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The China-Nepal railway would be a high-altitude feat of almost inhuman engineering skill. Impossible say some. Yet 50 years after it was first mooted, a serious feasibility study is actually underway.

The concept of a China-Nepal railway has existed since the 1970s when Communist Party Chairman of the time, Mao Zedong, suggested it to the King of Nepal as a way of bringing their two countries together. It also gives Nepal an important alternative to its only other commonly used route through India.

Critics have sometimes dismissed it as an infrastructure fantasy, so bold is the scheme. But some extensions to existing rail lines have already been built, and will eventually become part of the overall route. This includes the 253km long Lhasa-Xigaze railway opened in 2014 (a journey previously only doable by road or air).

In China, the track will theoretically stretch across 550 km of territory before reaching the Nepalese border. Difficult, but not impossible. However, at the border, life for the railway’s designers and builders gets much more difficult, and could well win the prize (if one existed) for the most difficult railway undertaking in the world.

It must cross 70km of fragile, earthquake prone, peak strewn, ravine littered, inhospitable, permafrosted, weather-afflicted, high-altitude, and airless Himalayas.

The line must climb from 1400 metres to above 4000, and do it along a major fault line, where the Indian plate meets the Eurasian plate. More than 98% of the entire track will either need to be through a tunnel or across a bridge. (Oh, to be the contractor who builds the other 2%.)

Picking up the bill

While there appears to be a political will to get the railway built – China seeing this as an opportunity to demonstrate the prowess of its engineering, and it wouldn’t be wrong – there have been delays for various reasons. Not least of which is who pays for it, as it would be an economically debilitating undertaking for Nepal on its own.

However, at the end of 2022, China agreed to fund the first proper feasibility study, not expected to be completed until 2026.  (The exploration and survey will take about 40 months, but first feedback might be earlier.) As of April last year, around 40 staff from the China Railway Survey and Design Group and Chinese government officials had started work in Nepal getting the first research underway.

And finally, as a measure of the ambition involved, it would eclipse for difficulty the existing Qinghai-Tibet railway, which is already the highest railway in the world, with nearly 1,000km of track sitting above 4000 metres. It also has the highest station in the world, Tanggula, at 5,068 metres. Carriages carry oxygen for every passenger, and each train has its own doctor. Beat that.