Monday, June 17, 2019

Nepali team leaves for Beijing to discuss cross-border railway links

A Nepali team today left for Beijing – on the invitation of the government of China – for consultation on the construction of cross border railway including preparing the detailed project report (DPR) of the project.
Secretary at the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport Devendra Karki is leading the Nepali team that has joint-secretary Gopal Prasad Sigdel, director-general of the Department of Railways Balram Mishra, spokesperson Aman Chitrakar and the representatives of the Finance Ministry, Foreign Ministry and the Nepali Embassy in Beijing. This will be the fourth railway meeting between Nepal and China.
The Nepali delegation will also have bilateral discussions with the office-bearers of the National Railway Authority of China, apart from participating in the Nepal-China Railway Cooperation Committee’s meeting in Beijing.
According to Karki, the Chinese and Nepali officials will dwell on topics including investment and construction modality. Nepal and China had agreed to move forward the process of railway construction during the official visit of Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli on June 19-24, 2018.
It has been long since Beijing has submitted the preliminary study report – prepared by the Chinese technical team – on the railway project to Nepal. “The report has paved the way for carrying out further home work regarding the modality and the modus operandi for the construction of this railway,” according to the Department of Railways.
According to the preliminary study, Kathmandu-Kerung railway will be 80-km with construction period of nine years at estimated cost of approximately Rs 300 billion, according to the department.
The proposed railway – under the China’ Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – linking Kerung city in southern Tibet to Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, entering the country in Rasuwa district will eventually go to India making Nepal a transit country. However, the proposed railway links between Nepal and China have started a debate in Nepal with many dreaming of cheaper goods and a geostrategic balance to India, whereas others claiming it a pipedream of KP Oli government, which used it as a election winning strategy, and a debt trap for Nepal. However, the Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi, recently, has tried to allay fears clarifying that the BRI is not a ‘debt trap’ that some countries may fall into, but an ‘economic pie’ that benefits the local population.
The pre-feasibility study report prepared by China in late 2018 accepts that the project is an extremely hard one but not impossible. “Technically it will be one of the world’s toughest railways to construct,” according to the report that has listed six extremes including topography, weather, hydrology and tectonics making the project hugely challenging.
About 98 per cent of the railway on the Nepal side will be in tunnels and on bridges according to the report that has proposed about five stopovers. Tracks will need to be built on steep terrain, as the railway climbs from an altitude of 1,400 metres in Kathmandu to about 4,000 metres in Tibet. The proposed route also cuts through the mountains near a major fault line – where the Indian plate meets the Eurasian plate to form the Himalayas – so the area is very susceptible to earthquakes.
Preliminary estimates of the Kerung-Kathmandu railway project – listed as one of the 64 to be considered under China’s BRI during the second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in April – comes to around 38 billion yuan ($5.5 billion). The railway would be 170-km long from Tibet to Kathmandu. Although only one third of the total length falls on the Nepal side, it would account for almost half of the costs due to the extreme geology and climate.
The Chinese do not seem in a rush as the Chinese railway line from Shigatse needs to arrive at Kerung, which is only expected to happen by 2025, before it will be linked to Kathmandu and then Birgunj, and Pokhara. Both the sides – in Beijing – will also discuss a feasibility study for the Kathmandu-Pokhara railway, over which a joint team of Nepali and Chinese technicians had conducted a field visit last December. Nepal is seeking a grant from China to construct the railway, whereas China has not been very enthusiastic about it, the Nepali delegation added.
Likewise, the government is currently studying another railway project, the east-west railway planned in the southern plains. A new 34-km railway from the Indian state of Bihar to Nepal is due to start running in a few months but the government will have to hire a train driver from India and other technicians to operate its first modern rail.
India has submitted a ‘pre-engineering and traffic survey report’ for the Raxaul-Kathmandu railway last month. Nepal and India had signed an agreement to conduct a survey on connecting Kathmandu with the Indian town of Raxaul in Bihar during the fourth BIMSTEC summit, held in Kathmandu last August.  Konkan Railway Corporation Limited – owned by the Indian government – had been tasked with preparing the report.
According to the Indian report, there are two alternatives – some 200-km of tracks with a gradient of one per cent, the same as the Indian rail network; or 135-km of tracks at a gradient of 1.5 per cent. The survey has also suggested the construction of 40-km to 50-km of underground tunnels.
Nepal and India, however, still have differences over the gauge – the width – of the railway track. The Indian side has based its survey report on a broad gauge while Nepali technicians prefer a standard gauge as China generally uses a standard gauge in its railways and it will be easier to connect both the railway lines in future.

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