Travelling through the mountains: Tibet’s first bullet train

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For the first time in history, those visiting Tibet can experience the area’s mountains and views at high speed, via Tibet’s first-ever bullet train. Stretching 435km, the line connects the capital city of Lhasa with the city of Nyingchi, allowing all 31 provinces of mainland China access to this new line. Frankie Youd explores the project, highlighting some of its impressive design features.


he first high-speed rail system began operations in Japan in 1964 with the launch of the Tokaido Shinkansen, travelling up to speeds of 130mph. Since then, advancements in bullet train technology have seen several countries building and developing high-speed rail infrastructure, including Belgium, Denmark, China, France, and Italy.

With China’s railway infrastructure being notable for its speed, green credentials, and impressive design, the addition of Tibet’s first electric bullet train not only highlights remarkable engineering but also aids the region of Tibet.

The launch of the Fuxing train, which entered service on 25 June, now allows passengers to travel from the capital of Lhasa to the city of Nyingchi in three and a half hours – a journey that would take over five hours by car. The train also reduces travel time from Shannan to Nyingchi from six to around two hours.

With the railway line serving an area of more than 226,000 square km – which equates to 18.4% of Tibet’s entire landmass – more than 1.3 million people will directly benefit from this latest extension of the Chinese railway network.

Travelling at speeds of 160km, the bullet train, powered by both internal combustion and electric engines, is able to run on electrified and non-electrified railway lines.

Many design features have been implemented on the train, alongside some daring engineering to make the route – which cost $5.6bn and took over six years to construct – possible.

Aerial view of the derailment. Image: UK Government

Record-breaking construction

Dubbed ‘The Roof of the World’ – due to it being 3 miles above sea level - the Tibetan Plateau is a vast, flat area of land enclosed by some of the tallest mountains in the world.

Constructing the railway at this altitude and on a rocky surface was a daring and challenging experience for the team who worked to establish the line. Stretching 435km, the track gives provincial-level regions of mainland China access to the new high-speed train.

The Lhasa–Nyingchi line sees 90% of the route sitting at altitudes higher than 3,000m above sea level, as it traverses through mountain tunnels, bridges, and archways. Featuring 47 tunnels and 121 bridges, which make up for 75% of the entire route, the line also includes the 525m long Zangmu Railway Bridge – the highest arch bridge in the world. The highest section of the rail line stands over 5,100m above sea level, a record height for any electrified railway in the world.

Cutting through tunnels and over impressively engineered bridges, passengers can take in the Tibetan landscape from above as they enjoy their journey. On the route, passengers will be able to see the Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon, as well as the Nanga Bawa Peak – the highest mountain in the Nyingchi region of Tibet with an altitude of 7783m.

Although the train is slower when compared to other high-speed trains which are running within China – which average around 300km/h – the train is able to transport ten million tonnes of freight per year according to Xinhua.

For China’s President, Xi Jinping, high-speed rail acts as a social tool for political influence and the integration of regions into China’s sphere of influence. Speaking to Global Times, Qian Feng, director of research at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University said: "If a scenario of a crisis happens at the China-India border, the railway will provide a great convenience for China's delivery of strategic materials.”

Back in the mid-1990s railway designers created a virtual model of London’s Paddington station that users could access by VR.

A Fuxing bullet train runs along the Lhasa-Nyingchi railway. Credit: Jiao Hongtao/VCG via Getty Images

Designed for the mountains

Manufactured by the state-owned China Railway, the Fuxing electric bullet trains have been independently developed by China and boast a number of impressive design features. Each bullet train integrates the internet, cloud computing, 5G, and other new technologies, totalling nine different intelligent operation and monitoring systems onboard.

Facilities onboard the train also offer passengers a sense of modern travel, with smart vending machines in the dining cars and intelligent lighting in the toilets. Onboard the train, conductors also provide services to passengers such as medical assistance, guidance, and translation.

Alongside these impressive technological features and services the trains provide for passengers, other facets of design have been included with safety in mind. With the train travelling at higher altitudes than usual passenger travel, the trains are equipped with an automated oxygen supply system – ensuring that oxygen levels are kept at 23.6% at all times, which is higher than the average 21% found at normal atmosphere level.

Paired with the oxygen system, the train’s windows have also received unique design features: UV resistant glass. At such high altitudes, there is less atmosphere to absorb UV radiation, which means this special layer of glass – designed to withstand the region’s high UV levels – is required.

Since 2013, the Chinese national railway has considerably reduced its CO2 emissions from 35.5 to 5.44 thousand tonnes in 2019. This is predominantly due to the country’s electrification of the railways, which has largely reduced coal consumption.

As with other bullet trains currently in service, the Tibet Fuxing train is powered by both internal combustion and electric engines. The dual-power engine allows the train to switch from electric power to an internal combustion engine in case of emergency at a high altitude.

Main image: The first Fuxing bullet train prepares to leave the Lhasa Railway Station on its inaugural journey. Credit: Dong Zhiwen/VCG via Getty Images