Could the Tibetan 'miracle' go up in smoke?
Globe & Mail[Monday, July 03, 2006 13:17]
By Geoffrey York

July 3: After conquering mountain peaks and permafrost, the builders of the world's highest railway are facing a new threat: cigarette smokers.

On the inaugural 48-hour voyage of the Beijing-Tibet train yesterday, Chinese officials were gearing up for the danger of banned cigarettes in the Canadian-built railway cars, where oxygen will be pumped into the sealed cars as they reach high altitudes today.

Officials refused to say what kind of combustion could occur if someone lights a cigarette once the cars are oxygenated -- a definite risk in a country where two-thirds of men are addicted to smoking. But they urged passengers to blow the whistle on any clandestine smokers.

Not that the trains are lacking in police and security officials. Of the 870 passengers on the first two-day journey from Beijing to Lhasa, about 300 are working staff, including a number of uniformed police, and one of their tasks is to enforce the smoking ban.

"Our working staff will have to ensure that everyone abides by the rules," said Zhu Zhensheng, deputy director of the railway project.

He spoke to reporters yesterday in the dining car of the train as it rumbled toward Tibet at speeds of up to 160 kilometres an hour.

The train will climb above 5,000 metres and traverse hundreds of kilometres of permafrost in the first railway line ever to reach Tibet.

The rail cars, built by a consortium led by Bombardier, are sleek ultramodern vehicles with all of the latest technology to protect passengers from altitude sickness and ultraviolet rays.

The project, however, has provoked protests around the world, including at the annual meetings of Nortel and Bombardier in Canada. Nortel is providing the communications technology on the trains.

On Friday, three protesters -- including a Canadian woman, Omi Hodwitz -- were arrested at a Beijing railway station when they unfurled a banner against the railway. They were released after three hours in custody.

The protesters say that the railway will jeopardize Tibet's culture and environment, allowing China to flood the region with thousands of migrant workers of the majority Han ethnic group.

The train that departed from Beijing on Saturday night was the first to bring passengers on the entire route from Beijing to Lhasa. But earlier on Saturday, two trains headed to Lhasa from the northwestern Chinese city of Golmud, after a ribbon-cutting ceremony led by Chinese President Hu Jintao.

"The project is not only a magnificent feat in China's history of railway construction, it is also a great miracle for the world," Mr. Hu told the ceremony, which coincided with the 85th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

Zhang Jianwei, president of Bombardier's operations in China, said the first trains seemed to be running smoothly. "It's going very well, there are no problems," he said in an interview. "We're very proud of our technology. This project was unique in the world, and it was really challenging to us."

He was unwilling to comment on the protests. "Different people have different opinions about it. We feel that we're making a contribution to this region and to the whole of China."

One of the passengers on the first train was a Canadian tourist, Michael Hoyt, who managed to get last-minute tickets from a friend. He said he was impressed by the train. "The cars are really beautiful," he said yesterday after his first night on the two-day journey. "It's a very smooth and quiet ride, compared to a lot of trains I've been on. The service has been really good. They come around and bring us hot water and food."

Mr. Hoyt, who is teaching English at a university in Jilin province, said he disagreed with the protesters. "I don't think Tibet will lose from this. I think it will open a lot of doors. I don't care about people protesting to protect old cultures."

As he spoke, he puffed away on a cigarette. But he said he was planning to switch to nicotine gum when the train reached high altitude.

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