The Qinghai-Tibet Railway linking China with Tibet could ultimately promote the sustainable ecological, social and economic development of western China — but only if it is carefully managed, say Changhui Peng and colleagues in this article in Science.
The authors describe the tremendous efforts taken during construction of the 1,956-kilometre railway to protect the surrounding environment and wildlife.
The railway path was designed to bypass natural wetlands, and tunnels were built to avoid disrupting animal migration routes.
Wet-spraying and wet-drilling helped to reduce dust emissions, and workers also used solar energy to power electrical equipment. Further measures are planned to use clean energy sources for the railway stations along the line.
But the railway still faces challenges.
Tourism, and the corresponding economic boom, could pollute and destroy the environment, and may also facilitate the transmission of diseases such as HIV/AIDS.
Rising temperatures could melt permafrost and destabilise the railway's foundation.
The authors suggest that long-term monitoring of the local environment and careful management of the region's economic development will be needed to limit human damage.