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Railway line heralds new trading dawn

By Guo Anfei and Hu Yongqi in Kunming, Yunnan  (China Daily)

09:05, March 18, 2013

A train on a bridge of the 141-kilometer Yuxi-Mengzi Railway, the China part of the Pan-Asia Railway linking China with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Because of the special geographical conditions, the construction team behind the Yuxi-Mengzi line was confronted with many challenges. More than half of the railway, 77 km, was built on bridges and through tunnels. The new line will ensure faster speed and safer trips that sharply reduce the cost of transportation in the region. Wang Jianyun / For China Daily

Construction was a hugely complex affair taking years, say engineers

Pomegranate grower Ma Shan was pleased to see the train arriving at Mengzi, the capital city of the Honghe Hani and Yi autonomous prefecture in southern Yunnan province.

On Feb 23, a train pulled out of Kunming, passed through the city of Yuxi and proceeded to the southern Yunnan city for the first time. Its successful arrival marked the launch of the new Yuxi-Mengzi Railway.

In the near future, the train is expected to travel south from Mengzi, pass through nearby estuary ports and on to the Pacific Ocean, completing its historic journey in the island nation of Singapore. As such it will form the main transportation artery between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a geo-political and economic organization of 10 countries located in Southeast Asia, comprising Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

The operation of the Yuxi-Mengzi Railway "shortens the route by more than two hours from my town to the provincial capital of Kunming", Ma said.

"It will not only save me time but also cost less in shipping, which is more important for the fruit. We expect our income to increase this year," he said.

The Yuxi-Mengzi Railway, which opened at the end of last month, was considered a significant move by the Yunnan provincial government to facilitate local industries such as fruit-growing. As part of a bigger picture, the railway constitutes what will become an indispensable part of the eastern line of Pan-Asia Railways, a crucial connection between Southwest China and the economies of Southeast Asia.

At the fifth ASEAN summit in December 1995, former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad proposed building a Pan-Asia Railway through the Malay Peninsula, visiting Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and eventually reaching Kunming in China. The initiative immediately received recognition from the summit attendees and the Chinese government. In September 2006, the ASEAN countries reached a consensus to speed up the construction of the Pan-Asia Railway that will be completed in 2015.

The plan was to have three lines - in the east, the middle and the west. The east line would operate between Kunming, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Bangkok in Thailand, Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi in Vietnam and Singapore.

When the last part in China is completed, between Mengzi and Hekou county in Honghe, faster trains will head south all the way to Singapore, through the biggest free-trade zone in the world. Experts say the Yuxi-Mengzi railway will help strengthen Yunnan's status as a frontier region open to the ASEAN economies.

As early as April 12, 1910, one loud but lingering whistle pierced the air over Kunming, declaring the operation of the Vietnam Railway. Export cargos from Yunnan were carried on the trains to as far as Hai Phong in Vietnam and then shipped to France.

The prosperous export trade brought Kunming the first customs and the first post office in Yunnan. The provincial capital then ascended to become one of the most influential cities in China. However, people had to endure trains that "were slower than cars". Things changed fundamentally in February this year when a fresh long beep resounded through Honghe declaring the official operation of the modern Yuxi-Mengzi Railway.

Now, as the railway starts operations and the Mengzi-Hekou link is under construction, Yunnan will have another historic opportunity to deepen exchanges with its neighbors.

Liu Baisheng, general director of the Kunming Railway Bureau, said locals would be the beneficiaries from this new railway.

Liu, who attended the National People's Congress session as a deputy in Beijing last week, told China Daily that the Yuxi-Mengzi railway starts from Yuxi, traversing Honghe Hani and Yi autonomous prefecture to cover an area of 48,200 square kilometers with a population of more than 6 million. The area is the major habitation of ethnic groups such as the Hani, Yi and Dai.

"With Kunming-Yuxi, Yuxi-Mengzi railway lines in operation, we have another option for transporting huge cargos long distances across Yunnan province. The new line will ensure faster speed and safer trips that sharply reduce the cost of transportation and increase profits," an entrepreneur in Honghe, who preferred to remain anonymous, said excitedly.

The tracks, mostly bridges and tunnels, were regarded as a soaring steel dragon by residents along the railway, who are optimistic about selling more local agricultural and sideline products and confident of developing the tourism industry

The Yuxi-Mengzi Railway goes through the central Yunnan Plateau, with its mountains and canyons and some of the most intense areas of crustal tectonic movement. Started in September 2005, the new line took seven years to build, said Liu from the Kunming Railway Bureau "The same length of 141 km would only take two or three years in less rugged areas," he said.

Because of the special geographical conditions, Yuxi-Mengzi line builders were confronted with many challenges. More than half of the railway, 77 km, was built on bridges and tunnels. The Xiushan tunnel, 10,302 meters in length, is the longest railway tunnel in Yunnan province and runs through multiple faults and caves. It is famous for complex geological conditions and frequent changes in surrounding rock types.

The tunnel experienced at least 150,000 cubic meters of water leakage during construction every day. The volume increased to 230,000 cubic meters in the rainy season. "The tunnel builders had to endure suffocating humidity, hot days in summer and dust from the digging. Sometimes the collapse of sandstone and mudslides also threatened their lives," said Liu.

After seven years of hard work, they finally completed this Southern Yunnan "mountain road", marking an historic achievement.

Guo Huiming, head of the southern Yunnan railway construction project, was filled with emotion. "The completion of the railway was not easy," he remarked in a very understated fashion.

Guo said the engineering geology of the entire line was extremely complex, with many mountains and deep valleys. "We had poor construction conditions and the work was difficult. There were 173 intersections. The amount of stone ballast totaled 447,626 cubic meters. And there were the bridges and tunnels."

The Yuxi-Mengzi line, according to the former ministry of railways, was a high-risk project because it involved, among many geological challenges, karst high-pressure, water-rich complex geology, tectonic movements, rock-crushing, lots of groundwater in caves, flooding and sudden landslides.

The former ministry will be incorporated into the Ministry of Transport according to the just concluded session of the National People's Congress.

The former ministry and Yunnan provincial government attached great importance to the railway. "They came to the construction site several times to conduct research and to organize meetings to study and deploy technical solutions during construction," Guo said. "So we ultimately completed the Yuxi-Mengzi line thanks to their support."

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