For Hou Chaoru, a teacher in Qiemo County in Hotan, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the 3,000-km journey back to her home province of Hebei has never been more convenient. The completion of a new cross-desert railway line with a station in Qiemo has significantly shortened what used to be a five-day bus-and-train pilgrimage back east.
The Hotan-Ruoqiang Railway linking the city of Hotan with the county of Ruoqiang in the Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture in Xinjiang was formally put into operation on June 16. The 825-km-long line connects to the Korla-Kashgar, Kashgar-Hotan and Golmud-Korla railways, forming a 2,712-km-long loop circling the Taklimakan, China’s largest desert.
The railway has 22 stations. With a designed speed of 120 km per hour, trains can cover the entire distance in 11 hours and 26 minutes, after making necessary stops.
The loop links major cities including Aksu, Kashgar, Hotan, and Korla along its route. It is expected to put the development of Xinjiang, especially its southern part, on a faster track.
Wei Chao, Vice President and Chief Engineer of Xinjiang Railway Survey and Design Institute Co. Ltd., said that with the addition of the new line, the total length of Xinjiang’s railways had reached 8,977 km, 3.2 times of that in 2000.
After eight years of surveying and designing, construction of the railway began in 2018.
“We prioritized ecological preservation in our survey and design,” Yang Baorong, chief designer of the Hotan-Ruoqiang Railway at China Railway First Survey and Design Institute Group Co. Ltd., told Xinhua News Agency. “We try to minimize its impact on the environment while seeking to spur economic development along the line,” Yang said.
“We charted dozens of routes, and finally chose the current route in order to circumvent areas with heavy sandstorms and ecologically fragile zones,” Yang said.
As the railway passes through the southern edge of the Taklimakan, the second largest shifting-sand desert in the world, preventing sands from burying the railway was a major challenge.
Deng Bin, an engineer who worked on the railway, said when there were strong sandstorms, construction workers had to halt their work.
More than 500 km of the railway is affected by sandstorms, accounting for 65 percent of the total length. Of these sections, 125 km is located in fixed-dune zones and doesn’t need sand fixing measures, while nearly 410 km needs strong protection from the sand.
Workers adopted innovative measures to shelter the railway from sandstorms, including bringing in many tons of dry reeds to create windbreaks and sand-stabilizing grids along the tracks.
These measures are only temporary, however, as they will be damaged by sandstorms over time. To give the railway better protection, drought-resistant trees and shrubs have been planted in areas with abundant groundwater along the railway.
As tree saplings have a low survival rate in the saline-alkali soil of the desert, workers have replaced the saline-alkali soil with more fertile soil to promote the growth of the trees.
During more than 1,000 days of construction, workers planted nearly 13 million trees, covering 7,333 hectares.
Deng said the reed fences will last around five years while the trees will grow to 2 to 3 meters in two to three years, shielding the railway from wind and sand.
Irrigation is necessary for the growth of the plants. An intelligent irrigation system is used along the railway line, with 132 water wells each equipped with sensors so that irrigation can be remotely controlled through a smartphone.
Deng said the system has reduced manpower costs and improved water use efficiency. The irrigation system has not only promoted the growth of introduced plants, but also many wild ones, which will further help combat desertification.
The green belt is not only protecting the railway, but also improving the ecology in the surrounding areas. Animals that were rarely seen before are often spotted along the line now, such as rabbits and red deer.
In areas with especially serious sandstorms, bridges were built to allow sandstorms pass underneath the railway tracks. There are five such bridges along the line, with a total length of 49.7 km.
Construction workers came up with innovative solutions to overcome many difficulties in building the bridges. Zhang Gang, Deputy General Manager of the China Railway 14th Bureau Group Fifth Engineering Corp. Ltd., which was responsible for the construction of the longest bridge, said it was difficult to transport building materials into the desert. For instance, the beams between the piers of the bridge each weigh 150 tons and couldn’t be transported by road. To transport the beams, construction workers had to build the bridge and lay tracks on it simultaneously so that the beams could be shipped on the tracks, and then each beam was moved over the previous ones and into position. This method not only overcame the transport problem, but also improved construction efficiency and transportation safety.
Construction teams also prefabricated bridge piers instead of making them on site. Wang Bo from China Railway Beijing Engineering Group, who was chief engineer of the Hotan-Ruoqiang Railway Project, said prefabricating the concrete piers saved his team from the trouble of transporting water into the remote desert to mix concrete, and also reduced the impact of sandstorms on their construction.
In addition to sandstorms, construction workers also had to confront the challenges of high temperatures from May to September. Floating sand particles sweep across the desert in over 90 days of every year and ambience temperatures from May to September reach as high as 40 degrees Celsius, while ground surface temperatures can reach up to 80 degrees Celsius.
An economic lifeline
The railway has made it more convenient for local produce and commodities such as cotton, walnuts, dates and minerals to be transported to other places in China.
For instance, in Luopu, a county in Hotan which is a major producer of dates, dates used to be transported by road to Hotan City first and then by railway to other parts of the country. Now, with the new railway, they are transported directly by railway, saving both time and transportation cost.
“The rail loop will open a new channel for the free flow of people and goods. It will promote the transportation of products and boost tourism along the line, bringing prosperity to the autonomous region, especially the southern part,” said Li Tao, an official in Minfeng County in Hotan.
The project also mirrors the overall progress of railway construction in China in recent years. China has invested more than 7 trillion yuan ($1.05 trillion) in railway construction over the past decade, laying 52,000 km of tracks, according to a press conference on the progress of China’s transportation sector in the past decade, held by the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee on June 10.
By the end of 2021, China’s railway network length had exceeded some 150,000 km, with 40,000 km being high-speed railway.
“More than 80 percent of counties have access to railways and the high-speed railway network covers 93 percent of cities with a population of more than 500,000,” said An Lusheng, Deputy Director of the National Railway Administration of China.