Megastructures – The World’s Most Extreme Railway on YouTube is a story of the battle to construct a railway across one of the most unforgiving terrains on Earth. To lay down more than a thousand kilometers of railway track in a remote wilderness. 

To build seven massive tunnels and to erect more than six hundred bridges all at an altitude where even a breath is nearly impossible to come by. 140,000 workers and 2000 medics fought this extreme environment for 5 years to build the Qinghai-Tibet railway– the highest, most extreme railway in the world! 

A World Record

Built quite literally on top of the world – at an altitude of about 4,500m above sea level – the Qinghai-Tibet extreme railway connects China to Tibet—a long-held dream. Running for over 1,956km from Xining to Lhasa, through some of the planet’s most hostile environments, this megastructure is undeniably an unparalleled catalog of world records. 

With its highest point at a whopping 5,072m, Qinghai-Tibet rail easily grabs its place as the world’s highest railway and the Tanggula Station, the world’s highest railway station. The project also bagged the title of being the longest plateau railway in the world. 

Youtube for Architects: World’s Most Extreme Railway- Megastructures by Free Documentary - Sheet1
The Qinghai-Tibet Corridor ©Jan Reurink

The Challenges

To such megastructures, in these conditions, engineers have to overcome great difficulties, both physically and technically. About 550m of the railway tracks were built on frozen earth, passing through both the world’s highest tunnel—the Feng Huo Shan Tunnel—and the world’s longest plateau tunnel – the Kunlun Mountain

Inevitably, constructing the railway on permafrost and at an altitude where the air contains nearly 40% less oxygen than at sea level presented huge technical hurdles—with the route’s passage through the Kunlun earthquake zone adding additional challenges. Fraught with challenges – How did engineers overcome the planet’s worst. 

Almost half of the Golmud to Lhasa line was laid on barely permanent permafrost with winter temperatures that plummet to -35ºC, while in summer, temperatures shot up to 30+ºC and you can see the upper layers thawing to mud. The engineers managed to tackle this enormous challenge by building elevated tracks and causeways, they installed pipes to circulate liquid nitrogen below the rail bed to keep the ground frozen. 

The Project

The original section covering 815km, from Xining to Golmud, was opened in the year 1984, however, work began on the final 1,142 km stretch to Lhasa only later in 2001. The project was completed in October 2005 at a cost of more than $3.5bn. China harbored the goal of linking Qinghai province to the Tibetan Autonomous Region by rail since the early 1950s. 

At that time, though engineers and surveyors investigated the site, both money and the then-available technology were insufficient to complete the task. By the 80s, erecting the first section of the megastructure had become possible and China’s fast-growing post-millennial economy allowed the second and a lot more challenging part of the line to get underway. 

The project marks a milestone in China’s Western Development strategy; an initiative launched to aid China’s underdeveloped western provinces. Hailed as one of contemporary China’s greatest feats by the government, the project uncovered some of the world’s most innovative thinking to overcome the several technical challenges that nature posed.

Youtube for Architects: World’s Most Extreme Railway- Megastructures by Free Documentary - Sheet2
Tanggula railway station ©CW Kong

The Social Component

As reported by Xinhua News, the Qingzang railway has led to an exchange of cultures between Tibet and China, it has promoted  Tibetan culture in China, as the opening of the railway, increased the number of people from all over the country coming to Lhasa. It also advantages Tibetans with accessibility to China for school, employment, and a hub for local industries. The link has brought in more tourism and has led to a rise in the number of tourism-related industries in the region, thus raising job opportunities for the local people.

The environmental impact of this megastructure is a growing concern. Apart from interference on earth and vegetation, there are also ongoing concerns from the China Meteorological Administration that melting of the permafrost, due to global warming, in Tibet on which part of the line is placed may threaten the strength of the railway. 

Trash and excreta from the trains are collected into sealed containers in each car (instead of throwing them on the tracks) and are ejected at the stations. The effects of this railway on wild animals such as Tibetan antelope and plants are currently unknown. 33 wildlife crossing bridges were built specifically to allow continued animal migration. Here is the Google Maps satellite image of one such bridge.  Since the opening of the Qingzang Railway corridor, the scenic views from the trains have gained popularity amongst tourists. With its unique form and facilities and ground-breaking design, the Qinghai-Tibet railway is bound to become a timeless landmark.



Sowmya is an architectural journalist and writer. In this column, Sowmya takes you through stories on eco-architecture, biophilic design, and green buildings from across the globe.