The March issue of High Altitude Medicine & Biology holds an interesting trip report from the Qinghai railway to Lhasa. It brings up the same reservations I held in my earlier post about the onboard oxygen system – and refutes them in some detail.
First of all it leaves speculation aside : John B. West brought along a oxygen meter , which actually showed somewhat better result than what has been said earlier. 24.1 to 25.3 per cent , comparable to what´s being served in recovery wards after routine anesthesia .
My practical reservations about this system could be summed in two simple questions : what happens when you pop off to the restaurant wagon , and the train stops to let off passengers . Opening the doors should mean that the atmosphere more or less instantly equalises with the outside.
The answer seems to be that they don´t open the doors , at least not for the first six hours :
“In fact , we only stopped three times between Golmud and Lhasa , and only at one of these did all the doors open so we could stretch our legs.At the other two apparently only one or two doors were opened for passengers who had arranged to leave or enter the train at that stop. “
Another interesting aspect is what it shows on the changes in modern China , which is illustrated by what is considered acceptable human cost : building the first highways in to Tibet came at a staggering cost in human lives , the Sichuan-Tibet road took 3000 lives , and the road between Xining and Jyekundo meant more than ten dead per kilometer. (See Losang´s article on the Tibet Highways. )
Today the Qinghai railway company claim, with support from the doctors responsible , that not a single worker has died from altitude sickness in what was the highest construction site in the world.
True or not , it is obvious that huge resources were put in place to achieve this goal. Workers had a minimum transport-only time of four days to the highest work sites , oxygen bars were rigged for recuperation … and large field oxygen generators were actually pumping oxygen to the drill face in the highest tunnels, to achieve a few percent increase in air breathed by the tunnel workers.
When all of this failed there was a willingness to pay another kind of price : doctors had and exercised a right to evacuate workers by helicopter , often based principally on a failed balance test.