Sitting on a comfortable soft seat on a train from Lhasa to Xigaze, Southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, a Nepali cook named Rem Shrestha wondered if the railway could be further extended to his country.

“It only takes about three hours to travel between the two cities, which really saves time,” said Shrestha, who has worked in Tibet for more than 20 years. By road, it takes nearly five hours.

“Both the equipment and services on the train are very nice and it is cheap to ride,” he told the Global Times. “I heard the link would go further to reach my country and I hope that happens soon,” he said.

A railway between China and Nepal has been highly anticipated for years. There are plans to extend the current Lhasa-Xigaze link to the border of Gyirong, and then further to Kathmandu, capital of Nepal.

“Every Nepali knows there will be a railway and expects it to come,” said Nirvana Pal Kshetry, an employee of Sinohydro-Sagarmatha Power Co in Nepal, a subsidiary of Power China Resources.

“The link will bring more growth opportunities to Nepal as it can help the country get through the Himalayan barrier to enhance our interaction with the outside world,” he said.

As for Chinese enterprises trading with Nepal, which is landlocked and mountainous, the most convenient means of cargo transport is by rail from cities in Tibet to Kathmandu. Using the bumpy road, which runs more than 100 kilometres from Gyirong to Kathmandu, takes at least seven hours – and more on rainy days when debris flows often get in the way.

Dream for Generations

The construction of a railway between China and Nepal has been a dream for several generations. “In 1973, the late Chairman Mao Zedong met with Nepal’s late King Birendra of Nepal, who was visiting China.

At that time, our country had begun planning the Qinghai-Tibet railway, which the two leaders mentioned would be extended from Lhasa to Kathmandu in the future,” said Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi.

“We see that the Qinghai-Tibet railway officially opened to traffic in 2006,” Hou said, noting that the opening of the railway was a feat in the global transport history, signifying that China’s rail technology had reached world-class levels.

In this context, the Nepali people eagerly hope that the railway will be able to go from Lhasa to Kathmandu, as the leaders of the two countries said. In 2014, the Qinghai-Tibet railway was extended from Lhasa to Xigaze, a further step toward Nepal, according to the ambassador.

China’s Minister of Transport Li Xiaopeng and his Nepali counterpart Raghubir Mahaseth signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation for the cross-border railway link in Beijing on June 21, 2018.

“The two governments have good cooperation and they’ve already carried out pre-feasibility studies for the railway,” Hou said. The next step will be the feasibility study, which will take more time, said Hou.

A Chinese technical team arrived in Nepal in May 2018 and started the pre-feasibility study of the proposed cross-border railway, and Nepali and Chinese railway experts are due to meet in Beijing in May this year to discuss construction of the link, according to media reports.

The political will of the leaders of the two countries, including the two governments, is very firm. “We must promote the construction of this railway – because the railway will improve the quality of life of the people along the route and enhance bilateral connectivity in culture and all other sectors,” Hou said. These changes cannot be created by other infrastructure.

Belt & Road Drive

The railway will not only help Nepal diversify its economic and trade activities, but also create a new cooperation scope and growth prospects for Tibet.

“As for China, if there is an extension of the railway from Tibet to Nepal, it will play a crucial role in facilitating the Chinese region to further ‘go out’ and integrate into regional cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI),” said Zhao Gancheng, Director of the Center for Asia-Pacific Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.

The railway in Tibet will reportedly eventually link with the Qinghai-Tibet railway, which connects to other railways that run east toward Shanghai, the country’s financial and international trade centre. “After the railway is completed, it will provide Tibet in Southwest China with a connection with China’s eastern coastal areas, as well as Nepal and India.”

“After the railway is completed, it will provide Tibet in Southwest China with a connection with China’s eastern coastal areas, as well as Nepal and India.”

What’s more, the growth of cross-border trade between other South Asian countries like Bangladesh and Bhutan with China via Nepal will thrive.

The railway is expected to be about 73 kilometres long, and it will require total investment of 18 billion yuan ($2.65 billion), which is quite a lot of capital, Wang Ziyang, general manager of the Nepal branch of China Gezhouba Group Co, told the Global Times.

Difficulties persist in building such a railway across the Himalayas, and it will also be expensive to maintain the line across the world’s highest plateau, Wang said. “It’s hard at the moment to evaluate its commercial prospects.”

Other concerns include whether the Nepali government is capable of operating, managing and maintaining the railway, according to Kshetry.

As China and Nepal live side-by-side on the Himalayas, which is also a geologically vulnerable area, the conditions to build such a cross-border railway are very difficult, the ambassador said.

“Overcoming the technical difficulties and proceeding in a logical manner require comprehensive and careful studies,” she noted.

“If the railway is built, it will need a lot of management and technical capacity. We have started cooperation in helping Nepal nurture such talent, which the country lacks,” she said.

Yardstick of Mutual Trust

The progress of the project has been affected by geopolitics. India has been concerned about the building of the China-Nepal railway. Analysts said that India has strong influence on Nepal’s government, which prevents the Himalayan country from getting closer to China.

But the railway is not a means to exclude India, and it’s a good way to connect India through the project, as it will enhance friendly exchanges between China & its neighbouring country and, more importantly, promote regional cooperation, Zhao said.

Bihar, an underdeveloped Indian state that also lacks transportation infrastructure, shares a border with Nepal.

If the railway can help India and China gain reciprocal benefits in economic cooperation, it will be an important yardstick for measuring strategic mutual trust between the two countries, Zhao noted. “The project can be a demonstration of sound regional cooperation for India,” he said.

The railway is a significant cooperation project being advanced by the two governments, and it still needs more time, Hou said. “It is both a dream and an expectation.”