China's newest high-speed rail line connects historical sites, legendary mountains home to giant pandas

The Fuxing bullet train runs on the Beijing-Shanghai Railway in Changzhou, China on Sept 21, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - On Wednesday (Nov 22) morning, a bullet train pulled out of the station in the ancient capital of Xi'an, cut through the legendary Qinling mountain range and arrived in the south-western metropolis of Chengdu in just three hours.

With train speeds hitting 250 kmph, the new line would slash travelling time between Xi'an in Shaanxi province and Chengdu in neighbouring Sichuan province by more than 10 hours when it enter operation by the end of this year.

Previously, the trip would take up to 16 hours.

Chinese rail authorities carried out the first full-course test run of its newest and much awaited high-speed route on Wednesday. It also connects cities like Deyang, Mianyang and Guangyuan in Sichuan province and the cities of Ningqiang and Hanzhong in Shaanxi province.

The 643 km Xi'an-Chengdu line is the first in China to traverse through the Qinling mountain range, which forms a natural boundary between the country's northern and southern regions.

About 135 km of the tracks lie within the Qinling mountainous area.

Professor Zhao Jian of Beijing Jiaotong University told the Global Times the construction of the newest line was complex and difficult due to the complicated terrain.

A large number of bridges and tunnels had to be built. Tunnels make up 95 per cent of passage through the mountain range

The construction of the entire line took five years and involved more than 80,000 construction workers, reported Global Times.

Another challenge faced by Chinese rail engineers is the ecological impact on the Qinling mountain range, which is home to seven national natural reserves and 21 provincial-level natural reserves. The Tianhua Mountain Natural Reserve Area is home to the giant panda, while the Yangxian county is the habitat of another rare animal species: the crested ibis.

As of September, there were 345 wild pandas living in the Qinling mountain area. China currently has 1,864 wild pandas.

To avoid disturbing the pandas, the railway was designed either to go around the panda's major activity region or run through tunnels within the Tianhua Mountain area, said Lai Wenhong, deputy director of China Railway First Survey and Design Institute Group.

"Protective shields will be placed near the entrance of each tunnel to prevent animals from going in," he told China Daily.

The line also cuts through a region where crested ibis sometimes fly.

Protective nets are set up along 17 km of the tracks to protect the birds.

Local media on Thursday (Nov 23) said the opening of the new HSR line will help boost the tourism sector as both Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi province and known for China's famed terracotta warriors, and Chengdu are popular tourist destinations.

Li Lin, a travel agency manager in Chengdu, said the opening of the railway is expected to give a shot in the arm to the tourism sector.

"Long before the trial run of the railway, quite a few people in Sichuan had told me they wanted to visit Xi'an after the railway's formal opening to see the Terracotta Warriors and other sites of historical importance such as the Greater Wild Goose Pagoda and Daming Palace, and taste the famous mutton and bread soup," Li said.

Xi'an, the capital of 13 feudal dynasties, was China's political, economic and cultural centre for more than 1,100 years.

A team led by Wu Xiaomin, a research fellow at the Shaanxi Institute of Zoology, who is in charge of the research team for the Xi'an-Chengdu high-speed railway, had to closely monitor the impact of the construction on the wildlife.

The team also trained construction workers on how to better protect animals.

These measures, said China Daily, increased the level of difficulty and raised the costs in the construction of the Xi'an-Chengdu HSR line.

"What's more, the innovative technology used in the animal protection measures in the railway could become supporting technology for China to export its high-speed railway technology," Wu said.

Zhang Hongfeng, an associate fellow of the Shaanxi Institute of Zoology and a member of Wu's team, said trains running in tunnels create much less noise, light and vibrations.

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