Kerung-KTM Railway & Raxaul-KTM Railway

A Tale of Project Development of Two Cross-border Railways

the HRM
Touted as game changer connectivity projects, the progress on developing the two cross-border railway projects – Kerung-Kathmandu Railway and Raxaul-Kathmandu Railway – is yet to gather any momentum.

In 2018, Nepal signed two major agreements on cross-border railway projects for improving connectivity with its two neighbors India and China. An agreement on a survey of the proposed Kerung-Kathmandu Railway, which is also known as the Trans Himalayan Railway, and preparation of its detailed project report (DPR) was signed between Nepali and Chinese officials during the visit of then Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli in June 2018.

Two months later, Nepal signed another understanding with the southern neighbor for the construction of an electrified railway line connecting Raxaul and Kathmandu.

The signing of the railway development agreements was seen as a competition between the two large neighbors to increase their influence on the Himalayan country through connectivity projects. On the other hand, the agreements were hailed as milestones in terms of improving Nepal’s connectivity and trade.
Four years down the line, the progress of these two cross-border railway projects is far from satisfactory. While some progress has been seen on the proposed Raxaul-Kathmandu Railway Project as the Indian side is currently conducting the final survey, no progress has been seen on the development of the Kerung-Kathmandu Railway Project despite repeated assurances from the Chinese side to start the survey.

Moving at a Snail Pace
Despite repeated assurance from the Chinese leaders and high officials who visited Nepal in the last few years that they have accorded high priority to the cross-border railway, things are moving at a snail’s pace.

While China has already started the feasibility study of the project on its side of the border, things are yet to move ahead in Nepal. Also, China had promised to fund the feasibility study on the Nepali side to which Nepal has already agreed, and several understandings have been reached on the project since Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Nepal in October 2019.

During the visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in March this year, the two sides signed an agreement on a technical assistance scheme for the China-aid feasibility study of the Trans Himalayan Railway Project. And, in August, during the meeting between Foreign Minister Narayan Khadka and his Chinese counterpart Yi in Qingdao in August, China announced the feasibility study of the Kerung-Kathmandu Railway on a Chinese grant. On returning to Kathmandu after the meeting, Khadka said the construction of the project will be funded under China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

According to Nepali government officials, the project survey is yet to start on the Nepali side of the border. “I have heard about the Chinese government bearing the feasibility cost of the project on the Nepali side. But, the Department of Railways has not received any information through the official channel,” said Rohit Kumar Bisural, Director General at the Department of Railway. “There has been no progress on the railway project after the Chinese side conducted a pre-feasibility study.”

According to Department officials, it would cost around USD 3-3.5 billion to construct the railway from Kerung to Kathmandu based on current estimates. The ministry officials said the Chinese side, during a virtual meeting last year, had told them that it would take at least 48 months to complete the feasibility study.

Experts, however, say that this mega cross-border railway project is very tough to construct, and there are even doubts if the project would ever be constructed. “The railway project has to go through the most difficult geographical sections on the Nepali side. How can Nepal invest more than its annual budget in just one project that is not even economically feasible?” questions Madhusudan Adhikari, former Physical Infrastructure and Transportation Secretary, adding, “On our side of the border, barely two percent of the railway line will be laid on the surface of the ground.”

According to Adhikari, even Chinese infrastructure experts like Zhang Jiadong, a professor at Fudan University, have warned the construction of the project even for the Chinese government is costly and not viable. “Chinese experts have been suggesting that both governments must rethink the decision to construct this toughest railway project with a such massive cost,” said Adhikari.

However, there are people like Dr. Surya Raj Acharya, a public policy and infrastructure expert, who are hopeful about the Trans-Himalayan Railway Project. According to him, Nepal needs cross-border railways with both India and China to end its complete dependency on its southern neighbor. “It is not about the cost. Once Nepal and China jointly construct the railway, the distance between Kathmandu and Chengdu in mainland China can be covered in just 24 hours. Just imagine the economic benefits of getting connected with a such huge economy in just a day,” he mentioned.

Dr. Acharya agrees that the Trans Himalayan Railway will prove to be the most difficult railway project for construction. “The pre-feasibility report shows that the construction of the project is the toughest, given the topography and geography of the region. Having said that, the project is a game changer and must be constructed with the initiative of both governments,” he opined.

The investment, according to Acharya, would make a massive impact in the long run. “In the long run, the project would have a massive impact. As China is poised to become the world’s largest economy within the next couple of years, we need to tap this opportunity and completing the railway and getting connected with China is the first step towards it,” said Dr. Acharya.

Some Progress in Raxaul-Kathmandu Railway Project
While the cross-border railway project from the northern side is currently stalled, India has expedited the works on Raxaul-Kathmandu Railway, with the start of the work of the final location survey (FLS). According to Railway Department, the field survey has been completed.

As per the memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed between Nepal and India on October 8, 2021, DPR should be completed within 18 months. India has designated Konkan Railway Corporation to undertake the study.

As per the initial report of the Konkan Railway, it will require a total of Rs 320 billion to build the broad-gauge Kathmandu-Raxaul Railway. Once completed, the broad-gauge line will give the Nepali capital a direct connection with the Indian railway network, enabling non-stop train travel to all Indian cities.

According to the Railway Department DG Bisural, a detailed report of the project will be prepared in the next few months. “The project would have 32 tunnels.”

According to the report, the longest tunnel would be eight kilometers long. Likewise, the 140-kilometer-long railway project would have 42 kilometers of tunnelway, 24 special-style bridges, 124 big bridges, and 125 normal bridges.

The railway will start from Raxaul and pass through Jitpur, Nijgadh, Sikharpur, Sisneri and Kathmandu through Chobar. “Further works on this project will start once the full report of the location survey is ready. The survey is almost equivalent to a detailed project report. The construction would begin once the report is done,” said Bisural.

Despite the high cost, Dr. Acharya sees merit in the construction of the Raxaul-Kathmandu Railway “As India is the biggest trading partner, we have to complete the construction of the Raxaul-Kathmandu Railway–which would reduce the transportation cost of goods by a massive amount. Once this railway is constructed, goods can be transported directly to Kathmandu from India and third countries.”

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