China’s hyped-up, newly proposed railway is aimed at a new frontier: connecting China and Nepal by way of Mount Everest. However, the unique environmental and topographical challenges of the area -- plus the projected $1.6 billion cost of the project -- could force the plan to be scrapped before it gets started.
The ambitious proposal calls for the railway to be finished by 2020, connecting from a recently finished railroad in western Tibet. Previous reports in Chinese state media said the new railroad would pick up from the Qinghai-Tibet rail line and run through the foothills of Mount Everest toward the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu.
However, that is easier said than done. Wang Mengshu, chief engineer of the China Railway Tunnel Group, said that while the plan might work, construction amid extreme terrain would require a huge budget and pose unprecedented dangers. The South China Morning Post, citing the state-run Xinhua News Agency, reported that the budget for the new railway is roughly 100 million Yuan per kilometer ($16.1 million per 0.6 miles), which Wang said is likely a conservative estimate. Another Xinhua report pegged the project's overall projected cost at 10 billion Yuan ($1.6 billion.)
“Even at that price most construction companies are unwilling to do it,” Wang said, adding that many contractors are put off by the project's potential health issues and environmental hazards. The region's high altitude and the need to supply oxygen for workers would be among the hurdles. During construction of the Qinghai-Tibet railroad, more than 100 workers died as the result of accidents.
Wang added that estimates for a 2020 completion were not feasible. He said that a Himalayan tunnel rail system would not be approved anytime soon because existing railways are strapped for cash.
Despite these challenges, China may be willing to take a gamble on the railway, which would have major implications for China’s expanding network of new or established infrastructure routes. Not only would the project potentially boost trade and tourism between China and Nepal, but it would enhance China’s “railroad diplomacy” plans. China is reportedly in talks with 28 countries about helping them develop high-speed railway technology. In Nigeria, for example, China plans on building infrastructure to connect Lagos and Calabar, two of the nation’s major cities.