railway line in the plains connecting Bijalpur and Janakpur to the Indian border, and built with Indian assistance.

“It was OK to rely fully on the Chinese for a pre-feasibility study as it was more of a kind of survey, but the feasibility study is a key project document if it’s going to be implemented, and Nepal must have serious eyes on it,” said Parajuli, who is one of the few railway engineers in Nepal.

Read also: No light at end of trans-Himalayan train tunnel

In 2018 – the same year as the pre-feasibility study – the Nepal Department of Railways and China Railway signed a cooperation agreement. But the Department of Railways was not informed by the Foreign Ministry about any developments during China’s foreign minister Wang Yi’s visit in March and Nepal’s foreign minister’s visit in August.

“We heard that our government had signed a MoU on technical schemes of the railway project during Wang Yi’s visit in March and now media reports have said a feasibility study will be carried out, but as an implementing agency we haven’t been informed about any developments that were made in the recent months,” said Chitrakar.

Geopolitics over geology

In 2020, China’s former ambassador to Nepal Qiu Guohong wrote in a Nepali newspaper: “Our great leader Mao Zedong was the one who sowed the seeds of the Nepal-China railway dream. During Nepal’s late King Birendra Shah’s visit to China in 1973, Mao had mentioned Qinghai-Tibet railway. Even during that time Mao had thought about linking Tibet railway to Kathmandu in Nepal as he was a visionary.”

In 2016, China signed a transit and transport agreement with Nepal when K P Oli, Nepal’s former prime minister, visited China in the aftermath of a border blockade imposed by India because New Delhi disagreed with some clauses in Nepal’s new Constitution.

Two years later, the railway was a key agenda item when China’s President Xi Jinping visited Nepal. Wang Yi reiterated China’s interest in the railway project in March, and it is four months later that the announcement about the feasibility study has been made.

Besides the geological challenges, there are also geopolitical hurdles. India has been suspicious about the China-Nepal railway. Unlike Nepal, India is not a BRI signatory, and Sino-Indian relations are strained over their border disputes.

Former ambassador Qiu wrote in 2020: 'It is both China and Nepal’s responsibility to convince India on the railway’s importance to link India and China and its mutual benefit for the region as Nepal is .. links mainland China and the South Asian subcontinent. So, if we can connect China’s railway network with India’s railway network then this could be an important transit point for the region.'

In recent weeks, the cross-border railway project has been covered by Chinese media and elicited responses on Weibo. It has been cited as an important geopolitical project for China.

commentary piece published by Caijing Magazine’s WeChat channel suggested that a rail link through Nepal to India could both 'enhance China-India economic bonds when geopolitical tensions are at ease ... and increase China’s strategic manoeuvring space when tensions are on the rise'.

Speaking at a recent webinar organised by the New Delhi-based Institute of Chinese Studies. Constantino Xavier, a foreign policy and security expert at the Centre for Social and Economic Progress think tank said: “Greater Chinese influence in Nepal is not a bilateral or regional issue but a global one. India should be able to calculate its relations with global powers rather than just looking to Nepal-China relations or China’s presence in Nepal.”

Ecological impact

The ecological impact of the proposed rail line is not being discussed in Nepal, and nothing has been said about what China’s 2021 green development guidelines might mean for the project. Some experts say this is due to the Nepal government’s inability to work with the Chinese team.

“Any trans-Himalayan project of this scale will have serious environmental impact and there should be more concern around the fragile geology of the region," said Basanta Raj Adhikari at the Centre for Disaster Studies at the Institute of Engineering, Tribhuvan University.

He says the project also needs to factor in seismic risk since the track will pass through the main central thrust – a geologically weak zone in the Himalayas.

"It is important to use technical knowledge of geologists and other experts to minimise its environmental impact, but no efforts towards this have been made,”  Adhikari added.

In fact, there have been some concerns in China over the ecological impact of the railway. Says one comment on Caijing Magazine’s WeChat channel: 'At a time when we are enduring extreme heat, many are concerned with the railway’s ecological impact on the world’s water tower. Railway maintenance is going to be very challenging in the Himalayan region. International relationships also depend on how we choose to act. Be cautious.”

Nepal has a huge trade deficit with China, and Beijing is encouraging Nepal to export more to China. From 1 September, 98% of Nepali products were eligible for zero-tariff exports to China.

'This will support the Nepalese side to make good use of this policy dividend to expand exports to China,' stated a communique after the meeting of the two foreign ministers in Qingdao last August.

Nepal imported goods worth $1.7 billion from China between mid-July 2021 and mid-April 2022, but Nepal’s exports to China were worth just $5 million in this period.

“The cross-border railway project, if eventually built, would surely augur well for Nepal’s economy, as the landlocked country’s transport connectivity with China currently relies on a few land ports that can’t operate amid heavy snow or geological disasters,” Long Xingchun, president of the Chengdu Institute of World Affairs, told the Global Times.

The only functional Nepal-China cross-border road crossing in Rasuwa Gadi, northwest of Kathmandu, had been closed since the Covid-19 pandemic, and was only partially opened last week after the visit to Nepal by Li Zhanshu, Chair of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress of China.

This piece was originally published on The Third Pole under the Creative Commons license, and was written by Ramesh Bhushal, Nepal Editor at The Third Pole.

Read more: Which way will the Tibet-Nepal railway go? Ramesh Bhusha'