24 October 2019

Unlocking Growth Through Infrastructure: The Mila Mountain Tunnel

The Mila Mountain tunnel is yet another marvel of Chinese engineering and willpower. Built at an average elevation of 4750m, it currently holds the record for the world’s highest freeway tunnel. With important economic implications, construction of the tunnel was a priority for the Chinese leadership in their efforts to maintain the GDP growth rates that have propelled them from a largely agrarian and impoverished nation to the second largest and fastest developing economy in the world.

The tunnel itself is quite ordinary. A 5750m long stretch of two-lane freeway - you would be forgiven for being unimpressed at the sight of it. In reality, though, the tunnel is exceptionally impressive.

As a point of reference - at 4750m, the tunnel was constructed at an elevation of only 400m below Mount Everest's base camp, which sits at 5150m. At this altitude, the effective oxygen percentage in the air is only 11.4% to 11.8%, which is almost half that of sea level.

Complex construction work at such a high altitude is an enormously challenging task. For this reason, the workers that built the tunnel, numbering in excess of 2000, had to not only be highly skilled, but physiologically able to work at such high altitudes where the oxygen was sparse and the temperatures dropped to -30 degrees Celsius. Many workers suffered altitude sickness and could only work for short intervals before taking breaks to use the oxygen facilities on site, which included 15 oxygenators, an oxygen tank, and five boilers.

The record for the world’s highest tunnel was previously held by the Punta Olimpica Tunnel, in Peru. Cutting a road through the Andes mountain range, the Punta Olimpica connects the cities of Carhuaz, San Luis and Chacas, reducing travel time between the two from 9 hours to around 2.5 hours. Whilst only 15m in altitude below the Mila Mountain tunnel, the Punta Olimpica is five times shorter at only 1,384m, compared to Mila Mountain's 5,750m.

Currently, the title of fourth highest freeway tunnel sits with the Cho La mountain tunnel, another Chinese construction, this time connecting Sichuan Province's capital Chengdu to the city of Nagqu in Tibet. A 7km long tunnel at an altitude of 4,378m, it's yet another display of Chinese capacity for engineering and construction excellence.

The overarching goal of the Chinese infrastructure development frenzy is unlocking economic growth. Improved transportation networks accomplish this through time and cost savings for all road users, as well as opening up new markets to business. The Mila Mountain tunnel is no exception to this. The tunnel cuts the journey around the mountains from over 2 hours, on a road prone to landslides, ice, and blizzards, to a 10-minute drive through a weather-protected tunnel.

Additionally, the projects themselves have a positive economic impact, often directly employing thousands of workers and indirectly creating many more jobs in a spider-web economic effect.

The tunnel will also have implications for tourism in the area. The Sichuan-Tibet Highway, on which the Mila Mountain tunnel is located was labeled as “China’s most beautiful highway” by the Chinese National Geography magazine in 2005. Nyingchi alone, on the eastern side of the tunnel, hosted 3 million travelers in 2018, allowing tourism in the area to flourish and locals who could previously only make a living as farmers, make a more lucrative income in the tourism sector.

Whilst the tunnel was only completed earlier this year, the Chinese are already working on the next major transportation project in the region: the Sichuan-Tibet railway. This 1,600km railway line is expected to be completed in its entirety by 2030, with the 435km Lhasa-Nyingchi section due to be completed in 2021. This section will allow trains to travel up to 160km per hour and will reduce travel time between the two cities from 8 hours to 3 hours.

The Mila Mountain Tunnel is one of many projects that China has recently completed with the intention of continuing to unlock the enormous growth potential within the economy. With many more in the pipeline and construction already being underway on others, you can be sure that the future growth rates and investment returns within the Chinese economy aren't going to disappoint.