The Qinghai-Tibet Railway —Highest Railroad in the World

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway —Highest Railroad in the World

By Carol WangUpdated Sep. 13, 2021

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway, also called the Qingzang Railway or Lhasa Express is a railroad built on the "roof of the world". It's the longest plateau railway with the highest altitude in the world. It is higher than the Peruvian railway in the Andes, which was formerly the world's highest railway.

It is the first and still the only railway through the hinter land of Tibet. The construction of the railway has created engineering marvels and set a number of world records. Let's find out about it...

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Where is the Qinghai-Tibet Railway?

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway runs from north to south between Xining— capital of Qinghai Province — and Lhasa — capital of Tibet. The total length of the line is 1,956km(1,215 miles).

About 960 kilometers (600 miles) of the line is more than 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) above sea level and the highest point reaches altitude 5,072 meters (16,640 feet).

The railway first heads west into the hinter land of the Tibetan Plateau, through the salty Qaidam Depression desert and Kunlun Mountains, then south over the Tuotuo (Yangtze) River, through the Tangula Mountains, and into Tibet Autonomous Region. Then it passes through Amdo, Nagqu, Damxung, and Yambajan stations on its way to Lhasa.

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway accesses breathtaking scenery, including Qinghai Lake, Hoh Xil Nature Reserve, and the Nyainqen Tangula Mountains.

Qinghai-Tibet Railway Map

Qinghai-Tibet Railway MapQinghai-Tibet Railway Map

Qinghai-Tibet Railway Construction

The railway was built by joining 2 sections together. The first section starts from Xining and ends in Golmud with a total length of 814km (506 miles). The second section starts from Golmud and in Lhasa and is 1,142km (710 miles) long.

The underdeveloped transport infrastructure on the Tibetan Plateau seriously restricted the development of the regional economy. In1949, Tibet had only one kilometer of road for automobile travel!

In the 1950s, China's government decided to connect Lhasa with other parts of China.

In 1984, after 30 years of surveys and construction, the Xining-Golmud section of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway was completed. It starts in Xining city and goes westwards to Golmud passing through mountains, grasslands, Gobi deserts, salt lakes, and swamps.

In 2001, the construction of the Golmud-Lhasa section of Qinghai-Tibet Railway was officially initiated, which lasted for six years. 

In 2006, the two sections were joined together and opened to traffic on July 1.

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Qinghai-Tibet Railway Extensions —3 More Tibet Railways 

Lhasa is the final stop on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, but there are other railway lines in Tibet traveling onward form Lhasa. With Lhasa at their center, rail lines extend into other prefectures, including the border areas of Tibet. There are three railroads branching out from Lhasa.

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway forms part of a big Y-shaped Tibet rail network together with the Lhasa-Shigatse-Yadong line and the Lhasa-Nyingchi line, with a total length of more than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) in Tibet.

The establishment of these lines will improve the railway network in western China and open up transport channels into Tibet.

The Lhasa-Shigatse Railway— Tibet Railway No. 2

Also called the Lasa-Rikaze Railway (Mandarin spelling), Tibet's second railway starts in Lhasa and runs westwards to Shigatse via the Yaluzhangbu River.

The total length of the Lhasa-Shigatse Railway is 253km (157 miles). Covered at a top speed of 120kph (75 mph), the train journey is less than 3 hours. It was opened to traffic in August 2014.

The Shigatse-Yadong Railway — a China-India Railroad

Yadong, on China's border with Bhutan and also close to the India border, is one of the major border towns in Tibet. The Shigatse-Yadong Railway line is currently under planning[2021].

The railroad to Yadong is planned to be connected with the Indian railway network, forming a passageway to South Asia and out to the Indian Ocean.

The Lhasa-Nyingchi Railway — Tibet's First Bullet Trains

Starting from Lhasa Station, continuing down the Lhasa River, then heading eastwards to Nyingchi through the Yaluzhangbu Canyon, the Lhasa-Nyingchi HSR (High-Speed Railway) will be the first electrified railway in Tibet with a total length of 433 km (269 miles) and a top speed of 160kph (99 mph).

The Lhasa-Nyingchi trains will be the first bullet trains in Tibet, and they are to be put into operation in July 2021. The train journey will be only 3 hours, which is 5 hours faster than by road.

