Extended railway lines give southwestern region greater access to South Asia

By Chen Qingqing in Lhasa Source:Global Times Published: 2017/4/24 18:33:39

Tibet’s state of freight

Improved transportation is one of the goals for integrating Southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region into China's "One Belt and One Road" initiative. However, the region's rugged, mountainous terrain poses challenges to infrastructure development. The idea is to better link the region with South Asia, specifically India and Nepal. Trade between China's Tibet and Nepal surged by double digits in 2016, and demand for upgraded logistics services has been growing. The Global Times reporter recently traveled to Tibet to look into the difficulty of developing overland freight routes. This is the second part of a two-part story.

Freight trains wait at Lhasa West Railway Station. Photo: Chen Qingqing/GT

Workers at Lhasa West Railway Station load trucks with goods transported from Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong Province. Photo: Chen Qingqing/GT

Zhang Guangqi, head of the Lhasa West Railway Station, said he has to work extra hours on weekends because the volume of cargo running through the station has grown in recent years.

In Doilungdepen district in the western Lhasa, capital of Southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, dozens of trucks parked along the street on Saturday afternoon, waiting for cargo to arrive from the nearby railway station.

The surrounding streets are full of logistics companies, which have been making profits by transporting the growing volumes of goods that arrive by rail.

"I am much busier than a few years ago, and the storage capacity of this station has to be further expanded because of the increasing amount of freight," Zhang said during an inspection of one of the station's freight platforms, which were full of goods from different provinces.

The amount of cargo that the station handled grew 23.5 percent to 5.26 million tons in 2016, according to data the station provided to the Global Times on Saturday. Incoming goods accounted for nearly 90 percent of the total cargo, which reached 4.63 million tons in 2016.

The increase was largely the result of new freight routes that opened in 2016 as part of the local government's plan to make the region China's gateway to the economic corridor of South Asia.

On December 5, 2016, the first freight train on the Guangdong-Tibet-Central South Asia railway line arrived at the Lhasa station. The line connects the two regions, facilitating their access to South Asia. A few weeks later, the first train bound for Ningbo, East China's Zhejiang Province, departed from Lhasa. The two events illustrate the progress that had been made in developing the region's transportation network, according to a document China Railway's Qinghai-Tibet route office sent to the Global Times over the weekend.

Building up the economic corridor of South Asia complements China's "One Belt and One Road" initiative, said Cao Lianying, vice general manager of Tibet Zhongxing Commerce and Trade Co, the Lhasa-based company that operates the Tibet-Ningbo freight route.

"The land route traverses [Northwest China's] Xinjiang [Uyghur Autonomous Region], while the sea route pass through the Strait of Malacca, so the question is how to make the southwestern regions participate in this initiative," Cao told the Global Times on Saturday.

The answer is to link Tibet to the economic corridor of South Asia, he noted. After all, the "Belt and Road" is about improving regional connectivity.

Rail or road

Under the "Belt and Road" initiative, Lhasa and Xigaze, Tibet's two largest cities, 290 kilometers away from each other, have been respectively marked as the center and frontline of the region's opening-up to South Asia, said Wang Ping, deputy chief of Tibet's commerce bureau.

"One of our measures is to help to regularize the Guangdong-Tibet-Central South Asia freight route, which runs once a week," Wang told the Global Times on April 17. "So far, 150 million yuan [$21.79 million] worth of cargo has been transported along the route."

It takes about 100 hours to move a shipment to Xigaze from Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong Province. Guangzhou is about 4,500 kilometers away from Xigaze.

Once at Xigaze, cargo needs to be loaded onto trucks to be transported to the Gyirong port, the largest business land port connecting the region with Nepal, said Yao Yanfeng, general secretary of Tibet Tianzhi Co, which operates this route.

Yao pointed out that it usually takes 40 days by sea to transport cargo from Guangzhou to India, and then Nepal.

"The land route saves time," Yao said.

However, many companies opt against shipping their products all the way from Guangzhou to Xigaze. Instead, they transport their cargos to Lhasa by rail and on to other parts of Tibet by road. There are two reasons for this.

Sometimes, freight trains arriving in Lhasa have to wait for hours before they can switch to the Lhasa-Xigaze line, so it actually takes less time to unload the goods and transfer them to trucks, workers from the trading company told the Global Times on Saturday.

After a train that arrived on the Guangdong-Tibet-Central South Asia route had been unloaded on Friday, Zha Mu, who works for another Lhasa-based logistics company, was supervising workers on one side of the Lhasa station's loading platform as they loaded goods onto a truck.

"It's about 20 tons of cargo, including daily necessities and electronics from Guangzhou. The truck can leave as soon as the workers finish loading," he said. 

Zha noted that the Lhasa-Xigaze freight train can only transport containers, and it can take hours for cargo like clothing to be loaded onto a train container.

The other reason some trains stop at Lhasa is the city's stable of logistics firms, said Zhang, head of the station.

"For example, many trucks are waiting outside this station to be loaded. Then they can drive off to any place in Tibet," he noted. "It's hard to say if Xigaze has the same level of services."

At the station, an employee surnamed Zhao from another trading company also stood reviewing a list of the products on the Lhasa station's loading platform. "I will ship these products to Gyirong by truck," he said.

He noted that it takes days longer to send the goods via the Guangzhou-Xigaze rail route and then to Gyirong by road.

Zhao said his company transports about 800 tons of clothing from Guangzhou every month to Gyirong, where the cargo will be exported to Nepal.

Extending the line

For Chinese companies trading with Nepal, the most convenient means of transportation is to ship goods by rail from cities in Tibet to the country's capital of Kathmandu. So, the railway's extension from Xigaze to Gyirong is highly anticipated. Challenges remain, however.

The Guangdong-Tibet-Central South Asia freight train was launched based on the premise that it would link China and Nepal by rail, said an official in Lhasa involved with the project, who preferred not to be named.

"The China-Nepal railway remains a bottleneck for the economic corridor of South Asia, as the most challenging part is still in Nepal," he told the Global Times on April 17.

The official noted that geographical and environmental studies still need to be carried out. "In the end, it's a matter for the two governments to discuss," he said.

Currently, the route is still one-way, and the operator sees it in the early stage of development. "We have to be patient and allow the market to grow," Yao said. "Meanwhile, we also expect more support from authorities to help us maintain this route."

Posted in: INSIGHT

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