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China to boost rail links to Xinjiang and Tibet, with eye on supply chains and energy security

China will step up construction of strategic railroad links in the autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Tibet in the coming years to strengthen its hold over its westernmost regions, according to a senior Chinese rail planner.

“The rail network layout still needs to be improved. There are still many places in the western regions left undeveloped, and the major strategic channels for entering and exiting Tibet and Xinjiang need to be strengthened,” said Liu Wenxian, a senior official with China Railway Group’s planning department.

In an interview with The People’s Rail, a newspaper affiliated with the state-owned rail operator, Liu said the priority was to “strengthen the construction of strategic links and effectively guarantee the implementation of major national strategies”.

“[We will] focus on strengthening strategic trunk channels, such as those from Xinjiang to Tibet, and fill in the ‘blanks’ in railway networks in key western regions so as to comprehensively improve the multidirectional connectivity between Xinjiang, Tibet and the inland,” Liu was quoted as saying.

Liu said this was part of China’s plan to strengthen transport links to ensure energy and supply chain security.

Beijing has “big plans” for Xinjiang and Tibet, according to a Tsinghua University researcher who studies ethnic minority issues in China.

“Xinjiang is the gateway for the strategic China-Europe freight trains, while the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is extremely important to China’s western border security,” said the researcher, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the topic.

“Beijing has painstakingly restored the order and security in these two regions in the past decade. Now it is time to extend the transport networks into these regions so that people-to-people exchanges can happen and goods from these regions can be sold to other parts of China. These are prerequisites for further integration.”

Strategic channels to and from Tibet “need to be strengthened”, according to a senior Chinese railway official. Photo: Xinhua

Liu said that by 2025, China’s modern railway infrastructure would be complete, with its rail network reaching 165,000km (102,526 miles), including 50,000km of high-speed rail lines.

He said China aimed to expand its rail network by 20235 to about 200,000km, of which about 70,000km would be high-speed railway.

China leads the world in high-speed railway development. According to Statista, China had 40,474km of high-speed rail lines in 2022, more than double the combined length of the next 10 countries.

The United States ranked 11th in high-speed rail lines, with only 735km, but it still operates the world’s largest railway network with over 220,000km in total. China ranked second in terms of total rail network length, with about 159,000km in 2023.

Liu said by the end of next year, China’s rail network would cover 99.5 per cent of cities a population of more than 200,000, while the high-speed rail network would cover more than 97 per cent of cities with a population over 500,000.

Liu also said the resilience, safety and reliability of railway infrastructure would be improved, and that China’s railways needed to respond better and faster to natural disasters and climate change.

However, this vision faces major financial challenges as China Railway Group has paid for the massive expansion with borrowings.

As of last year, its debt rose to 6.13 trillion yuan (US$846 billion), with operating profits of only 330 million yuan.

China has taken the rare step of sharply increasing fares on four major bullet train lines recently – a move widely seen as an attempt to restore profitability of its debt-ridden high-speed network.