It will eventually connect with high-speed railways in Sichuan province of the Nyingchi-Ya'an-Chengdu rail line. The Sichuan-Tibet Railway is to be the second railway into Tibet after the Qinghai-Tibet Railway.

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Engineering Marvels of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway

The elevation of the Tibetan Plateau is mostly between 3,000 and 5,000 meters. There was little experience of building railways at such a height anywhere in the world outside the Andes.

The construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway produced many engineering marvels and world records.

The Permafrost Engineering Challenge

Permafrost is a mixture of soil and ice that typically remains frozen all year (though it may thaw in some years).It threatens roadbed stability — the foundation for railway tracks.

Making a stable roadbed in permafrost was the most challenging part of the construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. Engineers successfully solved the problem based on research into frozen soil in Russia, Canada, and Northern Europe.

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway took the record for the longest track through permanently frozen areas with more than 550 kilometers (342 miles) of the railway built on permafrost.

Qinghai-Tibet Train running on Tibetan PlateauQinghai-Tibet Train running on Tibetan Plateau

The High-Altitude Health Challenge

85% of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway was built on mountainous terrain of more than 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) above sea level, where the annual average temperature is below 0°C (32°F) and the oxygen content is only 50–60% of that at sea level.

People can easily get sick or die because of the harsh cold, thin air, and strong radiation of the high altitudes. Oxygen suppliers and medical institutions were set up along the railway, with more than 600 medical staff offering treatment to workers.

There was no death during the construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, creating a marvel in the history of Tibetan Plateau medicine.

The Ecology Preservation Challenge

Rich in flora and fauna, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway passes through several areas of China's national nature reserves, such as the Hol Xil National Nature Reserve.

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway's ecological environment is fragile. If one of its ecosystems was damaged /disturbed, it would struggle to recover in a short time, if ever.

In order to protect the habitat of Tibetan antelope and other wild animals, 33 special passageways were established under the railway for the immigration. The Qinghai-Tibet Railway was given the title of an 'environmental protection railway'.

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10 World Records Held by the Qinghai-Tibet Railway

The construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway broke many world records in the sphere of railway transportation, and at least 10 haven't been surpassed since it opened in 2006.

1. The World's Longest High-Altitude Plateau Railway

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway is the longest railway across a highland plateau in the world, with a total length of 1,956 km (1,215 miles), starting at Xining at an altitude of 2,200 m (7,200 ft).

The Golmud-Lhasa section of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway passes through desert, swamp wetland, and snow-capped mountains, and grassland, with a total mileage of 1,142 km (710 miles), most of which is above 3,000 m (10,000 ft).

2. The World's Highest Railroad

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway is more than 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) above sea level for 960 kilometers (600 miles). Its highest point is Tangula Mountain Pass at an altitude of 5,072 meters (16,640 feet), known as the 'nearest railway to the sky'.

3. The World's Fastest High-Altitude Plateau Railway

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway is currently the fastest high-altitude railway in the world. The speed of trains reaches 100 km/h (62 mph) in the frozen-soil section and 120 km/h (75 mph) in the non-frozen-soil section.

4. The World's Longest Rail Track on Frozen Earth

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway is the longest rail track on permafrost in the world, with a mileage of 550 km (342 miles). It is known (by Chinese engineers) as 'the world's permafrost engineering museum'.

5. The World's Highest Railway Station

Tangula Railway Station in the center of the Tibetan Plateau is at altitude 5,068 meters (16,627 feet) above sea level, making it the highest altitude railway station in the world by almost 300 meters (1,000 feet).

Tangula MountainTangula Mountain

6. The World's Highest Permafrost Tunnel

Fenghuoshan Tunnel is at an altitude of 5,010 meters (16,437 feet) with a total length of 1,338meters (4,390 feet). It is the highest altitude permafrost tunnel in the world, and so it is called 'world's No. 1 high tunnel' in China.

7. The World's Longest Permafrost Tunnel

The majestic Kunlun Mountain range has been dubbed "the Ridge of Asia." The Kunlun Mountain Tunnel, which is 4,767 meters (15,640 feet) above sea level, is the world's longest plateau tunnel built through frozen earth and rock at 1,686 meters (1.05 miles) long.

