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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Building the Chengdu–Kunming railway in the People's Republic 1970

Updated: 6 days ago




A look at the construction of the Chengdu-Kunming railway during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in the People's Republic of China. The line was officially opened in 1970 after having been started in 1958 and then given new priority again after 1964.


The line was built over incredibly difficult terrain that non-Chinese experts had deemed impassible. It was an essential new link for industry, trade, defense and the people of the region.


Its construction is seen as one of the great achievements of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution


Here we take a look at it in text and photos from 1976.



THE Chengdu-Kunming Railway, another important communications link in China's mountainous southwest. was successfully completed and opened to traffic in July 1970. It is a splendid achievement of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and a signal victory for Chairman Mao's proletarian revolutionary line.


This rail line snakes through the serried peaks and over the swirling waters of the Szechuan Yunnan Plateau. From Chengdu, the capital of Szechuan Province, it winds tortuously for 1085 kilometres to its southern terminus, Kunming. the capital of Yunnan Province. The line cuts through areas traversed by the Red Army on its Long March from October 1934 to October 1935.


All along the route are lofty peaks. precipitous ravines. swift rivers. complicated geological

formations and extremely changeable weather. A third of the line is situated in an area where earthquakes are frequent and reach a magnitude of seven or above. Displacements of rock mass have been known to occur over large areas in some places. Deep gullies retain heat. building up to temperatures of from 40 to 50 degrees C., while in some valleys force-10 winds often rage.


Like a geological museum. these areas exhibit karst caves, underground rivers, faults, drifting sands, gas filled layers. magmatic explosions, mud-rock flow,. silt and Glauber's salt deposits. The building of a railway in such conditions is an unprecedented engineering feat in the history of China‘s railway construction.


The project was started in l958, the year of China's Great Leap Forward in socialist construction...Then, in August 1964, Chairman Mao issued the call: “The Chengdu-Kunming Railway must be built at a fast pace.” From all parts of China builders converged as quickly as possible at the work-sites along the line and resumed construction. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution which began in 1966 further promoted the work.


On July 1, 1970 the Chengdu-Kunming Railway was formally opened to traffic, ending the centuries-long history at the Szechuan-Yunnan Plateau as an area with poor communications.


Their revolutionary enthusiasm mounted, and they determinedly applied Chairman Mao‘s great principle of “maintaining independence and keeping the initiative in our own hands and relying on our own efforts." While excavating Shamulata Tunnel they encountered an underground river which poured over 12,000 tons of water into the worksite each 24 hours. They kept on working though waist-deep in the water. While digging a tunnel along the Chinsha River, soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army railway corps drilled through hard rock in upwards of 40C. heat. The builders fearlessly defied towering mountains. dangerous peaks, swift currents and deep gullies in their conquest or nature.


With such firmness of spirit, they cut through mountain after mountain, built 427 tunnels and

653 bridges, overcame the multiplicity of complicated geological formations and completed the entire line ahead of schedule.


A passenger on the Chengdu-Kunming Railway will first be impressed by the breathtaking views or the bridges, span after span. and the many tunnels. The train will cross the Tatu River, make its way through the Greater and Lesser Liangshan Mountains, and then pass the Chinsha River, There is an average of one large or medium-sized bridge for every 1.7 km. of rail line, and a tunnel for every 2.5 km. The combined length of bridges and tunnels exceeds 400 km. In especially mountainous sections the line winds up and down and around constantly, so that the train is always changing direction. In one mountain the train enters a tunnel and comes out on the same face of the mountain. but tens of metres above or below. From a distance one sees "terraces" or bridges and tunnels. The difficulties and complexities of the undertaking have rarely been seen in the history of not only China's but of the World‘s railway building.


The completion of the Chengdu-Kunming Railway once again demonstrates the Chinese people's revolutionary spirit of self-reliance and hard work.


Across mountains and rivers


The Szechuan-Yunnan Plateau mountain terrain


Carrying heavy equipment up a mountain


Crossing the natural barrier of the Tatu River where the Red Army made its famous forced crossing during the Long March. This railway builder will start preperations on the other side of the river for the speedy construction of the railway.


A team of women bridge builders


Railway bridge across the lower reaches of the Tatu River



Here the train leaves one tunnel, crosses a river, and immediately enters another


A train winding through a valley in Szechwan province





The diesel locomotives for the entire line were designed and built in China

Signal workers










Diesel engines being prepared for delivery by the trains



New towns being built along the line



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