Politics

Nepali delegation leaves for Beijing to discuss railways in pursuit of cross-border links

- ANIL GIRI, Kathmandu

Jun 17, 2019-

As developments over infrastructural connections to both the northern and southern neighbours come to a head, a Nepali delegation consisting of senior officials left for Beijing on Monday to hold talks with Chinese officials on preparing a detailed project report for the proposed Kerung-Kathmandu railway line.

The delegation, led by Devendra Karki, secretary at the Ministry of Physical Planning and Transportation, includes officials from the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Finance, and the Nepali Embassy in Beijing. This will be the fourth railway meeting between Nepal and China.

Proposed railway links between Nepal and its northern neighbour have captured the Nepali imagination, with many dreaming of cheaper goods and a geostrategic balance to India. However, details have yet to be hammered out with the proposed timeline heading into the decades. A detailed project report is expected to take at least two years, after which work can begin. But first, the Chinese line from Shigatse needs to arrive at Kerung, which is only expected to happen by 2025.

Last week, the government’s red book displayed a Rs 2 billion grant from the Chinese to fund preliminary studies for either one or both railway projects--Kerung-Kathmandu and Kathmandu-Pokhara-Lumbini. While the Chinese have yet to decide where the grant will go, the Nepali delegation hopes to expedite the groundwork for a detailed project report of the Kerung-Kathmandu railway and also discuss a feasibility study for the Kathmandu-Pokhara-Lumbini railway, Balaram Mishra, director general of the Department of Railway, told the Post before departing for Beijing.

To the south, India 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 in August last year. Konkan Railway Corporation Limited, owned by the Indian government, had been tasked with preparing the report.

Officials familiar with negotiations with both India and China on expanding railway networks say that both neighbours have insisted on building rails up to Kathmandu from their respective borders. Nepal has stayed firm on seeking grants to build these cross-border railway networks, rather than any kind of loan.  

“Since this is a government-to-government deal, we will discuss all aspects of railway development, which China has pledged to support,” said Mishra. “This meeting has been pending for long, so we are expecting a breakthrough regarding the detailed project report for the Kerung-Kathmandu railway.”

After returning from Beijing, Nepali officials will discuss the report prepared by India, and then hold discussions over preparing a detailed project report for the Raxaul-Kathmandu railway, said Mishra.

According to the Indian report, there are two alternatives--200 kilometres of tracks with a gradient of one percent, the same as the Indian rail network; or 135 kilometres of tracks at a gradient of 1.5 percent. The survey has also suggested the construction of 40 to 50 kilometres of underground tunnels.

Despite completion of the survey report, the two sides 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. China generally uses a standard gauge in its railways.

Once the two sides agree on all the technical aspects, including the gauge, work can begin on preparing the detailed project report, say officials. The detailed project report will provide an estimated total cost of the project. However, there has been no clear agreement on who will bear the cost of the report.

India has said it will take at least five years to complete the railway line after the detailed project report is complete and works begin. If everything goes as planned, it will be at least seven years before the completion of the Raxaul-Kathmandu railway line.

In Beijing, as expressed by the Chiense side, both sides 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 in December last year.

Based on the preliminary reports from both China and India, it appears that despite Nepal’s pursuit of cross-border railway links, it will take at least a decade before either one materialises.

Published: 18-06-2019 07:00

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