8. The World's Longest Rail Bridge on Permafrost

Qingshuihe River Bridge is the longest permafrost-area rail bridge in the world. The 11,700-meter-long (7.27-mile-long) bridge runs across the edge of Hol Xil National Nature Reserve from the south of the Kunlun Mountains.

9. The World's Highest Track-Laying Base

The track-laying base in Amdo County, Nagqu Prefecture, Tibet on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway is the highest in the world at an altitude of 4,704 meters (15,433 feet).

10. The World's Most Expensive High-Altitude Railway

At the time of construction, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway was the most expensive of its kind, though other Tibet railways are set to surpass it. See the cost below.

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10 Interesting Qinghai-Tibet Railway Facts

1. The total investment of constructing the Golmud-Lhasa section of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which is only single-track, was 33 billion CNY (4.7 billion USD).

2. The Xining-Golmud section is a double-track railway, while the Golmud-Lhasa section is a single-track.

Due to the high altitude and harsh cold in the Golmud-Lhasa section, a double-track railroad was prohibitively expensive (and would have caused unnecessary environmental damage).

Though a single-track railway cannot allow two trains to run side-by-side, a large number of two-track stations and sidings were designed in to allow one train to stop and wait for another to pass.

3.When a train from Xining arrives in Golmud, the electric locomotive is replaced with a diesel locomotive (and vice-versa for trains from Lhasa).

Xining-Golmud trains are driven by electricity, but electric power generation is virtually undeveloped between Golmud Station and Lhasa,and providing electricity would have created even greater challenges to the construction of the Golmud-Lhasa railway. Hence, a locomotive with an internal combustion engine is used for the Golmud-Lhasa section.

4.There are "hot rods" installed on both sides of the railroad.

You will find rows off lashing metal pipes inserted into the sub grade ground on both sides of the track. Colloquially called 'hot rods', they keep the frozen soil from melting and hence becoming weak. (The 'hot rods' are actually passive heat exchangers containing coolant fluids like those in refrigerators.)

Railway Through the Chaerhan Salt LakeQinghai-Tibet Railway passing through the Chaerhan Salt Lake

5.38 of the 45 stations on the Golmud-Lhasa section are unattended.

The average altitude is around 4,000 meters for the Golmud-Lhasa section. To minimize the number of staff at such a high altitude, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway uses infrared and other remote monitoring systems at unmanned stations.

6.Aspecial garbage compressor on the train is used to treat waste.

To ensure the environment along the railway is not polluted by garbage, an innovative garbage collection system was developed. Golmud-Lhasa section trains will transport all garbage generated along the way to Lhasa or Golmud for treatment.

7. After the Qinghai-Tibet Railway opened to traffic, the per capita income of Tibetan herdsmen rose to four times that before[in 2015].

8. The Qinghai-Tibet Railway recorded its largest daily number of 19,065 passengers on October7, 2019.

By 2018, the railway had sent 2.862 million passenger journeys in total (each train takes about 936 passengers).

9. Qinghai-Tibet Railway has zero impact on ecology.

Since the operation of the Tibet railway, the ecological environment of the Qinghai Tibet Plateau has not been affected. At present, protected areas along the railway account for 41% of the total mileage.

The number of Tibetan antelopes has actually increased from 50,000 to more than 300,000 over the last 15 years.

10.The Golmud-Lhasa section of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway was built with "seamless rails".

There is nearly no join in the rails of the whole 1,142-kilometer section. This improves the reliability of the track and speeds up train speeds, as well as increasing passenger comfort by eliminating the clicked-clack of train wheels going over track joins.

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Altitudes of Key Qinghai-Tibet Railway Features

Known as 'the road to the sky' in China, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway has many of the highest altitudes of railway features in the world. Most sections of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway are at altitudes of over 3,000 meters, while 960km of the line is at elevations above 4,000 meters.

Tangula Mountain Pass at 5,072 meters above sea level is the highest altitude reached along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, while Tangula Station is the highest railway station in the world.

Almost 85% of stations on the line are noticeably lacking oxygen with as little as 60% of that at sea level. See below for altitudes at major sights and stations along the railroad.

