India stealing a march on China on rail connectivity with Nepal?

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As a Chinese technical team started a feasibility study for the proposed Kerung-Kathmandu cross-border railway, India has almost completed a detailed feasibility study for the Raxaul-Kathmandu Railway project, officials at the Department of Railways said.

The two projects highlight the geopolitical rivalry between the two neighbouring giants who are competing for influence in Nepal.

In late December, a six-member Chinese team representing the China Railway First Survey and Design Institute Group visited Nepal to carry out a detailed feasibility study of the proposed Nepal-China cross-border railway. It was the first time since Covid-19 hit the world that the Chinese technical team visited Nepal for a feasibility study.

“They visited different sites of the proposed rail network and returned to China on Tuesday after conducting a reconnaissance survey of the railway project,” said Aman Chitrakar, spokesperson for the Department of Railways.

A reconnaissance survey is the first engineering survey in a previously unsurveyed territory for the purpose of project implementation. “ They will probably come back after celebrating the Chinese New Year in late January,” said Chitrakar.

During the reconnaissance survey, they observed some key areas that fall under the alignments proposed by the pre-feasibility study which was prepared in late 2018. “We can now say that the task of detailed feasibility study has moved forward,” said Chitrakar.

In this way, progress on the proposed Raxaul-Kathmandu railway has been more rapid than on the Kerung-Kathmandu project.

Rohit Kumar Bisural, director general of the Department of Railways, said the Indian side completed the fieldwork of the final location survey of the proposed broad gauge line between Raxaul and Kathmandu.

Rohit Kumar Bisural, director general of the Department of Railways, said the Indian side completed the fieldwork of the final location survey of the proposed broad gauge line between Raxaul and Kathmandu.

Konkan Railway Corporation Limited has been working on the survey, which is also a type of detailed feasibility study, according to department officials. “The company is expected to submit the survey report in April-May this year.”

The two neighbouring countries are conducting detailed feasibility studies for the cross-border railway lines with their own grants.

The process of conducting the studies for these two railway lines had moved ahead simultaneously in the last five years.

When then prime minister KP Sharma Oli visited China in March 2016, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation for railway connectivity.

The idea of trans-Himalayan railway connectivity had gathered momentum and both sides agreed to make good use of the long-term communication mechanism on railway cooperation between government departments. The Chinese side agreed to provide such support as technology and personnel training, according to the joint statement issued after the visit.

Then, China sent its technical teams to conduct a preliminary feasibility study for the proposed railway in November 2017 and May 2018.

Chinese connectivity projects appeared to have rang alarm bells in India as the southern neighbour also proposed the Raxaul-Kathmandu railway project. “I sensed their urgency to build the Raxaul-Kathmandu railway network after China came forward with its cross-border railway project,” said Ananta Acharya, former director general at the Department of Railway.

“I asked them [Indian officials] if they are interested in doing this project to which they responded positively and an agreement was signed during the former Prime Minister Oli’s India visit in early 2018.”

According to a separate joint statement on ‘Expanding Rail Linkages: Connecting Raxaul in India to Kathmandu in Nepal,’ the two countries agreed to construct a new electrified rail line, with India’s financial support, connecting the border city of Raxaul in India with Kathmandu.

In August 2018, Nepal and India signed a memorandum of understanding for a preliminary engineering cum traffic survey for a rail link between Kathmandu and Raxaul. Konkan Railway Corporation Ltd. was entrusted to conduct a preliminary survey.

As per the pre-feasibility study, the railway line will start from Raxaul and pass through Jitpur, Nijgadh, Sikharpur, Sisneri and Sathikhel before connecting Chobhar, Kathmandu, and there will be 41 bridges and 40 curves.

In the case of the proposed Kerung-Kathmandu Railway, the China Railway First Survey and Design Institute Group in 2018 had prepared technical details for the railway line and later conducted the pre-feasibility study.

The Kerung-Kathmandu railway will be part of the 550-km railroad connecting the Tibetan city of Shigatse with Kerung near the Nepal-China border. Although just 75-km long, construction of the Kerung-Kathmandu section will cost over $3 billion due to difficult geological terrains including the Himalayan region and other complexities, according to the pre-feasibility study.

During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s October 2019 visit to Nepal, two sides agreed on the project’s feasibility study. Subsequently, the world grappled with the Covid crisis and China imposed a strict zero-Covid policy which delayed feasibility study works, according to officials.

On the other hand, further agreements were signed with India on the development of the Raxaul-Kathmandu railway. A memorandum of understanding on performing a final location study was signed by Nepal and India in October 2021.

Acharya, former director general of the Department of Railways, said Nepal’s geopolitical importance for both India and China could work to the country’s advantage.

“What we should not do is try to use one country against another,” he said. “We can build trust with both and convince them to build important development projects in Nepal.”

Now, the Chinese team is starting the work on the feasibility study, and it is expected to take 42 months to complete the task.

On the other hand, the Indian side, despite being a late starter, will complete the final location survey sooner.

“But there has been no agreement with India on financing the construction of the Raxaul-Kathmandu project. It could take time,” said Bisural. “Similar is the situation with the Chinese side, although there is a long way to go before they complete the feasibility study.”

According to Bisural, the two railway lines will be hard to build as each will entail digging up many tunnels. The Kerung-Kathmandu Railway is 72km long while Raxaul-Kathmandu Railway is 141km, based on the currently proposed alignment.

“The Raxaul-Kathmandu railway line is longer and many tunnels need to be built in the hilly areas it will pass through,” said Bisural.

– The Kathmandu Post