Feature Altitude (m) Description
Xining 2,200 Terminal station, capital of Qinghai
Qinghai Lake 3,200 Largest salt lake in China
Cha'erhan Salt Lake 2,600 Site of the Great Salt Bridge — the only railway built on salt
Guanjiao Tunnel 3,690 Longest railway tunnel in China at 32 km, highest tunnel of the Xining-Golmud section
Delingha 3,000 An important Qinghai-Tibet Railway station
Golmud 2,828 An important Qinghai-Tibet Railway station, second-largest city in Qinghai Province
Nanshan Mountain 3,080 The real starting point of the Golmud-Lhasa section of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway
Nachitai 3,575 The first sightseeing station where the train will stop for a while
Yufeng Peak 4,195 Sightseeing station for a view of the Kunlun Mountains and Yufeng Peak
Chuma'er River 4,495 Wildlife migration corridor, northern Yangtze tributary
Tuotuo River 4,547 Most villages, key transport corridor, source of the Yangtze
Hoh Xil Nature Reserve 4,500 "Forbidden zone for humans"
Wudaoliang 4,611 Beginning of the lowest oxygen section of the railway — beware altitude sickness
Fenghuoshan Tunnel 4,780 The highest tunnel on permanently frozen soil in the world
Tangula Mountain 5,068 Highest railway station in the world at the Qinghai-Tibet border
Amdo 4,702 An important station on the railway where passengers can get on/off
Cona Lake 4,594 Closest lake to the railway, where passengers can enjoy the view through the window
Changtang Grassland 4,500 One of the largest grasslands in China surrounded by the Kunlun, Tangula, and Nyainqen Tangula ranges
Nagqu 4,513 Important station on the railway where passengers can get on/off.
Lake Namtso 4,718 One of the sacred lakes for Tibetans
Nyaingen Tangula 4,600 One of the sacred mountain ranges for Tibetans
Yambajan 4,306 Famous for its steam field, geothermal resources, and hot springs
Lhasa 3,602 Terminal station, capital of Tibet

You should read >>How to deal with Altitude Sickness 

Scenery along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway

The railway provides a gorgeous journey across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau with scenery including the blue diamond Qinghai Lake, shining white Chaerhan Salt Lake, the spectacular Kunlun Mountains, and Hoh Xil, where you can see groups of Tibetan antelopes running freely.

Hoh XilPassing by Hoh Xil Nature Reserve

It is a dramatic moment when the train passes through Tangula Mountain Pass. The nearby sightseeing station is cold and lacks oxygen (60% of normal levels), but you may still want to venture out of the train for the experience and view.

See more >> Breathtaking Scenery along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway.

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Tibet Trains

Train tickets to Lhasa can be bought departing several large cities in China, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Xi'an, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing,Lanzhou, and Xining. However, all passengers must transfer to an oxygen-supplied Qinghai-Tibet Railway train at Xining Station.

A ticket from Xining to Lhasa is much more recommended than from e.g. Beijing to Lhasa. Xining to Lhasa trains offer the shortest trip with a duration of 20 to 22 hours, and they also have more departures than other cities', allowing more flexibility.

From Beijing to Lhasa, the journey time is 40+hours. It is not worth staying an extra up to 20 hours on a train with nothing in particular to see. The best views are, after all, on the 14-hour Golmud to Lhasa section.

You may want to read How to Get to Xining.

Contact us for Tibet train schedules and prices.

Qinghai-Tibet train carriages are all equipped with an oxygen supply system. You can also use the oxygen outlets located on the corridors and soft sleeper cabins to help you with altitude sickness.

Soft Sleeper Cabin- Lower BerthSoft Sleeper Cabin- Lower Berth

Other facilities and services offered include restaurant car, Western and squat toilets, luggage racks over the seats/corridors, hot water, and medical services.

See more on Things You Need to Know for Taking a Train to Tibet.

Experience the Qinghai-Tibet Railway with Us

Our popular 7-Day Tibet Tour by Train from Xining allows you an experience of the Qinghai–Tibet Rail way to your way to Lhasa. Tibet train tickets are very popular and always fully booked during peak season from June to October.

We will try our best to help you get train tickets (we almost never fail), as well as applying for the necessary Tibet permits for you.

Traveling by train in China is not an easy thing for foreign travelers, as there is little/no English-speaking service. Signage, announcements, and train tickets are all in Chinese.

With our private tour, your personal English-speaking guides will help you with many aspects to ensure your train travel and tour goes smoothly.

Our recommended Tibet tours can all be customized.

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